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29 June 2006 Edition

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OPINION: English fans ditch Union Jack for Cross of St George

Signs of an emerging English separatism?

As England World Cup fans ditch the Union Jack for the Cross of St George MICK DERRIG argues that it may signal the emergence of an English nationalism that could lead to the ultimate break-up of the British state.

In an ideal world no sensible person would spare a moments thought for flags and emblems. We do not, of course, exist in an ideal situation. You could write a reasonably accurate potted history of the Irish republican struggle by recourse only to flags and emblems as your signposts to changes in national consciousness and British responses.

The flag, above all others, that has represented the continuing difficulties of Ireland's British problem is, of course, the Union Jack. Beloved of loyalists in the Six Counties, English neo-Nazis and Rangers supporters it is an in-your-face statement about the territorial claims of the Westminster state.

During the weeks of the World Cup it is hard to turn on any British TV channel and avoid the iconic pictures of Bobby Moore and his teammates of 1966 jigging around Wembley with the Jules Rimet Trophy. If you look at the grainy footage or any of the photographs at Wembley that day the dominant flag is the Union Jack. Was this a British triumph or an English one?

One of the casualties of the predatory expansion of England in these islands has been the whole concept of the English as a distinct people. This British construction, first muted by a Scottish king on the English throne, made it easier for players on the Celtic fringe to get in on the imperial act. By the time that the London state started to be a player in the imperial game in the Caribbean it was essential that all ethnic differences on the other island were put to bed.

Only the Highlanders above the Great Glen remained Albanaich. They had to be dealt with. Dealt with they were by the Brits. It is no coincidence that the history I was taught as a child at school in Scotland in the 1960s was British History and it started in 1750. A nice round figure and four years after Culloden.

In England the British myth was needed for equally important geo-political reasons. Britishness allowed incorporation of the conquered. It made imperialist sense. The price to pay was their own distinct national identity as English people. Now that 300-year-old constructive ambiguity maybe unravelling.

It isn't being unwound by angry Scots yearning to breathe free, but by people in England who want to be, well, English. There is a pleasing symmetry to the current dance routine in Westminster. Gordon Browne has launched a PR campaign for people to be proud of their Britishness. This isn't aimed at the Celtic nations of Scotland and Wales to prevent them going further to the separatist cause, but it is aimed at ordinary English people. He wants them to think of themselves as British first and English second. If they do that they will, he hopes, forgive the fact that this dour son of the manse is horribly Scottish.

Jeremy Paxman, an Englishman with his finger on the pulse of his nation stated last year that he personally was irked by the "Scottish Raj" governing him. He has had some famous spats with John Reid after he made disparaging remarks about Reid's rough West of Scotland manner.

Gordon Browne now finds himself in a situation very similar to the Scottish nobles who wanted to move in on the English court through dynastic marriage and alliance from the mid-16th century onwards. That made religious, but above all business sense for these "lowland" Protestant lairds. This game plan ended with James Stuart, son of Mary Queen of Scots, on the throne of England. He was part of a process where the Southern protestant Scots had embarked on a process to make themselves less Scottish and more agreeable to the English. Any Scots who wanted to remain Scottish a la Bannockburn had to be dealt with. They were finally dealt with at Culloden and the survivors ethnically cleansed with a ruthlessness that would make the Serbs blush.

Despite Browne's clarion call for people to be proud of being British the English crowds currently in German are very clear who they are. They are English.

The politically aware English person is more and more aware of Tam Dayell's famous "West Lothian Question". During the 1970s devolution debate he stated that with a Scottish assembly in Edinburgh a Scottish MP in Westminster could vote on what happened in Blackburn in North of England but not in Blackburn in West Lothian in Scotland. Scottish MPs have been enacting West Lothian questions since the Scottish assembly was set up and it is starting to rankle with more and more English people.

English people are more and more thinking of themselves as English and just that.

The growth of the flying of the Cross of St.George will, perhaps, by the next generation of historians, be put down as the first public manifestation of an embryonic English separatism.

Until now any political assessment of the pressures on the United Kingdom polity came from the "Celtic Fringe"- the demands of Irish republicanism in the North and Scottish and Welsh nationalism in Britain. Perhaps the greatest threat will come from the people who initially most benefited from the creation of Britain, but ultimatley suffered the greatest cultural cost - The English. They now want to fly their flag to say who they are, not who they invaded or who they conquered. This is to be welcomed. Even if it causes psychological problems for some Celts who wish to remain conqurered.

Clearly this process has just begun to surface above the waterline of sporting events and popular culture. This growing awareness of English nationality has long-term consequences for loyalism in the North and, indeed, the polity that Irish republicanism was set up to counter.

It could be that our old enemy doesn't want to be our enemy any more. In such a scenario 'Ulster loyalism' is in even more of a quandary than before. What specifically will they be loyal to? The De Rigeur England top on the Shankhill becomes even more pitiable in this scenario. In that sprit it does this Fenian's heart proud to see a symbol of an independent England flying proudly over any sporting occasion - doesn't mean I want them to win anything though!

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