Photo by Dominika Zarzycka

St George didn’t die for this

English nationalism is a paper dragon

Artillery Row

St George’s Day is a strange little inflection point in the media calendar, the main function of which seems to be a peg for political argument.

Unlike St Patrick’s Day, it has not yet accrued any deep tradition of pageantry or festival (authentic or grossly commercial), although public displays of St George’s Cross are more common than perhaps once they were.

Leftists point out dragons are fake, as if it were novel

Instead, we usually get three broad flavours of commentary: First, right-wingers lamenting that we don’t take it more seriously. Second, obnoxious leftists pointing out that the man himself was a Turk and dragons are fake, as if these were novel observations.

Third, and the more dangerous by far, a forlorn band of would-be intellectuals trying to will a political English nationalism into being.

This latter is a baffling phenomenon, for there is little, once we exclude those who are simply anglonats of principle, in the prospect of an English awakening of that sort that could appeal to thinking people on the left or the right.

For the rightist, there is the superficial appeal of an electorate shorn of its “celtic fringe”, with its disobliging tendency to return left-leaning MPs. For a certain sort of leftist, England offers an escape from the antiquarian, unfashionable and imperial label of “Briton”.

But for the most part, this sort of argument seems to be advanced by people trying to find a way to admit that the past two decades and change of New Labour’s devolution experiment have failed to build a stronger or more stable United Kingdom, without admitting that the assumptions underpinning that project (or, more importantly, those éminences grises who advanced it) were wrong.

It is this sort of intellectual contortionism which produces the following theory: the problem with the current constitutional isn’t that it afforded bad-faith actors a great collection of arsenals, treasuries and pulpits from which to assail the institutions of the Union, but that it is somehow unbalanced.

In this view, the solution is to replicate in England the arrangements in Scotland and Wales. This will, by some unknown and unknowable mechanism, soothe inflamed national feeling in those countries, rouse no great and novel passions in England, and the whole thing will finally work. Somehow.

The solution to every problem would be ‘more power’

If one is not reasoning backwards from the premise that devolution was the right strategy, the disastrous future course of an awakened English nationalism is obvious. We have little reason to doubt that it would follow the same institutional logic that has played out in the devolved territories.

There would grow up around any new English institutions — which our little band of intellectuals demand in order to pacify, but in reality to fortify, English political feeling — a devocrat class of politicians, journalists, wonks and other assorted articles of third-sector debris which comprise the “civic nation”. They would derive salaries, sinecures and status from the operation and aggrandisement of those institutions.

They would then begin, as have their counterparts, to lay siege to the centre. The solution to every problem would be “more power”, secured either by securing the passage of Westminster’s responsibility to the English Parliament or balkanising the former’s processes and populating them with the latter’s people.

In the meantime, patriotic sentiment would be used to pull the flag over the eyes of the electorate in the unhappy event that the performance of key public services, such as education and health, started to track their post-devolution performance in Scotland and Wales.

There would be one crucial difference: as a net contributor, England would not have the same backstop of attachment to “pooling and sharing”. A First Minister of England would find political capital in attacking the redistribution of resources around the country, accelerating the process by which the “British taxpayer” — and thus, in time, the idea of “British cash” — disappears entirely. This figure would in time become to the United Kingdom what Boris Yeltsin was to the USSR.

Even that complacent stripe of London Tory who cherishes only the outward facing aspects of the Union (the Armed Forces, the Security Council seat, et al) cannot therefore afford to neglect, however little it might interest them, the domestic institutions and policies which secure its foundations.

Progressives would be far better served rehabilitating (or simply getting over their hang-ups with) Britishness than trying to plough a furrow through the stony, right-wing field a political England would prove to be.

This Saint George’s Day, raise a glass and give thanks for the fact that institutional nationalism remains in England a forlorn pursuit. It is a testament to the judgement and sensibilities of her people.

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