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Wednesday, 24 April, 2002, 14:58 GMT 15:58 UK
St George in the 21st Century
Billy Bragg is looking for a new England, or at least a new sense of Englishness. In this St George's Day essay Bragg says he wants to see an England where anyone, of any race, will be happy to call themselves English.
Billy Bragg is proud to be English, but not everyone who lives in England feels the same way.
For millions of his fellow countrymen and women, English patriotism reeks of racism.
Now, says Bragg, as the ties which have kept the United Kingdom together begin to loosen, it is time to reclaim the English identity from the extremists.
But this cannot be done overnight. After all, what does it mean to be English in the 21st Century?
Everyone has their own, personal definition, says Bragg. His is characterised by, among other things, the poetry of William Blake, the writing of George Orwell, the World Cup victory of 1966 and Marmite.
Bragg wants a public debate, so every English person can consider what it means for them to be English.
"Only then can we take a step back from this big picture," he says, "and see the common elements that give us, the English, a sense of belonging".
Being an Englishman living abroad, I find that it is my characteristics that define my Englishness. If I took on Billy Bragg's definition, I would now be Texan, which, although in looks I may pass, as soon as I speak and act, I am laid bare. For me, the things that define my Englishness are my sense of humour, my use of language and irony, my upbringing, my tolerance, my love for football, my family and the fact that I start any conversation with a stranger with a benign comment about the weather. That and my longing for Marmite, Cadbury's, warm beer and the continual search for a great curry!
Why draw an arbitrary line around this philosophy aligned along national borders? Why not counties, or towns, or tribes? Is not the logical outworking of Bragg's position the demise of any national identity? "Where we are rather than where we come from". In a shrunken world in which our "where" is a function of choice for many people, why would our "who" even be related to it?
Would Billy consider himself English if he were resident in the US?
Scottish, British, Belgian, Flemish, Irish, Protestant, Catholic etcetera etcetera ... Just stop being narrow-minded. We're all European.
As other people from minority and immigrant communities have pointed out, the term "English" is generally seen more as an ethnic tag rather than a national identity. I want to be British since I was born and bred here, as I feel that sybolises a multinational identity not a nationalist identity.
English nationalism can't be bound by ethnicity. What England needs is something more concrete to bind it together. How about a statement of what it MEANS to be English; what we can expect, and what freedoms we have. I believe that a written, unequivocable constitution would go a long way to giving English nationalism a civic meaning that transcends race, creed or any of the other things that opportunists would seek to divide us and would give us a project that all English people could unite behind as a rallying call to freedom.
At several points in his essay Billy Bragg refers dismissively to the phenomenon of "multi-culturalism" as something that is too nebulous and elusive to constitute a viable cultural identity. Multi-culturalism is complex, and although we are all over-familiar with the term, very few of us appreciate what it implies or how to articulate identities that are consciously hybrid. But this does not mean that we should dismiss multi-culturalism, or give up. I speak as one born to a Ugandan mother and an English father, in the Cayman islands; I have always had a British passport, and English is indisputably my mother tongue. I consider what I perceive to be the fluidity of English cultural identity a great luxury. Due to the reaches of past imperialism, the English language opens up a dialogue with so many different cultures, many of which are subtly redefining what it means to be English.
In essence, Billy argues that Englishness is about the space we occupy together, ie domicile. If he's arguing for scrapping Englishness as a national identity, I'd agree with him. It's meaningless and best left with those who shame it. I believe it has been sullied too far to be reclaimed. And if it saves us from the type of twee tartan biscuit tin nationalism indulged in by the Scots, where a racing driver can wear the Saltire on his crash helmet yet domicile himself in a tax haven to avoid contributing to the nation he is so proud of, I for one will be happy.
I am Scottish and proud to be Scottish, but find myself also very happy to be British. I remember several years ago seeing Billy Bragg on a Scottish news programme being confronted by a Scottish journalist who - with lofty condecension - welcomed the English people's search for their identity. Hmm. The truth is a bit more complex. The supporters of the two biggest Scottish football clubs, Rangers and Celtic tend to identify with, respectively, England and Ireland, while the new Scottish parliament is regarded with much suspicion in the Highlands and Islands. Bragg's definition of Englishness is most respects a very appealing defintion of Britishness, and I also lay claim to it as part of my British heritage - Blake is mine, so is Elgar, so is Ray Davies, and not the Celtschlock of Runrig, Capercaillie & the rest. And finally, I'll be happy to support England in the World Cup!
As a Mancunian living in Brooklyn and a longtime Bragg fan, I welcome a new definition of Englishness. In my neighbourhood the language on the streets is Russian, Chinese and Arabic. But if you ask anyone how they identify themselves culturally, they say "American". I would love to see that in England: people shuld be proud to say they are English.
There is no such thing as Englishness. A Geordie is more akin to a Scot than to a Londoner. First and foremost we are british, then we are Yorkshiremen, Northern Irish, highlander, lowlander, Scouse, Cockney etc.
Why is nationality important? If I could elect to be another nationality I would. I hate telling people that I am English because of the connotations it has in so many places in the world. It's not all history either. I have just returned from Egypt where I met many ordinary people who see England today as anti-Muslim, bully's, warmongers, henchman to America.
Is a sense of national identity the result of birth or culture exposure? Billy has eloquently opened the timely debate. Is nationaliism a state of mind or a stamp in the passport? The urge to 'belong' is natural but to what and why. Humans have the power of reason. Do we apply it in this case or do we allow more basic instincts to hold sway?
Every Canadian I met on my travels last year had a flag positioned prominently on either their clothes or their luggage, mainly to ensure the world knew they weren't American. Surely not the most positive reason for flag waving. Maybe David Beckham and other English traditions, such as queuing, Marmite, chicken tikka masaala and Cadburys chocolate are more important flags of identity than that of St George.
It's nice to see someone on the left wing who isn't mired in political correctness and so treats every expression of English culture as some kind of offensive racist gesture.
How little do you know about St George?
21 Apr 02 | England
St George comes under fire
07 Mar 02 | UK Politics
Ditch the suits, Bragg tells MPs
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