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In a 'green and pleasant land,' English nationalism stirs

By Mark Rice-OxleyCorrespondent of The Christian Science Monitor / June 30, 2006


It was only a slip of the tongue, but it invited instant ridicule.

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When a German official welcomed English World Cup fans to Stuttgart last weekend with the words "Hello, United Kingdom," the crowd let out a collective groan.

Some were quick to yell out, in rather rudeterms, that the team playing was England, not the UK. Others merely shrugged it off. After all, people have been confusing England, Britain, and the UK for centuries.

That may be about to change. For decades if not longer, the English have been quite content to think of themselves as British, the leading partners in a union first formed 300 years ago and cemented into the United Kingdom in 1800.

But now it seems that a dormant English nationalism may be astir.

England's steady progress at the World Cup has generated a buzz of pride in a nation that hardly exists any more. Fans have flocked to Germany in unprecedented numbers. As England heads into its quarterfinal match with Portugal Saturday, the country is awash with English red-and-white St. George flags – draped from windows, painted on faces, flapping atop cars and vans, pinned up in the windows of launderettes and chicken-n-rib joints, even lording it over Downing Street. But this phenomenon, some suggest, may be more than a quadrennial rallying for success on the soccer pitch.

"These aren't just football [soccer] fans driving around with their St. George flags," enthuses Edmund Whitehouse, assistant editor at This England, a quaint quarterly publication that claims to be 'an ambassador for everything English.' "We have had a reawakening of what our nation is all about." In his eyes, that includes family values, Christian values, tolerance, free speech, common sense – "everything that is good about England."

England is essentially Europe's largest stateless nation – 50 million people with no parliament and few national emblems. While much has been done to help minorities in Britain express their cultures, the English have largely felt awkward celebrating theirs.

George Orwell noticed it 70 years ago when he wrote that "England is perhaps the only great country whose intellectuals are ashamed of their nationality." As a result, while British nationalism has flourished in certain regions at certain times, the English have meandered to a point where they have only the vaguest sense of nationhood.

There is no national dress, no national song. (The English footballers must sing the British anthem before matches.) The national day, April 23 – named for the patron saint of England, St. George – is an utter non-event compared with July 4 in the US, March 17 in Ireland, and July 14 in France. A decade ago, a World Cup run would have been feted with British Union jacks, not St. George flags.

But there is evidence of a change in attitudes. Research into 'Britishness' by the publicly-funded Commission for Racial Equality last fall found that white English people overwhelmingly perceived themselves to be English first and British second.

And a recent row about England's constitutional position within the UK revealed further strong sentiment in support of English political rights. The devolution of power to Scotland and Wales has given both their own parliaments and governments that rule on local matters.

English nationalists argue that this is constitutionally unfair: Dozens of Scottish, Welsh, and Northern Irish MPs sit in the British parliament – some even in the cabinet – making decisions about England. (The next British prime minister may even be a Scot if, as many expect, Gordon Brown succeeds Tony Blair.) English MPs do not have the same say over affairs in Scotland and Wales.