Sunday, July 05, 2009

Patriotic Puzzlement

Lots of "Happy 4th July" posts on my blogroll got me thinking ...

(Pause to send belated good wishes to my American readers.)


Why do we have no national celebration day here in the UK? Should we? And if so, what would we celebrate?

I suppose that is not entirely true, in that Guy Fawkes downfall and the preservation of King James I and Parliament is still widely celebrated on November 5th, but Bonfire Night commemorates a single event, not anything fundamental to our nation's existence And there is the rub. We don't have a foundational event to celebrate. Our country grew more or less organically over time, and is in any case made up of four separate countries which aren't necessarily inclined to celebrate each other.

Since my childhood the United Kingdom has become more obviously fragmented. Scottish and Welsh nationalism has increased, with the kick-on effect that the English are now becoming more nationalistic. The Scottish, Welsh and Irish all have their own separate "parliaments" with jurisdiction over certain issues. The English don't, but there is some resentment of the fact that Scottish, Welsh and Irish MPs vote for measures that apply only in England. When I was a child the English flag - the cross of St. George - was never seen. Then it began to appear at football matches when the English team was playing, and now it has become more visible than the Union Jack (the red, white and blue flag of the United Kingdom). The Scots and Welsh always did use their own flags, and continue to do so. Unlike Americans who fly their flag with pride, the British rarely do. Few British families own even the smallest version of their national flag. It doesn't help that patriotism has been tarnished by extremist, racist political parties who splatter their literature with Union Jacks.

National days have been celebrated in the past. Empire Day was celebrated from the beginning of the 20th century to the 1950s, but became obsolete with the end of the British Empire. The late Victorians and Edwardians celebrated Trafalgar Day in honour of Admiral Nelson's great naval victory during the Napoleonic Wars, but that declined after the First World War. These days it is hard to imagine what could be celebrated as a national day throughout the United Kingdom. There isn't any obvious "Britain Day" - no "the United Kingdom starts here" landmark. The closest would be the Act of Union of 1707 which formally united England and Scotland, but the Scots, many of whom would like to see an independent Scotland, would laugh derisively at the idea of celebrating that, and in any case it has no direct relevance for the Welsh or Northern Irish. We have no formal constitution to celebrate, no beginning of a style of government, no obvious chronological landmark.

The United Kingdom is essentially an oddity ... a schizophrenic state. Ask a British subject their nationality and the answer could be any one of English, Scottish, Welsh, Irish or British. While there was a British Empire it was easy for the inhabitants of the British Isles to identify themselves as British; these days not so much. The Scots and Welsh will mostly call themselves Scottish or Welsh. The English are confused. If asked my nationality I always say English; Tevye on the other hand always says British.

I'm pretty sure more people would describe themselves as English than was the case thirty or forty years ago, and I reckon it is time we got a special day to celebrate being English.The Scots and the Northern Irish already have specifically nationalist public holidays - St. Andrew's Day in Scotland, and St. Patrick's Day and Orangemen's Day in Northern Ireland. Why not give the English and Welsh equal treatment by making St. George's Day and St. David's Day public holidays? In the last few years I have noticed cards on sale for St. George's day, so there is already a trend in the direction of celebrating it as the English national day.

It seems that everyone else gets a day for patriotic celebration, and I want one too. St. George's Day would do nicely.

8 comments:

Melanie B said...

Very interesting reflections. I'd never thought about it quite like that before.

Theresa said...

Interesting! AS Melanie said, I never really thought about that before. I wonder do other old European countries have national days, for instance Germany, France, and Italy?

The Bookworm said...

Theresa ... Germany, France and Italy are either much newer countries and / or have had cataclysmic constitutional changes. Germany and Italy didn't exist as single entities until the second half of the 19th century. I looked up their public holidays. Italy has Republic Day, celebrating the establishment of the Republic in 1946; Germany has Unity Day celebrating reunification in 1990; France has Bastille Day, celebrating the French Revolution. We had a revolution in the 1640s, then changed our minds about getting rid of the king a few years later, so not much to celebrate in the way of constitutional changes ;). I checked Denmark, which is another very old monarchy, and even the Danes have a Constitution Day. We don't have a formal constitution, so not a possibility here.

Jennifer said...

This was very interesting.

Theresa said...

Thanks, K! I had no idea, (being completely ignorant of most world history).I did kind of think about re-unification of Germany in 1990,but wasn't sure if there would be an actual holiday surrounding it. Oh,and also Bastille day. Duh! How could I forget that?

Missus Wookie said...

Wookie & I went to a couple of St George's Day concerts done by Billy Brag where he talked about how England's national anthem was turned into a UK one - complete with "trample on the rebellious Scots" line.

Imagined Nation edited by Mark Perryman is quite an interesting collection of essays on that topic too.

Missus Wookie said...

Forgot to say - of course we could GET a constitution... and then have a day to celebrate too :lol:

Pamela said...

Interesting post - I thought I saw something in one of the British newspaper I read online about a St. George's Day celebration - or was it a protest at the flying of the St. George's flag? I can't remember.

Here in Rhode Island, we have a large continent of foreign military attending the Naval War College (you don't have to be Navy, you just have to be an officer). I was thrilled to see the Union Jack flying outside one of the officers' houses during the last session - I was SO tempted to knock on their door and ask if they had any spare tea bags!