What does the Cross of St. George say about England?

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 . . ..

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The ‘association’ of the Cross of St. George with the far-right

I’m fed up of reading and hearing people saying that the Cross of St. George is associated with the far right, as so many of the articles about the displays of English patriotism around the World Cup keep on parroting (see here and here, for instance).

This is largely a myth, in support of which its proponents provide virtually no evidence. Who associates the English flag with the far right and ethnic nationalism? Certainly not the millions of ordinary people up and down the land who wear England shirts, and display England flags from their cars and homes. They’re just supporting their country in the greatest sporting tournament on earth. It is in fact only the liberal middle class that makes this association, and that has much to do with their unacknowledged, inverted-racist anglophobia and classism as any racism on the part of those parading the English flag.

No, let’s put the record straight: it’s the Union Flag that is the symbol of choice for the far-right racists in England and Britain as a whole. The BNP and the National Front (and with the latter, the skinhead, racist football hooligans of the 70’s and 80’s) have always used the British Flag as their main national symbol, not the Cross of St. George. It’s true that the English Defence League uses the Cross of St. George. But that organisation claims, rightly or wrongly, not to be racially based but to be open to English people of any race or religion, apart from Islam.

In any case, English ethnic nationalism represents a truly tiny fringe of English opinion compared to civic nationalism or the plain-old English patriotism of the England football team’s supporters. And, in fact, it’s those supporters that began the re-claiming of the English flag as a positive symbol of pride in England as an inclusive, multi-racial country by using it at Euro 96 instead of the British flag, which was the one that had in fact become tainted – and still is – by associations with racism and British imperialism.

So when liberals go on about the need to re-claim the English flag from the far right with which it is associated, it is only they who do associate it as an extremist symbol; and it is they who need to rehabilitate the Cross of St. George in their own minds as a positive symbol, because it is only they who regard it as a negative. Every one else is 15 years ahead of them.

Update (15 June): Another example here in an article on the BBC website that is generally sympathetic to English patriotism and to flying the England flag during the World Cup: “On Friday, a friend joked that he didn’t realise I was a BNP supporter when he saw an England flag on my car. It was a joke but also a reminder of how our national emblem was appropriated by racists during the 1970s and ’80s.”

No, Mr Easton, it wasn’t the Cross of St. George that was appropriated by racists during the 70s and 80s, it was the Union Flag; and England supporters always used the Union Flag up until the 1990s. Indeed, the reproach during the 1970s was that they did use the flag for the United Kingdom and not the England flag. You’d see that if you actually looked at the old TV footage. For instance, in the 1966 World Cup, “the English scene was less decked than today”, as you put it, but that was partly because the decking that was used at that time was in the Union colours: during the ’66 final, it’s the Union Jack you see in the stadium, not the Flag of St. George.

I find this collective amnesia to our recent iconic past fascinating as well as frustrating. One of the things it demonstrates is the extent to which attitudes towards English nationalism, or even just the celebration of England as a nation, have become shaped by prejudice rather than fact – hence, even the facts from the recent past get distorted and are viewed through the prism of present-day biases.

Tesco cheeses start sporting the English flag!

Imagine my surprise and delight when I went into my local Tesco last weekend and found that several of their English cheeses had been re-packaged to display the English flag, not the British! My quick random survey suggested that this applied to their ‘regional’ cheeses (Cheshire, Leicester and Wensleydale); their own-brand cheddars made in England; and David Stow cheddars.

I wondered at first if this change was related to Tesco’s status as the ‘Official Supermarket‘ for the World Cup. However, it seems as though this re-branding is a genuine reaction to the campaigning efforts of groups such as Fair Flags, if Toque is to be believed. Let’s hope that the ‘offence’ taken by some Cornish people to Tesco’s switch to the English flag, reported by Toque, doesn’t lead them to revert to the Union Jack – unless they want to apply it to all British produce, including Cornish (e.g. Ginsters).

I did notice that the same shelf that proudly displayed and correctly labelled the English cheddars also contained a ‘British cheddar’ with a British flag. But that’s fine if that product is made in different countries throughout the UK and / or from milk originating from all over Britain.

Now let’s see if Tesco start replacing all those horrid Union Jacks plastered over their English milk, apples, meat, veg, etc. etc. It’s a promising start – and there are a few more food products I can start buying again now.

Vote for England and St. George?

That’ll teach them not to officially fly the flag of St. George atop our dual-purpose English and British parliament! Serves them right – although, apparently, the police stopped the Power 2010 activists from projecting this giant Cross of St. George onto the Palace of Westminster after only about two minutes, no doubt on some spurious counter-terrorist or public-order grounds. British police state!

The Power 2010 campaign, which was, to say the least, a reluctant convert to the cause of English votes on English laws at the time of their online poll to determine the most popular ideas for constitutional reform, which culminated in February, is now urging people to write to their parliamentary candidates to ask them for their views on the English Question. Good for them, and great idea to project the flag and create this image!

There’s no doubt that if all English people who support an English parliament – 68% according to an ICM poll commissioned by Power 2010, due to be published today – could back just one party in support of that aim, then that party would romp to victory at the general election and reclaim Westminster as the English parliament. But in practice, the idea of voting for a pro-EP candidate puts me in something of a quandary. I devoted my last post here to promoting the idea behind the Hang ‘Em campaign, which seeks to mobilise voters to back the candidate most likely to advance the cause of a reforming parliament, principally by achieving a hung parliament. In accordance with that objective, I’ve decided to vote Lib Dem, as their candidate in my constituency is the only one who could possibly defeat the existing Tory MP, thereby furthering the goal of a hung parliament. But should I switch my vote over to the Tory if he turns out to support an English parliament?

I’m definitely going to take the opportunity to ask him and should have done so when I bumped into him in a local street canvassing last week (!); but I’m not sure he or one of his campaign team are going to have time to reply before 6 May now – talk of doing too little, too late, myself included in the criticism! In any case, I think it’s highly unlikely he would support such a radical constitutional innovation, as he never seems to deviate in any way from official Conservative policy, which doesn’t even propose a workable solution to the West Lothian Question, let alone address the English Question. But what if he does turn out to support an EP?

Well, there’s no point voting for a candidate who favours an English parliament who, if elected, wouldn’t do anything to advance that cause. But I’ll ask him whether he would do anything about it, if he does support an EP, and give him the chance to set out his views. I’ll let you know what answer I get to my question, if any. But my default position remains that the best way to promote the goal of an English parliament is to vote for a hung British parliament; and, in any case, voting Lib Dem is entirely consistent with both objectives, as they at least say in their manifesto that the English Question needs to be dealt with as part of an overall British constitutional convention.

So I still say ‘vote hung parliament’ until the Cross of St. George hangs from an English parliament!

Have a good one, by the way.