Allan Massie: National days are un-British affair

I AM writing this on Shakespeare’s birthday, which, as it happens, is also the day of England’s patron saint, St George.
Brits are not naturally disposed to celebrating national days. Picture: TSPLBrits are not naturally disposed to celebrating national days. Picture: TSPL
Brits are not naturally disposed to celebrating national days. Picture: TSPL

Nobody can sensibly doubt that Shakespeare matters more than George, who is the patron of chivalry, England, Portugal and Aragon.

Not much is known about the saint; it’s not even clear who he was or when and how he died. Chambers Biographical Dictionary says “he may have been tortured and put to death by Diocletian at Nicomedia on 23 April, 303; or he may have suffered (c 250) at Lydda in Palestine where his alleged tomb is exhibited”. The story of his fight with a dragon is, one assumes, mythical. But, for some reason, “the Crusades gave a great impetus to his cult, and many chivalrous orders assumed him as their patron.”

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Edward Gibbon was mistaken in identifying him with George of Cappodocia, a tax-collector torn in pieces by the mob in Alexandria. We may however be sure that he never set foot in England. “So what?” an English friend may say, “your 
St Andrew never came to Scotland and the story of his bones finding their way to Fife is a load of old cobblers.” Quite so, point taken.

We’re not actually much good at celebrating national days. There’s nothing in these islands to compare with the 4th of July in the United States or the 14th of that month, Bastille Day, in France.

We do celebrate St Andrew’s Day with dinners and dances, though it is held, I think, in more honour by Scots abroad than by those of us at home. There is probably more enthusiasm for the suppers at which we commemorate our national bard, Rabbie Burns, than for our patron saint.

The Irish may do a bit better with St Patrick, though I rather think that lively celebrations of St Patrick’s Day originated among the Irish in New York and Boston and have, as it were been repatriated to the “ould sod”.

The Welsh seem to be aware of St David’s Day, but it is only quite recently that the English have taken much notice of St George and their football fans started waving his flag rather than the Union one.

For rather more than half a century we had Empire Day. This was instituted in 1902, the year after Queen Victoria’s death, and was celebrated on her birthday, 24 May. It was supposed to help bind the Empire together and it was indeed met with enthusiasm in Canada, Australia and New Zealand. Later, it became Commonwealth Day and, later still, the date was shifted to March and nobody except official bodies pays any heed to it now.

I suppose the nearest we have ever come to a British national day was Armistice Day, instituted almost immediately after the end of the 1914-18 war, when the whole nation came to a silent standstill every year at 11am on 11 November. But this of course was an act of memory, of respect for the fallen, not a celebration.

Something was lost when it became Remembrance Sunday, rather than Armistice Day; nevertheless it still comes closer than anything else to offering an annual moment when we are united, sharing the same thoughts and emotions.

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We have local festivals, or occasions, such as the Common Riding days in the Borders or Up-Helly-Aa in Shetland, which do serve as a statement of community and expression of communal feeling, but we don’t really “do” national days. The attempt to convert Hogmanay from an informal family, friends and neighbours saturnalia into a Scottish Winter Festival may be deemed commercially desirable, and indeed successful, but has damaged, even destroyed, Hogmanay’s peculiar character.

The point about 4 July in the US and Bastille Day in France is that they make a statement about the character and ethos of the two republics. The former, properly called Independence Day, reaffirms Americans’ entitlement to certain “inalienable rights”, notably “life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness”. Bastille Day, likewise, reaffirms the French Republic’s commitment to “liberty, equality, fraternity”. Inevitably, both states have frequently failed to live up to the high ideals thus expressed, or to secure these rights for all their citizens. Nevertheless, their annual reaffirmation serves as an expression of national feeling – even though in both countries there are inevitably a few people who feel, for one reason or another, excluded from participation.

If we have nothing comparable to these days – or to the independence days celebrated by countries that were once part of our Empire – or indeed to the anniversaries of revolutionary days celebrated in the old Soviet Union and elsewhere, this is perhaps because of the nature of our history, and says very little about national character, if indeed such a thing may be held to exist.

There has been no break in our history comparable to the American War of Independence or the great revolutions in France and Russia. Even the three events that led to the creation of the United Kingdom – the accession of James VI to the English throne in 1603, the Revolution of 1688-9 and the Treaty of Union of 1707 – may properly be seen as readjustments within the governing class without much, if anything, in the way of popular participation. Accordingly, there is no day to fix on as there is in the US and France. Here in Scotland, for instance, even Bannockburn Day has gone unremarked, except by a small number of enthusiasts. It certainly can’t be called a national occasion.

No doubt if we vote for independence next year, an independence day celebration will be decreed. Unless the vote to leave the UK was overwhelming, which doesn’t seem likely, any such celebration might advisedly be low-key– at first anyway – if only because there would be a good many Scots who saw nothing to celebrate in being deprived of one part of their dual Scots-British identity. Otherwise it would be divisive, with one part of the nation triumphing over the other, and this is just what a national day shouldn’t be.