Empire Day (14 March) was celebrated from the death of the Queen Victoria in 1901 until the 1950s when it had to be acknowledged the British Empire was in terminal decline. Schoolchildren were excused lessons and obliged to wave the Union Jack and sing patriotic songs. In the mid-1920s, one group of little horrors (my father among them) parodied:
“Land of so~ap and wa~ter,
Mo~ther wa~sh my feet …”
I’ll spare the reader further doggerel. At that time, the Wall Street crash was yet to happen, as was the Spanish Civil war, but with Mussolini ensconced in Italy, the rise of fascism internationally was only a matter of time. The “Old Queen” (Gawd bless ‘er) was well within living memory and the British Empire still never saw the sun set upon it. We had provided sporting standards and good governance for all those poor colonial countries (thought to be incapable of self-government) and it is doubtful if the general British populace at the time gave a second thought to the legacy of slavery.
Recently, when in Scotland, I reflected on much of this when I saw an EU flag superimposed on a saltire and hoisted aloft. Here I was, an England supporter in a country potentially leaving ‘the Union’ at some point. While I fess up to being a unionist (where Scotland is concerned) I equally understand the sentiment expressed through the new combination flag. Many Scots both wish to embrace nationalist sympathies and are angry over Brexit. We know all that, and the moves aimed at separation remain within the democratic process. The union with England is legally based, with Scotland continuing its own practices in law, religion, and education – oh, and in football.
As Gareth Southgate’s excellent squad lost to Italy on penalties, a friend texted me that “maybe the locals would buy an Englishman a drink out of sympathy”. When I mentioned this to local people I met, the laughter was always good-natured. Although no great fan of sport, I recall wearing a lapel badge bearing St George’s Flag during Euro 2004. With dark humour a colleague accused me of “supporting the National Front”. I laughed (politely) but pointed out I was merely supporting the England team. No harm done, but what is behind that?
It is hard to be proud to be English at times. The Union Jack has been used by rightists of all shades for a very long time. Concern over the appropriation of the flag of St George by neo-fascists is equally distressing and dates back to pre- EU referendum days. My concept of Englishness is folkie, stretching from football into such arenas as Morris dancing, maypoles, and of course the Church of England. Yet when an acquaintance of mine in clerical dress challenged a group of flag-waving fascist by gently stating he believed it was best for “our country to remain in the EU”, he was promptly told that “you would be first in the gas oven”.
Most definitions of nationalism and patriotism involve a component, implicit or explicit, of the exclusion of interests of other countries or groups in favour on one’s own. While the purpose here is not to provide a philosophical discussion of such matters, it is good to remind oneself of ‘civic nationalism’. While arguably a liberal construct, civic nationalism provides for inclusion and supports values such as freedom, tolerance, equality and the rights of the individual. Such sentiments are understood north on the Border and, deriving as they do from the Enlightenment values of the French Revolutionary period (Liberty, Equality and Fraternity), they chime with those of the EU. Freedom, tolerance, equality and the rights of the individual are therefore a blueprint for a society we can be proud of and we can call it ‘civic nationalism’ if we so wish. Meanwhile I restate that this Englishman wants to be a good neighbour to all around him!
This is about more than flag waving. Passing over the embarrassment that is the Johnson administration, we should campaign to prevent a right-wing attack on our legal system, civil service, and public-funded broadcasters. These are often areas of pride; I avoid saying “always”, but I trust you can see where I am coming from?
So, the England squad is something to be proud of. The soccer establishment in the forms of Gary Lineker and Gareth Southgate express values in support of Black Lives Matter, Harry Kane remains a giant of all-round sports-person-ship. However, it is England’s young black players who, in the face of terrible social media insults, remain so dignified.
It is they who make me proud to be English.
Oh, in case you are wondering, I am still waiting for my first Scotland supporter to buy me a drink…