There has been much ink spilt and HTML spewed about the patriotic displays of the Cross of St. George, which we see fluttering from houses and cars across the land at World Cup time. Most of this has focused on what you could call the sociological significance of the nation’s flag: whether it betokens a new, benign, inclusive nationalism; a harmless, football-focused patriotism; or a disturbing manifestation of xenophobic nationalism owing to the flag’s alleged, but in my view mistaken, association to far-right, racist movements.
I am not going to adopt the sociological approach here but rather carry out a semantic analysis. This asks: what does the Cross of St. George, as a visual symbol and icon for England, make us think, consciously or subconsciously, about England and the English?
First and foremost, it seems to me, the Cross is a reference to England’s Christian legacy: the reason why St. George’s symbol is a cross is that it refers to the Cross of Christ. The Cross of St. George is, therefore, a visual statement of the fact that England is historically a Christian country, rather than a secular state like France or many other European republics that do not include crosses on their national flags. For many, of course, including myself, England remains a Christian country – which doesn’t mean it can’t also tolerate a plurality of other religions and philosophies, including Islam, so long as that religion’s proponents do not seek to impose their views on the rest of society.
The reason why the reference to Islam is so important is that the Cross of St. George is also associated with the medieval Crusades that sought to expel the Muslims from the Holy Land. We in our turn may wish to build our own New Jerusalem in England’s green and pleasant land – but this must be an enlightened society that turns its back on the religious intolerance and prejudices of our medieval past, while nonetheless remaining proud of all that is good and true in our tradition.
Apart from the association to the Crusades and a battling English past, the fact that the Cross itself is red in colour contributes to the fear it provokes in some. As I have written elsewhere, red is the colour of violence owing to its association with blood; and this tie with blood may also be a reason why British-liberals erroneously think of the Flag as a token of violent English-British ethnic nationalism. But the red cross is also associated with the Blood of the Cross: the blood shed by Christ in order to save humanity.
This link with the idea of saving, safeguarding and defending life is one of the reasons why the Red Cross was adopted as the symbol for the humanitarian organisation of the same name. And while the red cross embodies a specifically Christian association, the link between ‘red’ and ‘saving life’ is also intrinsic to the connection between ‘red’ and ‘blood’: blood is essential for life, so it is ambiguously associated both with violent destruction of life and with preserving life, and all that is most precious and sacred in life – just as the death of Christ (i.e. Life itself), in Christian belief, paradoxically saves all life.
In the specific English context, then, it seems to me that the Cross testifies to the willingness of English people to fight the good fight in order to safeguard and protect the lives of other English people, and to save Christian England itself. And that combativeness implies both a determination to spill the blood of England’s enemies and a willingness to sacrifice one’s own life in defence of the lives of loved-ones, and for the sake of England.
But these associations to violence in the cause of Right and of country are against the background of white, with its associations to peace and non-aggression – so much so that the white flag is of course the sign of surrender. You might say that the superimposition of the red cross on the white flag signifies ‘no surrender’ – but equally, it betokens the fact that, at heart, the English are a placid, peace-loving people: preferring nothing so much as the quiet enjoyment of their homes and gardens, or the more gregarious, social and essentially peaceful past-times of going down to the pub, sport, trade and shopping.
So the blood-red cross on the white background says that the English will fight to the death if necessary to preserve what they have and who they are – but that they’d rather co-exist peacefully and tolerantly with other peoples, and take part in sporting and economic competition with them rather than fight them on the battlefield. And that’s one of the reasons why the Cross of St. George is such a fitting and potent symbol for English sporting teams: it points to the role of sport as channelling nationalist aggression into peaceful competition between nations on an increasingly global scale, which is in fact one of the great legacies that England (the inventor of so many of the world’s great sports) has bequeathed to the world.
Many people would reject this assertion that the English are essentially peace-loving, pointing to our imperial past and violent subjugation of our Celtic island neighbours. While I’m not denying that the English have a violent streak, I would say that they are by no means unique or even the worst in that respect, certainly among the nations of Europe. But that would be missing the point I’m making: the important thing is not whether a country or people is violent (ultimately, all human beings are capable of violence) but what they do with that aggression and what values they promote around it. And I would say that it is the British flag, more than the Cross of St. George, that actually celebrates the aggression that English and British armies and colonialists have wrought upon other nations. It is, after all, the flag of the British Empire and so the symbol of British-imperial domination.
By contrast, the fact that it is the Cross of St. George rather than the Union Flag that English people have now espoused as their national flag symbolises the fact that the English have disengaged their national identity from the British Empire and, in its latter-day incarnation, the British Crown and state. We are content now to be ‘merely’ England and not all-conquering Great Britain – which means we can now celebrate England and Englishness for and in themselves, and not as a glorification of conquest and power. So while the red Cross of St. George proudly proclaims our willingness to fight for our country, this fight is no longer an imperial war of conquest but rather a defence of all that we hold to be precious, indeed sacred, about our land and its people; and of all that we have contributed to the culture and economy of the world at large.
I have a theory, based in a faith in Providence, that the country that wins the World Cup is in some way the most fitting one to do so at that time: that there’s a kind of poetic and divine justice that manifests itself in footballing glory. I think it was symbolically fitting and ‘just’, for instance, that the French won the World Cup in 1998 in their own country, having been arguably robbed of a deserved crown by bruising semi-finals with West Germany in 1982 and 1986. Similarly, it was right that Brazil won in 2002, as they were the only team whose world class was not in doubt, and this was a just recognition of the merit of players such as Ronaldo and Ronaldinho, and the fact that – but for Ronaldo’s nervous crisis on the day of the final – Brazil really deserved to win in 1998, based on footballing merit. Italy’s triumph last time was perhaps providentially decreed to ‘save’ the beautiful game in the country that is one of its leading exponents, engrossed as Italy was at that time in scandals around corruption by leading club officials.
Is 2010 perhaps England’s turn for a providentially fitting triumph: a token of divine blessing for a new peaceful, non-violent and inclusive English nation; and a victory that in itself would help to accelerate the formation of a new England: a country that is proud of all that it has contributed to the world – particularly, the game of football itself – recognised as a stand-alone nation in its own right and no longer symbiotically confused with Britain?
Such is the stuff of dreams – but of that is football made. Maybe that dream will flounder against the rocky realities of iron German determination or fiery, England-hating Argentinian passion. But then there’s always the World Cup in England, in 2018 . . ..
Filed under: Christianity, Crusades, England, England football team, English character, English culture, English identity, English nationalism, English nationhood, Flag of St. George, Islam, national identity, national pride, national symbols, nationalism, Providence, sport, United Kingdom, violence, World Cup | 11 Comments »