The Lost Tribes: The Church of England, the Unions, the Political Parties-Even Our Football Team-Have Let Us Down. Yet Our Need to Belong Makes Us Look for New Allegiances, Whether They Be Book Clubs or the Kabbalah Cult. It Can Also Make Us Putty in Unscrupulous Hands

Article excerpt

The slim red cross of St George has been making a comeback for some years now, and no one has waved it more eagerly than football fans. Given the frequency with which they end up dazed by beer, as they wrangle with the police in some faraway country, this has not always been a happy association. Much has been made of the class divisions it illuminates: St George might be essential decoration for a white van, but he would not be seen dead on a silver-grey Mercedes. There are also racial overtones: English nationalism has some sour streaks, and as an expression of national pride--even on the joshing, pantomime level of football rivalry--this sort of flag-waving remains a far-from-inclusive gesture. At least one pub chain in Birmingham has banned the emblems; London's black cabs sport them at their peril.

Perhaps the flag really can be recaptured from its more extreme standard-bearers and given a fresh coat of rejuvenating face paint. If national pride could be cheerful and good-tempered, who could possibly object? Certainly, it has been busily marketed: shops are heaving with St George's mugs, wigs, pens, banners, stickers, balloons and bunting. Given that the man himself was a mythical Turkish knight, glimpsed in visions by Christian crusaders, and merged with Arthurian and classical stories, his magical reappearance among us, after so many years secreted away in the Union Jack, is both novel and anachronistic, a radical piece of symbolism and, at a time when the national identity is both fluid and under challenge, something of a throwback.

If this call for tribal solidarity--raised by such disparate groups as the UK Independence Party (Ukip), English football fans and the BNP--strikes some as unwelcome, no one can deny that there is a vacuum waiting to be filled. Many of the old national networks, the binding agents around which society was organised, have frayed or been looted in recent decades. The various component parts of the Union flag have been separated and restitched as individual national icons by political devolution, so it is no longer politically sensitive or desirable for an English man or woman to wave the Union flag--indeed, it is rarely glimpsed outside Northern Ireland and the Olympic Games. It is possible to argue that "Britain" remains an attractive idea--a political and cultural union that makes mini-multiculturalists of us all--but more energy is going into detaching the component parts than in riveting them together. In popular culture, "Britain" grows ever more distant, a historic, public-school notion cherishable only by retired colonels and mandarins. The market is favouring more compact units of pride.

Other once-proud institutions have been dissolving, too. The Church of England and the historic trade unions have grown quiet or been modernised (now that we have so few coal miners, shipbuilders or motor manufacturers) into near-oblivion, and family ties have been stretched, as advanced communications and job mobility uproot and whirl people across both the country and the world. Even the old class divisions have been criss-crossed by bolder badges of identity connected to race, sex or religion. As a result, England itself often feels like an empty concept, almost an absence--a grey area between the more vivid nationalisms of Scotland, Wales, Ireland and elsewhere.

These may be parochial issues, but they chime with larger forces. Across the world, liberation movements or aspirant "nations" are chafing at the real or imagined strictures of modern geopolitics, and clamouring for recognition (if not power). They may be tribal in the original sense, or religious; they may be political or ethnic. In Africa, where some 5,000 tribes have been jammed by centuries of colonial rule (and misrule) into 50-plus countries, the results of this friction are horrific, and we see similar eruptions of local identity everywhere from the Middle East to the Philippines and from Spain to India. …