Activists Press for Greater English Identity

By Kevin McCandless | July 7, 2008 | 8:16 PM EDT

London ( - Despite a setback, campaigners here vowed this week that they would not rest until St. George's Day becomes the English equivalent of the Fourth of July.

While other constituent parts of the United Kingdom -- Scotland, Wales and areas of Northern Ireland -- celebrate patron saints' days and have strong national identities, many Englishmen and women feel England has had a poor deal.

In recent days Tony Bennett, a pub owner in eastern England, lost a High Court battle to have April 23 declared a national day of celebration.

Despite arguments that the day, which honors the patron saint of England, has historical precedent as a holiday, the court ruled against considering his request.

On Wednesday, a spokeswoman for Wells Bombardier, an ale producer backing the campaign, said the English needed a day to celebrate their specific identity.

Spokeswoman Sarah McGhie said the day could become like Independence Day in the United States -- a source of pride for a nation which traditionally preferred not to boast of its successes.

"As a nation, we tend to be very apologetic," McGhie said. "Very polite, very stiff-upper-lipped and not one to celebrate our successes."

Every April 23, houses and pubs could be decked with flags bearing the red and white Cross of St. George, and streets could hold street parties in celebration.

Dr. John Sentamu, the newly-enthroned first black archbishop in the Church of England, says multiculturalism had failed the English and that they should return to their roots.

Having grown up in Uganda, Sentamu said, English culture showed him the best that the world could offer, from a benevolent Christianity to respect for the rule of law.

Originally a Roman legionnaire, St. George reportedly became a Christian martyr early in the fourth century after defying the pagan emperor, Diocletian.

As the centuries passed and various legends of him slaying a huge dragon sprang up, he become a symbol of triumphant Christianity.

Also a major saint in the Eastern Orthodox Church, as well as Spain and Portugal, he was declared the patron saint of England by Edward III in the 14th century.

As well declaring St. George's Day a national holiday, some English nationalists also want the creation of a separate parliament for England.

Created through the merger of once separate nations, the United Kingdom is composed of England, Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland, governed by a central government and parliament based in London.

Since 1998, both Scotland and Wales have had their own governing assemblies, with different degrees of power, a situation which has long rankled English nationalists.

On Wednesday, campaigner Mike Knowles said it was unfair that English lacked so much financial and political control over their own nation.

In addition to giving the English more power, he said that a regional parliament would help preserve their unique national character.

"No two ways about it, an English Parliament would be an engine for a new English identity," Knowles said.

Robert Colls, a noted historian at the University of Leicester, said the campaign was all part of the centuries-old process by which the English continually reexamined their identity.

As the British Empire gradually shrank, he said that the ruling elite have always tried to keep a lid on nascent English nationalism.

Not only did they fear that it would break up the union of the four regions, they always associated it with the emergence of far-right political parties.

"The elite are always on guard about this," Colls said. "[London Mayor] Ken Livingston can celebrate St. Patrick's Day but he'd never allow a day for St. George. He would see it as a fascist celebration."

English nationalism and the St. George flag has at times been associated with the problem of soccer hooliganism, which has brought denunciations from all sides of the political spectrum.

However, commentators such as liberal activist and singer Billy Bragg argue that the flag of St. George is a proud symbol and one that could help define a new English identity.

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