Without its own parliament, it is no wonder that England’s nationalism has been hijacked, says Billy Bragg.
A poll published this week suggested that the English were the least patriotic people in Europe. Only one in 10 of those asked would happily fly the cross of St George. The remaining nine blamed fear of being called racist, and “political correctness”, for their reluctance to show any national pride.
Surely, however, these are just excuses. It’s not “political correctness” or fear that inhibits our patriotism – it is the dark heart of English nationalism that makes us feel uneasy about flying the flag of St George, the same nationalism espoused by the British National Party.
The BNP has deep roots in the fascist tradition. The party’s leader, Nick Griffin, has gone so far as to question the veracity of the Holocaust. May 8 marks the 65th anniversary of our victory over Nazism and I find it hard to believe that the British people would contemplate celebrating that hard-won victory by voting for a party led by a man who is willing to give the benefit of the doubt to Adolf Hitler.
Shortly after the July 7 bombings in 2005, the Telegraph conducted a poll asking people what values they felt best expressed this country. Top of the poll came the right to say what we think, second was our victory over Nazi Germany in 1945 and third was our sense of fairness and tolerance. While the right to free speech is rightly cherished, it can hardly be claimed as belonging to us alone. So the victory over Nazism and the respect for others – enshrined in our belief in fairness and tolerance – are much stronger pointers to why many English people feel unable to express their patriotism.
I can perfectly understand why a people who think that 1940 was our finest hour and believe wholeheartedly in fairness and tolerance should refuse, in the heated debate of an election, to display anything that might give the impression that they support parties of intolerance and fascism. This reluctance to fly the flag today should be taken as a protest against the BNP, not a failure to be patriotic.
In just a few weeks’ time, the country will be awash with flags of St George, flown by people supporting an England team that genuinely reflects our multicultural society. Even then, it would probably only take one incident of belligerent nationalism from English football hooligans for those flags to come down again. The English have their pride and are not willing to see it tarnished by intolerance.
So on St George’s Day, rather than bemoaning the lack of patriotism, let’s instead ask ourselves: why have we been unable to stop our national identity being hijacked by the far-Right? Whither an English civic nationalism?
Part of the problem is undoubtedly a historic blurring of the line between our British and English identities. The Scots and Welsh have the benefit of there being a border between themselves and Westminster, but we English have nothing to
help separate ourselves psychologically from our Britishness. We lack many of the attributes of a nation. For example, only one team at the World Cup finals in South Africa doesn’t have its own national anthem. The Scots have Flower of Scotland, the Welsh Land of My Fathers, yet we’re still using God Save the Queen. It’s a lovely tune, but it doesn’t mention the name of my country – surely, that’s the least you should expect?
England will also be the only nation there that doesn’t have its own parliament. This is the anomaly that has really hampered the development of a civic nationalism in this country.
Given the size of England, this issue is more complex than simply creating another assembly along the lines of Holyrood or Cardiff. For those of us living in west Dorset, would an English parliament elected by 50 million people be any more representative than a British parliament elected by 60 million?
Perhaps the answer to the West Dorset Question is to devolve power to regional assemblies. This idea has been rubbished since John Prescott failed to win support for a regional assembly in the North East. However, it was voted down not because people didn’t want devolution, but because what they were being offered was just a jumped-up version of the quangos that already administer our regions. Offer people in the South West a regional assembly with the same powers as the Scottish Parliament and they would bite your hand off.
Powerful assemblies in the nine regions of England could address the imbalance between the South-East and the rest of the country, giving people genuine control over their communities. It would also give English politics a clear and distinctive flavour, separate from those of the British parliament in Westminster.
The national identities of our neighbours have flourished under devolution because civic nationalists in Scotland and Wales were able to marginalise the belligerent forces of nationalism in their countries, creating an inclusive sense of belonging that encompassed everyone living within their borders. Until like-minded people here are willing to step forward and reclaim our national pride, then I fear we cannot complain when our fellow citizens appear unwilling to celebrate this, our national day.