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Thursday, 25 April, 2002, 12:28 GMT 13:28 UK
The debate: Your e-mails answered
Billy Bragg 5-minute Essay graphic
In his St George's essay, songwriter Billy Bragg called for the English to reclaim their national identity from the racists and xenophobes so often associated with England's flag.

Hundreds of you joined the e-mail debate that followed. Here Bragg, who is currently on tour in the United States, answers a sample of your e-mails.

: St George in the 21st Century

The debate: Your e-mails and Billy Bragg's replies

Brendan Fernandes
I agree that where you are from matters little; however, I would like to go one further than Billy and suggest that it is what you "do" that defines one's identity in general, not where you are. Hence, one is what one does; and one does not "do" ones nationality, whether they be English, British, Scottish or Chinese. How we actually live our lives is far more important than anything, and should be the only standard upon which each of us are judged.
posted by Brendan Fernandes, UK

What I am hoping to do is to stir up some debate about English identity. Whilst agreeing with Brendan's overall point, that how we live our lives is the only standard by which we should be judged, I fear that we need to have a more concrete sense of Englishness if we are to prevent the racists and xenophobes from using their concept of English identity as a means by which to intimidate others.
posted by Billy Bragg


St George may be an English hero, but according to Muslim historians he is seen as the Christian version of Bin Laden!
posted by Muz Mumtaz, Leeds

I am not surprised to hear that. He was after all the saint of the Crusader knights. Is it ironic that St. George was Lebanese?
posted by Billy Bragg


Emily Greenwood
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 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.
posted by Emily Greenwood, Cambridge, England

I am sorry if I gave the impression that I am dismissive about multi-culturalism. I believe that our diversity is our defining attribute. The problem has been that the supporters of multi-culturalism have rejected Englishness as being the polar opposite of a diverse culture. That is clearly not the experience that Emily describes. It seems from her contribution that Englishness provides the framework of her multi-cultural identity. Whilst not wishing to impose my idea of multi-cultural Englishness on Emily, I think her experience is something that can be built on.
posted by Billy Bragg


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 symbolises a multinational identity not a nationalist identity. I'd ask you to think again about your position on this issue.
posted by Ron, Leeds, Britain

The idea of a British identity is tied to the existence of the British state. If Scotland and Wales leave the Union and that ceases to exist, what will your identity be then? The empire has disappeared, the monarchy may well follow. The British state is under pressure and perhaps we should prepare an inclusive non-ethnic English identity which cannot be hijacked by racists.
posted by Billy Bragg


Ross Parker
The English need a Parliament.
posted by Ross Parker, Bournemouth, UK

I'd vote for that. But what then happens to the British Parliament?
posted by Billy Bragg


The notion of redefining Englishness is absurd. Englishness is, by definition, the set of characteristic qualities associated with the English people and their culture. Actually, the grasping quest in search of a national identity binds the English together and may itself be considered a part of what it means to be English. Like it or not, feeling like you don't fit in has been a way of life for people living in England for a good couple of thousand years, and is no excuse for redefining Englishness just so you feel more at home.
posted by John, London, UK

"Englishness is the set of characteristic qualities associated with the English people and their culture." Oh yeah? It may be a surprise for you to learn John that most people think of English football hooligans when they think of our national characteristics. Are you happy with this state of affairs or are you prepared to take part in creating a more reasonable image of our nation?
posted by Billy Bragg


Alan Bates
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. A written, unequivocal 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 by, and would give us a project that all English people could unite behind as a rallying call to freedom.
posted by Alan Bates, Springfield, OR, USA

I agree with Alan that we should have a written constitution, but wouldn't that just set out the rights of a citizen of England rather than what it actually means to be English? I am in the USA on tour at the moment and in the wake of 11 September the Americans passed the Patriot Act which, although designed to counter terrorism, is actually being used to stifle dissent about the response to the events of 11 Sept. Some dissenters are being accused of being "un-American" despite the fact that it is not written in law what it means to be an American. The US constitution does not prevent this witch-hunt.
posted by Billy Bragg


Scottish, British, Belgian, Flemish, Irish, Protestant, Catholic etcetera etc... Just stop this narrow-minded crap. We're all European.
posted by Jo Smeets, Halen, Belgium

It's not about being narrow minded. It's about being pro-active. The shock victory of Jean-Marie Le Pen in the French presidential run-offs suggests that we cannot take multi-culturalism for granted. A laissez faire attitude to identity only serves to feed the fascists.
posted by Billy Bragg


Barrie Martindale
I don't agree that it is where you are that defines Englishness; it is very definitely what you are, and how you think, and how you express yourself, how you sound when you let your opinions be known, and of what you approve or disapprove, and what you do or don't do about it. It is not English to fret about what being English is. That is for younger countries. To be truly English one just goes about being oneself; the Englishness will just happen naturally and will be healthier for not being obsessed about.
posted by Barrie Martindale, Toronto/Chingford, Canada/England

Okay Barrie so there you are going about your business being quietly confident of your Englishness, letting it just happen and not being obsessed about it when up pops some racist idiot who says that you cannot be English because of the shade of your skin or sound of your surname or whatever. What does that do to your quiet English confidence?
posted by Billy Bragg


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?
posted by Simon Palmer, London, United Kingdom

Why draw a line around this philosophy aligned along national borders? Because that's what the racists and xenophobes do and my main concern in encouraging this rethink is to stop their use of identity as a weapon of intimidation. Would I consider myself English if I were resident in the US? No, I think I would always feel like an alien, but the important thing is not how I, as an immigrant, feel but how my children who are born and grow up in the US feel. Should they be expected to consider themselves English?
posted by Billy Bragg


Edwin Moore
I am Scottish and proud to be Scottish, but find myself also very happy to be British. The truth about Scottish identity is a bit more complex then people think. 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 in fact in most respects a very appealing definition 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 - just to stick to music for the moment - the Celtschlock of Runrig, Capercaillie & the rest. And finally, I'll be happy to support England in the World Cup!
posted by Edwin Moore, Glasgow, Scotland

Perhaps why you feel proud to be Scottish is that you don't have to be associated with the English hooliganism at international football tournaments.
posted by Billy Bragg


I believe it's important to draw positive analogies from other countries as for so long a healthy sense of Englishness has been drowned out and not allowed to flourish. Left-wing professors and reactionary right-wingers have always hated any positive or inclusive idea of Englishness, (see Orwell for a fuller explanation) but what do they know of the real world which exists outside of Marxist tomes and BNP meetings? If everybody else can be proud of their country and heritage why on earth can't the English? Happy St George's Day!
posted by Mark Hepworth, Edinburgh, Scotland

I wonder if Mark will be supporting the sole British representative in the World Cup?
posted by Billy Bragg

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21 Apr 02 | England
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