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A tradition of navel gazing

This St George's Day we will engage in a traditional English pursuit - worrying about what Englishness is

Comment Is Free, 22nd April 2008

Tomorrow, on St George's Day, I will be taking part in one of my favourite English traditions. It does not, unlike foxhunting, require the death of a wild animal. It will not, unlike morris dancing, result in me being sniggered at - at least, not in person. It is not an ancient tradition at all, but a gloriously modern one.

I consider myself to be a English nationalist: of the civic, rather than the ethnic variety, and of the left rather than the right. At this time of year, people like me emerge from the woodwork and try and make the case that there should be more of us around. For a long time we were either dismissed as Nazis or embraced by Simon Heffer - both equally alarming prospects. Then, for a while, people sniggered at us and called us an irrelevance. Today, though, we are starting to be taken seriously. A mainstream, socially acceptable form of English nationalism may be tentatively emerging from the sticky swamps of our post-war national identity crisis.

The evidence? Well, apart from the obligatory plug for my own recent book, you might want to take a look at Billy Bragg's book making the case for a "progressive patriotism", or a forthcoming and potentially fascinating compilation on the same subject. There are also websites engaged in outlining the current constitutional injustices which discriminate against the English, seeking to define the meaning of the nation to its people or campaigning for English self-determination. There are even groundbreaking musical collaborations which seek to reinvent English traditional music for an ethnically diverse nation.

The case that we civic nationalists are making is twofold: firstly, that the current UK constitution militates against England, and that this needs to change. This is a position which is now so uncontroversial that everyone from the Conservative party to the SNP can agree on it. The second case is that the things which make us culturally English - our folk culture, if you like - are under threat from the rampaging machinery of global capitalism: a machinery which eats up everything from the traditional English boozer to our native linguistic quirks, and spits out only placeless corporate blandness in their wake.

Which is where that modern tradition comes in: when we try and make this case, convention dictates that we are greeted with the now-traditional response - at least if we are talking to a member of the liberal middle classes. Ah, it runs, but who are "the English"? What is "Englishness"? What makes "us" who we are? What does "we" mean anyway? If I put everything in "inverted commas" can I avoid having to answer my own questions?

Having to constantly answer this question is a key feature of our national identity. Englishness, in other words, can be identified by a need to constantly ask what Englishness is. The same question - what makes you who you are? - could be asked of the people of any nation on Earth, from Zimbabwe to Pakistan. But the English only ever seem to ask it of themselves, usually concluding that we can't pin down what makes us us and not anybody else because, well, that wouldn't be very "inclusive" would it?

Our need to do this is probably the last remnant of that identity crisis: the fate of an imperial power which long ago lost its empire, became home to many of its former victims, and as a result was both ashamed and unsure of itself. Perhaps this was a necessary phase. In many ways, it has probably made us better people: more self-aware, less racist and bombastic, more open to the world. But we have surely had enough of it now. Too much more and we will lose everything that makes the country worth living in, while we torture ourselves with esoteric discussions which benefit precisely no one.

What does it mean to be English? For my money, it has nothing to do with where your parents come from, what colour your skin is or whether you give a toss about the (British) monarchy. It has, instead, to do with whether you feel you have an investment in the nation, at whatever level is most meaningful to you. It means you have a sense of its history and its culture and a feeling for its places and its quirks. It means you belong to a country that, like any other, means different things to all of its people - but does, crucially, have a meaning.

It means, in other words, that you care enough to want to answer the question. But also that, if you're anything like me, you're looking forward to the day when people will stop asking it.