It is becoming increasingly difficult to take the appropriate attitude towards England’s patron saint – that is, to treat him as a slightly embarrassing joke. Once it was easy, when the white flag with a red cross was as reliable an indicator of English brutishness as the word “HATE” tattooed across a beefy knuckle, but now St George is sidling his way back into respectability.
There is a campaign to mark St George’s Day on 23 April in bullyingly public, bell-ringing fashion. Boris Johnson, never one to let a bandwagon pass by unattended, has announced there will be a celebration lasting several days, with real ale-tasting, English food on display at Leadenhall Market, a mayoral tour in a Routemaster bus, culminating in a concert in Trafalgar Square where pop songs will be given a traditional folk interpretation.
Some might think that, taken together, these events would be an effective publicity campaign to discourage immigration but, according to Mayor Boris, they celebrate “the very best of everything English”.
Another St George activist, the Archbishop of York, Dr John Sentamu, has suggested our patron saint has a political role to play. If St George’s Day were made a national holiday, it would be symbol of “all-embracing Englishness”, and act as an important stay against extremism, the archbishop says.
Politicians are joining the campaign. Shahid Malik, the MP for Dewsbury, says a St George’s Day holiday would highlight the values of England – honesty, fairness, tolerance, enterprise and equality.
Another English quality is modesty. It is not in our nature to bellow our virtues from the rooftops and celebrate our wonderfulness by the ringing of church bells, another proposal by the St George faction. It is true that our modesty is only skin deep: it is precisely because the English think that they are superior to other nations in some important but indefinable way that they prefer not to make fuss about themselves.
Those quiet virtues enumerated by Shahid Malik – to which one might add an appreciation of eccentricity and a healthy bloody-mindedness – are by their nature difficult to celebrate in a public, communal way. A multicultural parade will tend to point up difference rather than unity. A spectacular put-on to celebrate modesty rather defeats its own object.
The difficulty of publicly celebrating Englishness in a way that is not absurdly un-English is likely to be one of the most intractable problems facing the committee organising the 2012 Olympics. How perverse to add to the confusion by introducing a noisy, boastful element to St George’s Day.
Reticence is not contemptible in this context – indeed it may offer the best way of resisting the sanitised identities and twisted visions to which the archbishop rather mysteriously refers. Representing the strength of England by not marching in self-congratulatory parades is exactly what the silent majority should do.