Gary Younge’s Guardian article of yesterday, ‘England’s identity crisis’ has already provoked a good deal of analysis, debate and particularly return comment (over 250 on the Guardian’s site alone). Whilst many points in the article are accurate, there are also some that an English nationalist would consider ludicrous anathema.
For instance, Younge rightly notes that:
…when England’s national team ceases to exist as a viable entity – as it did at the weekend – the nation and, to some extent, its national identity goes with it. Most of the flags that have been brandished these last few weeks will now disappear. When the final whistle blew in Bloemfontein, the ref called time on a 90-minute nation. The flag of St George that was flying over Downing Street on Sunday was replaced by a union flag on Monday morning.
While he is correct in saying this, his qualifying statement ‘to some extent’ must be heeded. He immediately confuses himself: he is ultimately referring to England not as a nation in itself, but to England’s football-fuelled, fleeting place in civil dialogue, in civil society and most importantly, at the forefront of public consciousness. This makes his point a nonsense: even in nations in with fierce national pride and all the facets of a truly national culture, it is unfeasible to suggest that a sustained level of such feverish nationalism can be maintained. I know of no patriotic citizen of any nation that wakes in the morning and paints his face with his national flag before driving to work, and this is the kind of shallow ‘national identity’ to which Mr Younge refers. Football limits the ideas of what a nation actually constitutes: this is the problem that the author has. I can say with absolute certainty that long-held red cross tattoos will not disappear, nor will Shakespeare stop being taught in English schools, and nor will English Heritage nor the Church of England close their doors and cease to be just because the populist Prime Minister has taken his neatly-folded ‘special occasion’ flag down.
Next, Mr Younge takes an embarrassingly typical diversion into quoting the oft-paraphrased Marxist ‘historian’ Eric Hobsbawm…
“The imagined community of millions,” wrote historian Eric Hobsbawm, “seems more real as a team of 11 named people.” But England is more imaginary than most, and only becomes real as a team of 11 people.
No fewer than three other articles had included this hackneyed and banal quotation in their World Cup analysis, whether that is legitimising fledgling post-colonial African nationalism, as in this FT article, or multi-culturalism in mid-80s England teams, as on this Fabian blog, but most interestingly in one of Younge’s other articles from little over two weeks ago, in which he uses the phrase to legitimise his own perception of ‘real England’ in a New Statesman article. If the cap fits and all that…
I digress. How on earth does Mr Younge presume to qualify what constitutes ‘England’ when he patently has such a narrow view of what it actually is? He goes on…
“The problem with this is that English identity is a very fragile thing. The re-emergence of the St George’s cross as a popular symbol is relatively recent and completely contested. Some have an ambivalent relationship to it. The journey from rightwing totem to national emblem is by no means complete. Whether it signifies a grievance at the absence of nationhood, or a desire for racial and ethnic exclusion, depends on who is waving it and the experience of those who see it.”
This seems to be a painfully ironic rebuke of the clearly working-class revival of an ancient truly English symbol of cohesive nationhood. Besides, it was only a combination of Socialist hand-wringing and Imperialist arrogance that shut the Cross of St George out of public life. Mr Younge makes the tired and unfounded lefty assertion that the English flag is ‘a right wing totem’, as previously espoused in the ludicrous Socialist Worker article that I featured in my previous entry. I assume he is alluding to the grim days of the National Front marches of the 1970s. Let’s have a look at some images from that time, shall we?
I can see a solitary Cross of St George in these images. The others are Northern Irish flags. While I am willing to be proven wrong, I just don’t think this tired point stands up.
So, after a brief dissection of England’s sustained sporting underachievement, Mr Younge tacks another Socialist anecdote into his argument…
“Nationalism is not the awakening of nations into self-consciousness,” argues Ernest Gellner in Thought and Change. “It invents nations where they did not exist.”
Aside from the stupidity of any effort to attempt to awkwardly shoehorn this notion into a history of England, or the English people which Mr Younge purports to know so much about, I disagree entirely with this concept of what a nation is. I consider the following a much more astute summary of what patriotic nationalism is:
“… a picture not only of the community to which he belongs and of his place in it, but also the place and destiny of that community in the outside world.”
A question of a nation existing or not is roundly irrelevant: a nation is the connection of the individual to his community and, most importantly, what that community represents in a meaningful way to the outside world. I strongly believe that an overwhelming majority of foreigners would be able to give an inquisitive Englishman an astute, frank and insightful appraisal of the most important contributions of England to the outside world. Including, significantly, football: the sport over which so much nervous panic seems to have broken out.
I can only implore Mr Younge to cease the endless, and fruitless self-questioning of what constitutes ‘Englishness’, to cease his denial of the nationhood of England, and to celebrate the achievements of the nation through time. A crisis? Hardly. If he laments the lack of an English national identity, perhaps he should support the causes an English nationalist holds closest to his heart in 2010: a campaign for a national anthem, a public holiday, and political representation.