Debate over English identity flares up on day honoring dragon-slaying saint


Men pose for a group photograph with a man dressed up as Saint George during an event to celebrate St George's Day in Leadenhall Market in the City of London, Wednesday, April 23, 2014. (AP Photo/Matt Dunham)

Wednesday is St George's Day, the feast day of the martyred knight who has been England's patron saint since 1350. The occasion has been marked with a Google Doodle, the ringing of bells in churches, some vigorous Morris dancing and even an "asparagus run" to welcome the harvest. But, invariably for a country built on overlapping and, at times, conflicting national identities, the annual honoring of St George has also brought out a new round of British angst and hand-wringing.

For years, conservatives have called for St George's Day to be an official public holiday, akin to St Patrick's Day in Ireland. But that's been a non-starter since Britain is more than England -- the Welsh and Scots have their own patron saints. The very idea of "Englishness" is hotly contested; many living within England's traditional borders express discomfort when being made to embrace a narrow "English" identity, which some view as the province of far-right, anti-immigrant groups.

Still, in a speech delivered on St George's Day, British Prime Minister David Cameron waded into the morass, saying, "for too long, [St George's] feast day -- England's national day -- has been overlooked." Cameron's address followed comments he made earlier this week on Britain's Christian identity. The conservative  premier is in part pandering to a conservative base that has started to drift to the more right-wing and Euroskeptic UK Independence Party (UKIP), which reiterated its demand for St George's Day to be made an official holiday. Cameron offered this globalized paean to the English nation:

"Today, though, more and more people are coming together on or around April 23, eager to celebrate everything it is to be English. And there is much to celebrate. Because this is a country whose achievements in industry, in technology, sport, music, literature and the arts - they far outweigh our size.

"Our counties and cities are known the world over.

"In America, where Newcastle Brown Ale is the most imported ale; in China, where the most popular international football team is from London: Arsenal; in Australia, where they go mad for a Cornish cuisine - the humble pasty; in South Korea, where Yorkshire-set Downton Abbey is a TV favourite. And across the globe, where the best-selling band is from Liverpool: the Beatles."

It's all quite sweet and unobjectionable. Yet a quick glance at the #proudtobeEnglish Twitter hashtag that trended all day reveals an intensely divided national conversation, peppered with a healthy amount of sarcasm and cynicism about the need for such patriotic display.

In his speech, Cameron went on to make a nod to the Scottish campaign for independence from Britain that will be decided by referendum later this year: "In just five months, the people of Scotland will go to the polls and decide whether they want to remain a part of this global success story," said Cameron. "So let's prove that we can be proud of our individual nations and be committed to our union of nations." It remains to be seen whether the majority of Scots will be moved by such rhetoric, delivered, awkwardly, on a day when the English celebrate their own distinct past.

But what about St George's Day is necessarily English? The saint, after all, is the adopted patron of many other cities and countries -- ranging from Rio de Janeiro to Genoa, Georgia (which took his name) to Greece. The historical Saint George had nothing to do with Britain: according to accounts, he was a 3rd century soldier, hailing from modern day central Turkey, and in the service of the Roman emperor Diocletian. George's refusal to carry out campaigns persecuting Christians led to his own torture and gruesome death, and then an eventual sainthood.

The legend of St George -- that of the knight who slew an evil dragon -- emerged only a millennium later, a product of tales of Christian chivalry blending with earlier pagan myths in northern Europe of heroes combating scaled monsters. St George also appears in Islamic lore as al-Khidr, a dragon-slaying mystic and wanderer. Over time, the story of the saint clearly shifted and changed as it moved across lands and languages. Not unlike cultural identities themselves.

Ishaan Tharoor writes about foreign affairs for The Washington Post. He previously was a senior editor at TIME, based first in Hong Kong and later in New York.
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