Today is St George’s Day – a perfectly English celebration because of how uneasy and awkward we are about it. Having grown up in Birmingham, I can say that the difference from the Irish ability to enjoy St Patrick’s Day is stark. Perhaps the English reticence about celebrating our patron saint’s feast day is an effect of the austerity of the Reformation, or more a general trend across the Western world where an intellectual trend of thought exists solely to browbeat us into eventual suicide.
Yet there is an awful lot to be proud of as an English person. We shouldn’t feel so reluctant about celebrating our achievements and successes, and our remarkable influence on the world considering the size of the country.
There are two stories about St George. The first is the better-known: the knight who killed the dragon that was plaguing a village, saving a fair maiden from being sacrificed to satisfy the dragon’s hunger. St George is your traditional knight, a model of chivalry and gallantry. It’s interesting to think that this is what young men used to aspire to be, whilst now it’s someone like Cristiano Ronaldo, a man of undeniable talent with an ego to match, with four children by three mothers, a man who takes his top off and flexes his oiled muscles at opportune moments.
The second story associated with St George is that he was a Roman general who refused to renounce his Christian beliefs and was tortured to death. Diocletian, the emperor at the time, had decreed that all Christian soldiers should be arrested and be forced to make a sacrifice to the Roman gods. The emperor greatly valued George and offered him land, money and slaves to try to persuade him to make the sacrifice.
George refused and Diocletian reluctantly ordered his execution. He was lacerated on a wheel of swords to the point of unconsciousness, but he did not recant. He was decapitated and was immediately regarded as a martyr, his death heartening the Christians of the time.
It’s almost a trick of the imagination to consider England as a Christian country, let alone a highly religious one, but we were once termed ‘Mary’s dowry’ for our strong devotion to the faith. It can feel as if there is a gulf between the people we were and the people we are now. There are those who want us to shrink from our past as if it didn’t happen, but the spirit of bravery and nobility still binds St George and England together.
We are quite rightly proud of our role in World War Two, the ‘plucky island’ against the ‘Teutonic monolith’, and more recently Brexit is seen by Leavers as yet more evidence of the disastrous consequences that follow trying to tell the English what to do.
The Empire still provokes debate, and we are unsure whether we are proud or ashamed. But culturally our influence is huge and impressive: our universities, Shakespeare, Orwell, the Beatles, the Rolling Stones, The Office, J R R Tolkien, J K Rowling. The list of global cultural phenomena originating in England is remarkable.
So on this St George’s Day let’s raise a glass for our brave and noble patron saint who gave his life for something bigger than him. The current fashion of not believing in anything other than yourself is exactly that: a fashion, and it will fade away like all other bad ideas.
The faithfulness and the passion that once defined these isles hasn’t gone away, but it is hiding. To return some cohesion and lessen the atomisation of English society, we should try to stop the trend of moral relativism and apathy. A good start would be to be proud of who we are, warts and all.