Monday, 23 April 2012

In defence of dragon slayers

Today our Anglo-Saxon protestant nation celebrates the accomplishments of a Middle-Eastern Catholic in slaying a monster from Germanic folklore.

Personally I‘m all for it, especially the recent campaign to get us another bank holiday. We have the fewest in Europe and any excuse is a good one. This subject however gets tied up endlessly with a certain brand of nationalism.

While most of the country has a sort of absent-minded affinity (much like how we feel about Christianity in general) there is the annual verbal punch-up between those saying they’re being denied their cultural heritage and those who say the whole thing is a dodgy medieval relic.  Self-righteousness abounds on all sides. The really interesting questions about St George usually get missed. Why him, why here, why now?

Winners don’t need to tell people they’re winners. The quirks of the English class system mean that conspicuous displays of advantage or prowess are frowned upon. This is a subset of the ultimate sin of, ‘trying too hard’.

The best English heroes are the gallant losers; Robert Scott, Tim Henman, Frank Spencer. There is a reason our history starts with our defeat by William the Bastard of Normandy, why our national spirit is named after a full scale retreat from the beaches of Dunkirk, why ever since Charlie Brooker got his happy ending we’ve gone right off him.

The singular greatness of Englishness did not rely upon individual achievements, it just was. In many ways not celebrating St George’s Day was the perfect expression of English superiority. We know we’re better than you, why would we need a parade?

The real issue over Englishness is about this status. It’s over a century since Cecil Rhodes said: ‘To be born an Englishman is to win first prize in the lottery of life.’

Psychologically we still haven’t gotten past that, even as the triumph of the United States, the collapse of the Empire and the recent rise of the BRICs demonstrated that, at least financially, this might not be true.

Taking solace in our global language, place at the top table at the UN and key role in NATO, that easy assumption of superiority could continue. The fact that the French had fallen simultaneously made it even easier to keep up the pretence.

Eventually however, this imagined sense of superiority, this easy self-assurance, has started to fall away. As we travel further, meet more people and access ever more information, the doubts creep in.
The intellectual retreat from defining what it means to be English did not allow a new narrative to flourish, it just left us surrounded by the Victoriana that no longer made sense. Yet if we drop it, what else is there? Where do we find our national identity? The world offers two answers: revolution and victimhood.

Revolution is hard, messy, and requires a lot of effort. It’s also pot-luck. For every stumble to liberty and justice you have a hundred military juntas.

On the other hand anyone can be a victim. Victimhood is redemptive, it excuses your failings and protects you from future criticism. The American obsession with Irish identity, out of all scale with the actual genetic contribution to the nation’s make-up, is in part because it gives white Americans psychological access to the Famine. No one wants to be classed as the oppressor.

The historical and rhetorical gymnastics of the SNP are also part of this re-positioning. When MSP Sandra White called the Union flag a ‘butcher’s apron’ one felt tempted to point out the contribution of the Royal Highlanders to that apron.

I don’t think any living Briton is responsible for the terrible events of nineteenth century imperialism, but the idea that Scotland counts among its victims rather than its perpetrators is Braveheart-level mythology. The point however, is that myths have power.

So what do you do when reality doesn’t live up to Rhodes? What do you do when thirty years of stagnating wages, high unemployment and social exclusion mean that you, despite being a white Englishman, are not doing so well? And, crucially, when people in power tell you it’s all your own fault because we live in a meritocracy dontchya know?

People know when the game is rigged, even when they can’t say exactly how. The rise of aggressively nationalist groups always stems from the failure of social democrats to frame the intellectual debate properly.

Calling someone a bigot does not mean that you don’t have to deal with the problems that created that mindset, any more than saying, ‘they hate us for our freedom’ does. When there is no framework to express your identity as part of a positive social movement it is inevitable that other symbols of unity will come to the fore, whether they be faith or flag.

You can tell people their beliefs are stupid and antiquated, that their symbols are meaningless, or you can ask people to come with you. For those of us on the Left have a long road ahead, and a dragon-slayer or two may come in handy.

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