Tea and crumpets, but no Union Jack!

As Scotland and Wales gain more autonomy, England is having an identity

A flag smaller than a postcard adorns the trunk of Alan Fleming's London black cab.

Mr. Fleming is a law-abiding man, and the Cross of St. George - red against a white background - is the flag of England. But as other parts of Great Britain - Scotland and Wales - move toward greater autonomy, the flag has become a symbol of a quest for a separate English identity.

That was underscored when police announced they would enforce a little- used rule prohibiting the display of emblems on London's 22,000 licensed cabs. The police hope to curb hooligan violence on Nov. 17.

Fleming responded by organizing a protest, and, faced with the prospect of thousands of irate London cabbies, the police backed down.

"I'm a true-blue Englishman and believe I should be able to show that with my flag," says Fleming, chairman of the London Cab Drivers' Club.

What is so special about Nov. 17? That's the day London's Wembley Stadium is to host a match between historic soccer rivals England and Scotland.

The stakes in sporting terms are huge: Both teams have flunked their qualifiers for the forthcoming Euro 2000 tournament - the world's second-biggest international soccer championship - and the playoffs represent their final chance to compete. But this is more than just a soccer match - it holds political and cultural significance beyond cabbies and sports fans.

Even the British prime minister is caught in the dust-up. Tony Blair was born in Edinburgh and educated in Scotland. But when asked which team Mr. Blair would support, his spokesman responded: "England."

Scotland versus England is the oldest international fixture in soccer history, dating back to 1872. "These are two of the oldest football associations in the world, so there is huge cultural and historic baggage," says Rex Nash, a lecturer in football studies at the University of Liverpool.

Traditionally the rivalry was seen by many Scots as pitting their homeland against England, for 300 years the "colonial occupier." Scotland supporters saw the matches as a way of giving a drubbing to the "arrogant" English.

But this game marks the first meeting since Scotland opened its own parliament after a historic vote last May.

The devolutionary agenda of Blair's New Labour government - which also oversaw the opening of a Welsh assembly - has begun to fuel English nationalism. Some folks who had always regarded themselves simply as "British" now seek to carve out a separate English identity.

An opinion poll in April by London research firm ICM found that 49 percent of Britons believe England should have its own system of regional government.

British member of Parliament Teresa Gorman published a booklet arguing the case for such a system. "The idea of a parliament for England - almost unthinkable just 18 months ago - is at last catching on," she writes.

The poll also found that more than half of British voters not only want to see an independent Scotland, but expect it to happen within a decade.

Scottish attitudes toward England, on the other hand, appear to be hardening. A 1998 poll at a London research firm found that 1 in 10 Scots say that anti-English sentiment is increasing. Among the young adults, almost 1 in 5 said they disliked the English.

(c) Copyright 1999. The Christian Science Publishing Society

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