Article Movement & Migration

Whose lion is it, anyway?

Steve Rushton explores whether English identity could and should be reimagined

The soul of the largest country on these isles feels lost. Images of today’s Englishness are not progressive.

Take George, patron saint and the man behind the red and white flag. Historically, he was a 3rd century Roman nobleman and soldier from today’s Turkey and Palestine. His standing grew nearly 1,000 years after his death, when he was branded a warrior saint; in effect, he was turned into a fundamentalist Christian propaganda tool to incite the Crusades, the religious wars against Arabs. He is also a patron saint for Genoa, Georgia and Portugal, plus a few other places.

A decade ago members of the Church of England campaigned to swap George for Saint Alban, England’s first Christian martyr. He seems a far better choice. In the 3rd century he offered a Christian named Amphibolus asylum from Roman persecution; this act led to Alban’s conversion. He sacrificed himself by giving himself up disguised as Amphibolus and later was canonised as the saint of converts, refugees and torture victims.

Although Christianity is not relevant for many English people, swapping George for Alban would send at least two progressive signals. One, an admission and rejection of British imperialism. And two, it would challenge Britain’s leading role in a European asylum policy that allows refugees in the Mediterranean to drown in their thousands.

Inequality applauded

More broadly, Englishness seems a dirty idea, in need of rethinking. It conjures up images of Little Englanders who are small-minded, probably racist, clinging on to a history of world domination without apology. The inequality of imperialism is not hidden within this identity, but applauded. For instance, royal babies draw mobs of flag-wavers even though a quarter of the little princess’ peers will be born into poverty. A whitewashed past and warped present means this Englishness has lost sight of the future.

It is even more obvious that the union of these isles is lost, with Scotland’s departure nearing on the horizon. Britishness will soon need space in museums. Scottish independence will also probably encourage a knock-on surge in positive Welsh, Cornish and Northern political confidence and identities. I have spoken to many Irish people on both sides of the divide, but am not certain what its future is. But as the once dominant nation, the fall of Englishness and Britishness are entangled.

For the majority, Britain’s heyday was arguably the 1950s and 60s. The nation then bonded over “cradle to grave” universal healthcare, free education and welfare. All these things began to be dismantled by former primer minister Margaret Thatcher and possibly by her most lasting legacy: New Labour. Today, the majority of society’s public shared commons seem on death row, awaiting the austerity axe of the “majority” Conservative government, which won the election even though just 25% of people voted for them.

My roots come half from England, half from Scotland, but I no longer feel British. Since engaging with the independence campaign, I feel connected with a reimagined Scottishness. Forget kitsch stereotypes of kilts and bagpipes, this is a vision of 21st century hope. Another Scotland is possible, powered by renewable energy, with universal welfare rather than never-ending warfare; it is about a country that welcomes people in. Scotland’s vision can be read in the Common Weal and the Wee Blue Book. The movement had a strong feminist push, from Women For Independence, Bella Caledonia’s tartan-wearing iconographic figurehead to SNP leader Nicola Sturgeon and Westminster’s youngest MP, 20-year-old Mhairi Black.

In contrast, my Englishness feels stuck in a rut. The obvious progressive English thing to do with your identity is not mention it. Perhaps because more so than most places, Englishness needs to discard cultural baggage brimming with a shameful history of imperialism, slavery and colonialism.

Let the lion go

Like George, another aristocratic symbol from the Crusades that needs releasing is the lion. It first appeared on Henry I’s English army standards, the third Norman king of England. The lion then became central in the propaganda of Richard the Lionheart, and has been used by English royalty and the state ever since. The three lions can be seen on the England football shirt, and the animal pops up on the royal insignia everywhere: from the armed forces to the Foreign Office and the Ministry of Justice. Apparently more than 10,000 lion statues roam loose on London’s streets.

Like substituting George for Alban, letting the lions go offers another small, conciliatory step away from Britain’s colonial legacy. But what could replace it?

Opposite the lion on the royal insignia is Scotland’s national animal. It, too, is not native to these isles. In fact, it is not even native to this planet.

It is a unicorn. It has accompanied the lion on the royal insignia since the Act of Union 1707. In Celtic symbolism, it represents purity, healing powers and vitality, and also has connotations of power. However, I have not seen the unicorn really take off in the renewed Scottish identity.

Returning down south, England could choose a mythical creature, but a more grounded choice has strong merits for a shortlist.

A social creature

Badgers are under threat from the aristocracy, based on a narrative that they are dirty and diseased pests. They are the perfect analogy for the majority of English people under threat from austerity and crowded out by massive landowners. They, too, are social animals living in communities. Their communities, again like the majority of people, are at the frontline of fracking, and if this process poisons the earth surely badgers will be among its first casualties.

Additionally, badgers captured an interesting moment in England’s recent anti-racist struggle. On Parliament Square antifascists were preventing the BNP from marching on the Cenotaph. Then badger activists, in striking furry outfits, appeared to help stop the march of the fascists. The crowd chanted: “Black and white, unite and fight.”

Badgers might be adopted against austerity under the banner of “stop the cull: end austerity”, and the anti-fracking movement could push the message of “badgers against fracking”.

Yet look deeper and there is even more potential. Badgers are diggers. The Diggers were one of England’s most prominent movements for progressive social change. In 1649, after the English Civil War, they occupied land to grow their own food. They proclaimed their aim was to: “Work in righteousness, and lay the Foundation of making the earth a common treasury for all, both rich and poor. That every one that is born in the Land, may be fed by the earth his mother that brought him forth.”

On top of the Diggers, England is not short on inspiring political movements. Sparks could come from the worker solidarity of the Luddites, the mass movement of the Chartists, the call for equality of the Suffragettes or the 20th century call for peace from Greenham Common. All these things could help us reimagine England. Turning to music, arts, poetry, literature and loads of other imaginative and positive things, there is plenty to admire that is English.

So, perhaps this is the start of a discussion, not the end. Maybe it’s time to rekindle a new sense of Englishness, and maybe another England is possible.

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