Yesterday I was invited to speak about Englishness following a specially staged performance of ‘Redcrosse’. You can read more about the ‘Redcrosse’ project here but in essence, ‘Redcrosse’ is an attempt to reaffirm Englishness and St. George by the Birmingham-based Shakespearean expert Professor Ewan Fernie through an innovative creative work which is partly an original arts event, partly a groundbreaking religious service.
After yesterday’s performance, a number of individuals were asked to give a talk which reflected on what it meant to them to be ‘English’. After the talks, an open Q&A session was held.
Reproduced below is a pretty accurate transcript of my talk:
“Thank you for inviting me to speak this evening.
As some of you will know, for the past 13 years or so I’ve been researching the phenomenon and manifestation of Islamophobia or anti-Muslim expressions and sentiments. Along with that, I’ve also explored issues relating to multiculturalism, diversity, Britishness and more importantly, the problems associated with these.
Of course my research is highly contentious, emotive and at times, brings out the worse in people. This has resulted in me regularly receiving abuse.
So when I was invited to speak, it immediately reminded me of my favourite piece of abuse from recent years. Shortly after my book was published, I received an email from an EDL supporter who asked me:
“How can a man who’s ethnically English hate his country so much?”
So where do I start in reflecting on Englishness?
Well the EDL is a good start point and so thought I’d reflect on something prominent in its identity: the St George’s flag.
When I started to think about this, I realised how much the flag has always been ever present throughout my research and my journey over the past decade or so.
Never really explicitly there just there, in the background: a part of the landscape within which I’ve been operating, whether personal or professional.
So what is a flag?
Well the Oxford English Dictionary defines a flag as:
“a piece of cloth or similar material…used as a symbol or emblem”
All quite innocent, but what happens when that flag is somewhere else – not in the relative safety of the event tonight? What impact does place, location and context have on what a flag represents – what it is used as a symbol or emblem for.
Let me share with you two stories…
The first relates to a friend – who also happened to be Muslim – who moved from Balsall Heath to Hall Green. He moved into what I would describe as a typical English street, all semi-detached houses with cars on the drives. Shortly after moving in, he met his neighbour – described by him as being white British – and all was fine. They got on well apparently, but that all changed when the neighbour met his wife, who covered her hair with a hijab. At the time, the neighbour was said to have looked visibly uneasy. After that, the neighbour appeared to avoid my friend, seemingly not wanting to talk to him. Then, a few days later, when he came home from work the neighbour had draped a St George’s flag out of the upstairs window adjoining their house.
As my friend described it, that was his ‘welcome’ gift.
In this setting, what was the symbol of the flag?
The second comes from researching my book. In doing so I came across a story related to the success of the British National Party (BNP) from Barking. Back in May 2006, the BNP fielded 13 candidates for the local elections. Winning an unprecedented 11 of those, on the same evening those 11 BNP councillors were sworn in on Barking & Dagenham Council – the first time in British history when a far-right party were the official party of opposition in a political chamber – four men attacked and repeatedly stabbed a visibly Muslim man outside Barking tube station. Leaving him for dead, they ran off having draped a St George’s flag over his body.
What was the symbol of the flag in that incident?
What did the flag symbolise to local people in Barking & Dagenham at that time?
What did the flag symbolise at the country’s largest St George’s Day parade – just down the road in Sandwell – when in 2008, the pipe bands of various loyalist paramilitary groups from Northern Ireland marched alongside Nick Griffin and Simon Darby from the BNP; when England football shirts were worn by BNP supporters with the name Griffin printed across the back. Attracting 20,000 people, the following year the local council withdrew the funding due to the event being seen to have been hijacked by the far-right and neo-Nazis.
And returning to the EDL, what does the flag symbolise when it is draped or held aloft by anything up to 3,000 EDL supporters who have taken to the streets to march against the alleged ‘Islamification of Britain’ in various towns and cities across the country?
For me then, the question is where are the spaces for us to challenge these symbols?
I ask because I remember some years ago my son asking me if we could hang an England flag – that innocent piece of cloth – outside our house during the World Cup. I remember just how uncomfortable I felt – torn between wanting to do what he’d asked – itself a pretty innocent request – but at the same time, not wanting to be seen to be being racist, bigoted or similar.
And it’s apparently not just me who feels this way. From a survey undertaken by the think-tank British Future – the results published this week – around a quarter of English people stated that they found the St George’s Cross flag to be a symbol of racism.
And the reason why?
The “extreme street hooligans of the English Defence League” who – as they put it – have “toxified” the St George’s Cross.
For many then, the St George’s Cross is a symbol that is extremely difficult to associate with.
Where then does that leave us?
Well clearly the flag as a piece of cloth is to a large extent meaningless. But as a symbol or emblem, it has much greater power. As I rhetorically asked at the outset, the place, location and context of the flag is crucially important. And depending upon that, it can be positive or negative, inclusive or exclusive, uniting or dividing.
And as my research has shown, it can be used to confront and intimidate. Is it time for us to now challenge this, to reclaim the flag?
Interestingly, if we return to the word ‘flag’ then it is clear that other definitions also exist.
For this talk, I’ve been focusing on the flag as a noun. If we look at flag as a verb, the meaning becomes entirely different.
When used as a verb, flag means to become tired, to be weaker or less enthusiastic.
In many ways, that is exactly how I felt about being English – and why I prefer to describe myself as being British.
Englishness did not excite or enliven me because I did not feel that I had a stake in being English, in what it meant, or what I wanted it to mean.
My notion of Englishness had been shaped through it being hijacked by the far-right, by the racists, the bigots, the downright idiotic.
And if I feel like that, how can we expect those who are repeatedly told they don’t belong here, are not a part of who we are, are the ‘them’ to our ‘us’ to be anything less than flagging about Englishness?
Contrary to what the EDL suggest, I am not an ethnically English man who hates his country.
But…it is fair to say that my enthusiasm for Englishness, for St George, for the English flag does and has flagged: I make no excuses for that because I just want to have no association with those who have seemingly hijacked what it is to be English.
And in summing up, I can find no better source than the lyrics from a song by Morrissey, that great and uniquely English treasure. In his song “Irish Blood, English Heart” he laments:
“I’ve been dreaming of a time when
To be English is not to be baneful
To be standing by the flag not feeling
Shameful, racist or partial”
Thank you for giving me this opportunity to reflect on Englishness – it has definitely given me an enthusiasm to continue exploring my own sense of Englishness as also the need for all of us to explore a more progressive and inclusive Englishness for the 21st century.”