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Thursday, April 22, 1999 Published at 17:00 GMT 18:00 UK


How English are you?

How English are you?

  • A) Which English king signed the Magna Carta and when?
  • B) St George's Day is William Shakespeare's birthday, but in what year was the Bard born?
  • C) What was the Glorious Revolution?
  • D) Wales has Snowdon and Scotland Ben Nevis, but what is the highest peak in England?
  • E) Berwick-upon-Tweed - England or Scotland?

Answers at the bottom of the page.

Not the easiest impromptu quiz, but aspiring Englanders who failed to rack up full marks should take heart - trying too hard has always been a distinctly un-English trait.

[ image: Proud to be English: Football fans at Euro 96]
Proud to be English: Football fans at Euro 96
That's the trouble with being English, no one is exactly sure what it entails, or much bothered.

And yet as England's national day tip-toes round again, patriotic sentiments are starting to stir in the shire heartlands.

Sales of St George Cross flags have soared - five-fold in five years in the case of one manufacturer, United Flag Traders.

Clinton, one of the country's biggest card retailers, expects to sell 60,000 St George's Day cards, up from 4,000 when they were first introduced in 1994.

Meanwhile the English Tourist Board is planning more than 300 St George-themed events, and membership of the patriotic Royal Society of St George has quadrupled over the past year to 20,000.

As the Scottish and Welsh stand on the brink of devolution and the unprecedented autonomous powers it brings, it seems the English also want a piece of the action.

Professor Stefan Collini's English Pasts is just one book in a recent mini-publishing boom that sets out to unpick the mystery of the English.

[ image: Bastille Day celebrations in the French capital, Paris]
Bastille Day celebrations in the French capital, Paris
"The fact that England shows little interest in St George's Day, unlike the French with July 14 or July 4 for the Americans, principally goes back to the fact that the English have not had to be self conscious about their identity," says Mr Collini.

"They have not had to define themselves against another people or start from scratch like the Americans."

However, the potential break-up of the UK and its heightening of national loyalties, especially among the Scottish, is having a knock-on effect south of the border.

In January the little-known Royal Society of St George - a fellowship dedicated to "England and Englishness" - raised some eyebrows when it appointed Lady Thatcher to its governing council.

John Bailey, membership secretary, says England is being forgotten amid the constitutional upheavals in Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland.

"Britain is being split up and we are going to be absorbed into Europe so no one will really know what we stand for," says Mr Bailey.

[ image: Baroness Thatcher joined the Royal Society of St George]
Baroness Thatcher joined the Royal Society of St George
In an effort to halt this haemorrhaging of national identity, the society has an ongoing campaign to designate St George's Day a national holiday, like St Patrick's Day in Ireland.

Members want to galvanise public opinion rather as the Royal British Legion has managed to in recent years with its campaign for a two-minute silence on Armistice Day.

But only a relative handful of the 40 million people they claim to represent have actually heard of the society or the St George's Day campaign.

"We are a docile people in the society," admits Mr Bailey, proving the inherent difficulty in motivating a nation that wears "under-statement" as a badge of honour.

Christopher Nickerson also wants his fellow countrymen to enjoy a day off work every 23 April, but as founder of the English National Party his patriotic spirit has a political bent.

He wants England to pre-empt any break-up of the Union by Scotland, Northern Ireland or Wales, by breaking away first. Only then would the English discover their true identity, says Mr Nickerson.

1999 a watershed?

Although the party seems light years from a majority in Westminster - Mr Nickerson declines to reveal its membership although as yet it has no formal membership list - he feels 1999 could be a turning point.

"From the moment they launched the campaign for the Welsh and Scottish parliaments I think that history will look back and see that day as the birth of English nationalism," he says.

It has always been a mark of a just how cavalier the English are about their nationhood that they will unconsciously intherchange the words "English" and "British".

Mr Nickerson is appalled at his countrymen's lack of self-awareness. "We've got to get rid of Britain," he insists.

[ image: BNP supporters: The ugly face of
BNP supporters: The ugly face of "English" nationalism
The blurring of "English" and "British" is especially damaging to Mr Nickerson. In the public mind English nationalism becomes confused with British nationalism and far-right racism.

But even though English pride is currently growing, what hope is there for a nation who are cheerfully entertained by a TV advert for a Scandanavian shop, urging them to "Stop being so English".

"It's a part of that wider pattern of irony, self-deprecation and understatement," says Mr Collini.

Commentator Andrew Marr put it in a nutshell, writing in last week's Observer.

"The idea of self-consciously promoting 'English culture' seems almost un-English - which is why the English are such a remarkable lot," he wrote. Praise indeed, especially from a Scot.

(Answers: A - King John in 1215; B - 1564; C- the establishment of constitutional monarchy; D - Scafell Pike; E - England)

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