The leader of the House of Commons and former Home and Foreign Secretary, Jack Straw MP, has backed calls for a ‘re-branding’ of England’s patron saint, St George.
Writing an article for The Guardian yesterday, Mr Straw acknowledged that the figurehead, whose delineation is more mythical than historic is shared by many nations – including Turkey Lithuania, Portugal, Germany, Greece, Georgia, Moscow, Istanbul, and Beirut.
He also affirmed George’s defiance of the Emperor Diocletian in 303 CE, and says his reputation as “a helper of the poor… spread throughout the world. This - probably accurate - account of his life, then became embellished by the myth about the dragon - which some say originated in what is now Libya.”
Many of Mr Straw’s points echo those made in the report published by the religious think-tank Ekklesia last week. It called for St George’s day to be made a holiday, with an emphasis on England’s role in the global community rather than narrow nationalism.
The focus of the celebration, it said, should be on those who called unjust power to account – echoing the strand of English history concerned with dissent: the Putney Debates, the women’s suffrage movement, the abolitionists, Levellers, Diggers – and in more recent times, efforts to overcome racism, poverty and debt.
Mr Straw did not endorse such a Day of Dissent – indeed he was regarded as a tough Home Secretary by civil liberties campaigners, and fully supported the UK government’s alliance with the US to invade Iraq. He has also been controversial in calling for the Islamic veil to be phased out.
But yesterday the Blackburn MP wished to stress his more progressive aspect. Referring to the Diocletian example, he declared: “I so resent the hijacking of St George, and his emblem … by those on the far-right who have attempted - albeit unsuccessfully - to monopolise his name and flag for their partisan ends. I wonder if any of those who have wrapped themselves in a St George banner and chanted objectionable, racist slogans, ever realised that the man himself was a Turkish Arab?”
He continued: “There's another, too. Saint George was a Palestinian Christian. There are still tens of thousands of his successors in Gaza and the West Bank - 100,000 at the last count. It's a story one rarely hears - of how Christian and Muslim Palestinians live and work - and suffer - side by side in the Occupied Territories. Some of the most prominent figures of the Palestinian national movement have been Christians, including George Habash, founder of the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine, and today Hanan Ashrawi, a former Palestinian Authority Minister.”
Mr Straw concluded: “St George is an example of the kind of society I hope we all want - except those bigots who wear his flag but know nothing of what it means.”
Ekklesia’s proposal for a reconsideration of the meaning of St George has been welcomed in many quarters, though it has been attacked in the Daily Mail, The Times and the Daily Telegraph.
Meanwhile the BBC's website discussion on the idea of a national day, which also cites Ekklesia’s report, has received a flurry of interest, with some 3,000 posts.
Also on Guardian Comment-is-free: Ekklesia director Simon Barrow, Waiving the flag?