Wednesday, 23 April 2014

St George’s Day

St George’s Day is a good opportunity to think about the concept of ‘Englishness’, and of nationhood in general. Being the child of two countries myself, it is an idea which I have often come back to in my life. I was born and raised in New Zealand, and will always consider myself a Kiwi through and through, but from a young age my father was keen to stress to me that I had another heritage, one which was hard for me to understand or experience given the distance between our respective islands.

That being said, New Zealand is a Commonwealth country, and you do not have to look far to see the influence the Empire brought and left behind. Culturally, New Zealand is young, and still espouses many of the values of the motherland. It was not so long ago that New Zealanders saw it as their duty to send soldiers to fight alongside others from the Commonwealth in both world wars; but times are changing, and should a similar event occur today, I am not sure where the public sentiment would lie. While no one would doubt the moral aspects of protecting the world from the Third Reich, this was not necessarily the principal reason for New Zealand’s involvement. A call to arms for our people today would (and has) involve a serious questioning of the rectitude of the actions and stated aims, as evinced by our limited involvement in Iraq.

The national day of New Zealand, Waitangi Day, is (unlike St George’s) a national holiday. The national holiday really. And yet it is the most divisive day the country sees. It has become little more, in political circles, than a stage for airing grievances of the native people against the Crown. These grievances, and the issues arising from them, I won’t go into here, but suffice it to say that I feel a day which could be a celebration of New Zealand and New Zealanders as a whole, has become a day in which the split between Maori and non-Maori New Zealanders is the focal point. Seek out Waitangi Day in London, and you find the opposite: a day of celebration, of our drinking culture and some of the less dignified aspects therein, of our young country’s myths and icons, from Shortland Street to taniwhas, beached whales to inflatable sheep.

Times are changing in New Zealand, and immigration and distance from the motherland cause shifts; very soon the Union Flag may be gone from ours altogether. Things are moving in Britain too. The Scottish independence movement has gained force, to the point that a referendum is to be held. Much debate has been waged, and unfortunately substance has been lacking from a lot of the rhetoric. I have yet to hear cogent arguments from either Yes or No campaigners, and so I undecided about my position on this. Now, it is not really important what my thoughts are either way, since I will not have a vote, but I would like to think that the implications of staying or leaving are clearly and fully understood by those who will. There is no doubt that the Scottish people have a right to self-determination, and there is no doubt that, if properly informed, they will use their votes wisely. It is the information which worries me.

Perhaps I have not been looking in the right places. Those who want independence talk about freedom from a parliament which makes decisions with the best interest of others in mind. Those who want to retain the union talk about the shared traditions and the strength of a kingdom united. Both these arguments have merit, but what I want to see are details. If I were Scottish, I would be even more concerned with the details, but being English is not to say that I am without an interest in the proceedings. Whatever happens, it’s important that the outcome is not clouded by bitterness or ill-feeling, and that the decision is respected. Together or apart, the nations of England and Scotland will always share the same island, and their interests will often coincide.

Compare the Scottish, or Irish, sense of national pride with a sorely subdued English one, where the national day is not celebrated with a holiday, where the George’s cross is flown rarely. Why is this? Is it, as I have read, because the Scottish and Irish are keen to promote their identity, subdued as it was for so long? That the English have no real ‘enemy’ to define themselves in opposition to? Is it because the Cross is viewed now as a symbol of racist nationalist movements? Does PC culture prevent a country from recognising and being proud of its identity?

If so, then more’s the pity. I see no difference between an Englishman celebrating St George’s Day and an Irishman celebrating St Patrick’s. Both are equally entitled to be proud of their heritage and to express that pride in a civic manner. Both are members of nations with achievements to boast of, and (let’s face it) other, less glorious moments.

Being English is not as much of a sin as Mel Gibson would have you believe. Modern sentiment seems to portray the historical English as arrogant, class-bound, conquerors, who subdued the world and forced their way of life upon many. And this is in many ways accurate. But if a modern, enlightened sentiment (correctly) refuses to hold modern Germany to account for its actions in the previous century, why does it seem to still be prejudiced against Englishmen and women whose ancestors may or may not have been involved in colonial horrors. And, why does it seem to ignore the same horrors perpetrated by other European powers. Is it the relative success of the British Empire (note, not the English Empire)? Perhaps if I were from a Spanish colony, the same attitude would prevail towards the modern Spanish, but this would be an equally incorrect attitude.

To be English is to have much to be proud of, despite what you may have been told. This is the nation which produced some of the finest minds the world has ever seen. Artists and writers like Milton, Shakespeare, Constable, Turner, Adams; pre-eminent scientists such as Darwin, Turing, Newton, and Hawking; philosophers Wollstonecraft, Mill, Locke and Spencer; a plethora of sportsmen and women; the list goes on. England has been responsible for numerous inventions (the refrigerator, binary code, the internet), and for many of the social and welfare advances we take for granted in a modern first-world country. While there is still work to be done, it is a bastion of progress, for the rights of women, for workers, in education and healthcare, in law and human rights. It is not for no reason that people from other nations seek at all costs to make a living here.

‘An imagined community’. This is part of the way people create a nation, a term coined by Benedict Anderson to describe the way people consider themselves as part of a whole, despite the fact that practicality dictates no everyday involvement between all the members of the community. If a nation is an imagined community, bound together by our sense of belonging and our common values, then a celebration of that nation is essential to its wellbeing. This is why I feel it is important to recognise and be proud of ‘Englishness’, and never to be ashamed of that identity and what it represents. This is easily done without any racist undertones or fascist agitation, as any good Celt will tell you.

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