Living in Germany during the World Cup in 2010, I was confused to see that, in the rare instances when German people chose to fly their flag in support of their football team, the bunting was often defaced – tearing off the golden stripe conveniently leaves behind the red and black flag of anarcho-syndicalism. In other instances, the flag was usually emblazoned with a logo of a football in the centre of the flag. Curious, I asked a German friend about the reasons for this – surely it was already obvious that, during the World Cup, that the flag was being flown to support the team, and not as a show of unwavering support for the nation? She explained to me that, because of the events of WWII, for the German people the German flag is associated with terrible things. To fly it would be read by many as being a display of pride, rather than shame, about the bloody legacy which this flag has been taken to symbolize. Although I can understand the logic behind this and sympathize with it, it got me thinking about my relationship to the English flag. Sure, the St George's cross isn't really bandied around that much unless you're from the leagues of mind-numbing “Britain for the British” racist nationalism, but I also probably wouldn't assume, if I saw it being flown, that the person who chose to do so was making a strong statement about their national affiliation and their pride about everything which that flag represents. And for most of us, the primary connotations of the Union Jack involve wanking over Geri Halliwell's dress at the 1996 Brit Awards. We don’t have genocide attached to our flag.
By 1922, the British Empire held sway over about 458 million people, one fifth of the contemporary population. Its dubious accomplishments, in the 400 or so years of its dominance of the globe, include the slave trade, opium wars, famine in India, and deaths worldwide and in Zimbabwe, South Africa and Ireland, where the brutal ramifications of British colonialism continue to this day. And yet for whatever reasons, unlike the German flag, in British popular culture our flag has escaped the tarnish of being sullied with the guilt of our legacy. Somehow, there are people who still think that the St George's Cross is something worth celebrating.
According to records, the first St George's Day took place in England in 1399. And yet by the end of the 18th century, after the union of England and Scotland, its relevance was already waning. Although I recall many a St Patrick's day, when Irish (and non-Irish fans of copious drinking) all around the world take to the streets wearing shamrocks and Guinness hats to celebrate the day of their national patron saint, particularly vociferously so in my home city of Liverpool, I have very little memory of ever indulging in any off-the-peg national pride on St George's day. Its relevance seems suitably abstract to most of us without any affiliation to the EDL or the BNP. Suggested entertainment for the day includes “traditional” British activities such as Morris dancing, a Punch and Judy show, or afternoon tea. What does any of this have to do with our culture?
These seems to me like the trappings of a mythical England which I find to be strange and alien, born and raised for most of my life in the country. My England is an England of chips wrapped in newspaper, football matches and advertising campaigns for HP sauce – Tesco’s and gangs of feral teenagers sculpting an identity for themselves which has less to do with nation and everything to do with aggression. The sort of casual, ill thought out patriotism encouraged by days like St George's Day, a celebration which has, lest we forget, its roots in the Christian church, an institution based upon patriarchal dominance and hierarchy, is far more damaging than it might first appear. Not only because, thanks to an education system and culture which disregards the need for a critical approach to our own history in favour of trumpeting the glory of the whitewashed achievements of a dying colonialist power, we’re being encouraged to celebrate a nation with a great deal of blood on its hands. But also because it propagates the bullshit idea that nationality should be a celebrated point of differentiation.
It’s bullshit. The idea that, out of the million potential lives that we could have lived, of places we could have been born, we just so happened to find ourselves a vessel for the soul which just so happened to be geographically located on one specific little Island in the ocean with one specific history, not all of it pleasant, should be matter of pride, is bullshit. It has nothing to do with achievement and everything to do with random chance. This is not to say that our origins should be no matter of interest to us – but they should not be a point of honour any more than they should be a point of shame.
Humanity resides in myth in the spaces between what we believe and what we know. We build collective identities by creating stories for ourselves which have meaning to us as a group. We identify with characters who represent qualities that we share the wish to embody. Some myths are harmless – some are even beautiful – yet they must always be approached with some level of caution. A myth of national glory and honour, of national bravery and of high ordained power can lead swiftly in dangerous directions – of pride and exceptionalism, and with this, a sense of superiority – of the ability to lead, and so, the right to dominate. The thing is, we don't live on an island – our national identities are not isolated units of pride or shame. We’re NOT island nations. We are human beings, we are networks and the actions that a few of us make in the name of others, or that conglomerate states enact upon the world in our names are not shots out into the darkness. We are connected. And the falsely drawn boundaries of national pride mutate very easily into a sense of national superiority.
My national identity is just one of many factors which have shaped me as a person. My family, my friends, my education, choices I have made, the ripples of choices made by others which have lapped upon the shores of the island of my own personal identity – my experiences, the parties I’ve been to, the books I’ve read, the art I’ve grown, the drugs I’ve taken, the homes I’ve found, the loves I have lost, the flowers I’ve grown. When I consider the variety of influences which have impacted upon the creation of my ego, the institution of the English nation seems a very vague and distant one.
And it’s for these reasons that, when I choose to affiliate with any tribe, it’ll be one which I can contribute to the development of, and not merely jump onto the tail end of its story. I won’t just sleepwalk into loyalty to any one of the flags which symbolize nothing more or less than the legacy of the State system – a phase in human societal development which bears the blood of millions of victims, collateral damage in the quest for power enacted by the rich. Celebrating something like St George's Day is the last gasp of an archaic construction of identity based upon a flawed concept of nationalism. Let the dragon die.
Words by Philippa Dee