Forget St George - let's celebrate Wat Tyler's day
Time to remember our ancient radical traditions
The Guardian , 18th April 2009
In case you didn’t know – and that would put you in the majority – this Thursday is St George’s Day. If recent years are a guide, traditional English cultural activities on display will include tabloid articles about councils refusing to fly the George Cross in case they offend Muslims, liberal hand-wringing about whether the whole thing is racist or not, and a proud display of massive indifference from everyone else.
The English, these days, do indifference well. To some, this is a good thing: it saves England from the kind of bombastic and sometimes sinister flag-worshipping patriotism that the Americans, for example, go in for. Whether good or bad, it is certainly nothing new. Almost a hundred years ago, in 1915, G K Chesterton published probably the most famous poem ever written about the English, The Secret People, which comes back again and again to the same line: ‘we are the people of England , and we have not spoken yet.’
The English, some would have you believe, have never really spoken much. Those who view St George’s Day with suspicion often claim that this is an essentially reactionary nation, whose people remain in thrall to a dying monarchy, a rose-tinted vision of the past and the collected works of Jeremy Clarkson.
But England , like any nation, has many faces. And if there is an English tradition worth celebrating on this St George’s Day it is not our past triumphs in commerce or Empire, but our tendency towards rebellion, dissent and resistance; a glorious tradition which, if we are not very careful, could soon be defunct just as we need it most.
The English radical tradition can compete with that of any other nation. We, after all, killed our king before the French; we had our revolution before the Americans; we fought against the invasion of the nation by a foreign king and his posse of robber barons before the Scottish.
From the resistance to the Norman Conquest through the great rebellion of 1381, which almost destroyed feudalism, the radical flowering of the Civil Wars, the movements against enclosure, the machine breakers and rick-burners of the early industrial age, the Chartists and the Tolpuddle martyrs, the Suffragettes and the early Labour movement – every ratcheting-up of power and exploitation in England has been met with an angry and often successful reaction from its people. There is nothing indifferent or quietist about this version of the English story. This is a nation it feels good to be a part of.
So where has it gone? When we need it most, why do most of us seem to have abandoned this spirit of resistance and liberty? Why do we live in a nation of CCTV cameras, email surveillance, DNA databases and masked riot police, watching in silence as more and more of our fundamental liberties are stolen by our own government?
Culturally, we are seeing the strip-mining of much of what makes England unique. Our independent shops and our local pubs disappear in their thousands every year. Our rural communities are ravaged by second homes, our high streets are carpet-bombed by superstores, our orchards and our small farms are rooted out at rates unprecedented in our history. We are selling off our health service and our schools. We are told that an ever-rising GDP justifies all of it.
Meanwhile, the English are the victims of a constitutional con trick which allows English legislation to be decided by Scottish and Welsh MPs, but not the other way around. Thus the English are lumbered with, for example, university fees and a market-based NHS, despite the majority of England ’s MPs having voted against both of these things; Scottish and Welsh MPs voted in Westminster to impose them on an unwilling England , despite their own people having rejected the same measures at home.
And what are English doing about all of this? At local level, some are bravely resisting these trends; but most of us seem too busy shopping. There is no rebellion in the offing, no revolution; not even a spate of rick-burning. Has the flame of English rebellion finally guttered out?
‘In all societies’, wrote George Orwell in 1940, ‘the common people must live to some extent against the existing order.’ Orwell reckoned that the spirit of English dissent had been reduced to ‘something that goes on beneath the surface, unofficially and more or less frowned on by the authorities.’ In the 21 st century, this probably means binge-drinking and vandalising speed cameras.
But the times demand more. England is still under the cosh of what William Cobbett, one of our greatest radical writers, called ‘the Thing’ – a voracious capitalist system with an ever-greater appetite. It is not too late to rediscover the righteous anger that coursed through the veins of the Levellers and the Diggers, of Watt Tyler and Thomas Paine. But one thing is clear: if the people of England don’t speak soon, there may be little left worth saying.