I’m going to say something now which, if I heard someone else say it, I’d be slightly worried: I’m proud to be English. Now that I’ve said it, you’re probably making assumptions about me. Let me reassure you. I’m no knucklehead or far-Right nationalist. I’m on the centre-Left of politics, I worked for the Labour Party for many years (before it went mad) and voted Remain.
But why should I have to qualify that statement? Why should I have to justify myself as if I’m rapidly losing your respect at a house party? If someone declares that they’re proud to be Indian, French or Scottish, we rarely make the same assumptions. Englishness is unique in its squeamishness, and only progressives can change that.
Two factors shaped my patriotism: football and politics. I grew up in Nottingham during Italia 90 and Euro 96. Stuart Pearce was my idol. He still is, a fact that made him uncomfortable when I met him on talkSPORT recently. I was supporting England for the same reason I support Nottingham Forest: I’m from Nottingham. During France 98, in the words of my mother, I went “too far” and, using some red gloss and a paint roller, turned one of her double bedsheets into a massive St George’s cross and hung it on the front of the house. On reflection, I do worry that I made her look like a raving nationalist.
As football had made me proud to fly the England flag, politics was about to question it. I was 14 and desperate to join the Labour Party. I had to wait until I was 15, so in 1998 I’d signed up and started going to meetings just like any other teenager who wanted some action. Despite having recently left the Socialist Workers Party, I was slightly shocked to discover that I was already on the Right of my local branch.
In the years that followed it become plain that Englishness, let alone Britishness, wasn’t really something that the Labour Party was comfortable with. It was avoided, regarded as something slightly suspicious. Mainly, it just wasn’t a priority. Most Labour members didn’t feel strongly about it, so we didn’t try hard enough to create a sense of progressive Englishness.
In that vacuum, regressive forces have owned Englishness. The far-Right English Defence League, Ukip and all their fellow travellers have framed Englishness as a small-minded, aggressive and anti-immigrant identity obsessed with a past that never existed.
It is never too late to resist this definition. Of course, we can create a positive English attitude. There’s an embarrassment of values, institutions, individuals and history to coalesce around. The NHS, The Beatles, the Greggs sausage — and now vegan — roll, Cornish pasties (yes a lot of this will be food-based) the Premier League, darts, snooker and yes, if you must, rugby and Morris dancing.
Within the politics of the UK, the English are the baddies. But the working class of England were subjugated by the same kings, queens and prime ministers who bedevilled Scotland, Wales and Ireland. When I go to other home nations, I shouldn’t feel like some footman from the Palace there to speak for the monarch. Only in generating an open, people’s Englishness do we start to recalibrate our relationship with other countries, but more importantly with ourselves. And yes, I know “an open, people’s Englishness” is terribly New Labour but I’m institutionalised.
The Labour Party now doesn’t want to engage with Englishness. It tries its best to look bothered but even that backfired when it tweeted Happy St George’s Day to its followers on Monday — a day early (and to further confuse matters, this year, as the saint’s day falls in Easter week, churches won’t celebrate it until next week). We shouldn’t be surprised— look at the culture of the party.
"No other country seems to struggle with the principle of patriotism as much as England"
Labour rallies in the Nineties and Noughties would often have Union Jacks on the seats to wave. Not everyone bothered, fair enough. However, at last year’s Labour Party conference, Palestinian flags were handed out for supporters and delegates to wave in front of the TV cameras, and they loyally did. EU flags were, of course, not allowed. If Labour members thought waving their own country’s flag was a bit odd, surely it’s even odder to wave someone else’s?
Loving your country doesn’t mean overlooking its problems or not owning its history. The country is beautiful, especially at this time of year. Even in London, where the warm pollen briefly blocks the stench of exhaust fumes, like the last spray of air freshener doing its best to make the bathroom smell pleasant. Every part of England starts to look better now, when the flowers bloom and the trees blossom. Enjoying that doesn’t mean you forget about homelessness or in-work poverty. The two are not mutually exclusive.
No other country seems to struggle with this principle as much as England. Patriotism isn’t about having to support the government of the day, or previous ones. It’s about finding things that bind us together, and after years of a damaging Brexit debate (with years to run), we all have a responsibility as citizens to find those ways. One way is to have an English national anthem. Toby Perkins, the MP for Chesterfield, has raised this as England is the only home nation without one. What would it be? Land of Hope and Glory? Jerusalem? Wonderwall? I’m joking, of course — it should be Don’t Look Back in Anger. Accompanied by Morris dancers.
- Matt Forde is touring his stand-up comedy show, Brexit Through the Gift Shop, and is at Bloomsbury Theatre on May 25. mattforde.com