There are a number of reasons why England’s version of St. Patrick’s Day does not inspire the same devotion and widespread celebration as the Irish national saint’s day, including within England itself. Chief among these is that St. George’s Day, celebrated annually on April 23, has come to represent the kind of exclusive, overzealous patriotism associated with some parts of the English right wing. The English national day is now the object of a cultural tug of war between those who believe in the promotion of English heritage and those who want to claim the day as a multicultural celebration.
The United Kingdom Independence Party is the most prominent faction using the occasion of St. George’s Day as an opportunity to promote its nativist cultural platform. On Thursday, a UKIP representative condemned the “cultural cringe” around celebrating the holiday while highlighting the party's wish to make St. George’s Day a public bank holiday.
“For too long we have lived with a political and cultural establishment which has shown a sort of disdain for England, which has doubted Britain has a whole and has discouraged pride in it,” said UKIP "culture minister" Peter Whittle, in comments reported by the Telegraph. “The patriotism of the many is often sneered at. … People have been encouraged to believe that national pride is exclusive, is dangerous, is bigoted and should therefore be discouraged.”
Surveys have shown that only four in 10 people in England can even name the date of the national celebration (compared to the 71 percent who knew July 4 was when the American colonies broke from Britain). One of the biggest contributing factors to English indifference or even antipathy to the holiday has been the fear that the national symbols associated with the celebration, particularly the flag of St. George, a red cross on a white field, could be interpreted as racist. Almost a quarter of English people said they considered the flag to be racist, according to a 2012 poll.
Modern England should not be branded with medieval, Christian iconography, according to author and historical consultant Greg Jenner. The banner of St. George was adopted as the uniform of English soldiers during the Crusades, likely during the reign of King Richard I (the Lionhearted), who put the army under the protection of the saint while campaigning in Palestine in 1191-92. The banner later became England’s national flag (the official flag of the United Kingdom incorporates this national flag, combined with those of Scotland and Northern Ireland).
“Not only is the St. George's Cross redolent of medieval war crimes, it is now synonymous with ideological groups promoting racial intolerance,” Jenner wrote in a commentary for the Huffington Post. “I get skittish around the national flag because it has been appropriated by right-wing nationalists. … This political underclass is desperately trying to reassert their ethnic vision of Englishness, and they are using the national flag as a symbol of their cause.”
While the flag can commonly be seen during sporting events, it has also increasingly become associated with far-right groups like the English Defence League, which have displayed the symbol of English heritage prominently in their demonstrations. As tainted as St. George’s flag may be for some because of the association, others are now attempting to reclaim the saint and his iconography in order to promote it as a multicultural celebration.
In 2011, a senior clergyman at Manchester Cathedral played host to a multicultural liturgy celebrating the holiday that featured a representation of St. George as a young black man. The move prompted death threats and protestations from right-wing political figures. "It's political correctness gone mad,” a British National Party spokesman told the Independent. “I'd like to see the organizers go to an African country and vilify one of their saints.”
However, the celebration was supported by others who argued that it was a necessary step in reclaiming English heritage from racists. "Englishness is an embarrassed thing in all sorts of ways,” Ewan Fernie, a professor at the University of Birmingham, told the Independent. “But a bold, imaginative reclamation is necessary, particularly in the face of the far-right appropriation of symbols of Englishness."
Part of this effort has been emphasizing the fact that St. George himself was not English and indeed came from Anatolia, what is now central Turkey, and was a soldier in the army of the Roman Empire. On Thursday, the progressive Independent published a story arguing that the Christian saint was the perfect symbol of multiculturalism, including points like “he was an immigrant,” “he spread new religious ideas from abroad,” “he was persecuted by people intolerant of his foreign religion” and “he was a soldier for a multicultural European super-state.”
As much as some of these commentaries are a direct jab at the isolationist, anti-immigrant rhetoric of the political factions currently promoting the English saint, they also serve as a reminder of England’s diverse heritage -- as well as its historical and cultural links to other countries. The celebration of St. George is also marked in a number of other countries that identify the Christian figure as their patron saint, including Georgia, Greece and Bosnia and Herzegovina.
This has not deterred those who see celebrating the saint as an opportunity to focus on a distinctly English identity, however. “Whenever the issue of St. George's Day comes up -- and I can predict this on Twitter today -- there will be many left-center people who will tweet the fact that St. George was from what's today known as Turkey as if that is the start, finish of conversation and that makes St. George's Day irrelevant or illegitimate or ridiculous,” said UKIP economic spokesman Patrick O’Flynn, according to Sky News. "I completely disagree. ... I'm not particularly hung up on where St. George came from. I'm more interested in what St. George's Day can represent."