WHICH MAN IS THE REAL THREAT TO THE UNION?; as Nationalism Stirs South of the Border on St George's Day, an English Writer Hopes His Countrymen Are Not Going to Embrace Separatism Just as Scotland Seems Set to Turn Away from the SNP

Article excerpt

MOTHER always told me if I scratched a rash it would only get worse.

This was a variation on the bosses' line in the strike-bound 1970s: "It will never get better if you picket." They meant a different sort of scab, admittedly .

When it comes to nationalism in the British Isles, mother's advice is being ignored. The evidence is that politicians and the media are scratching at tribal sensitivities.

At this rate, the whole lot of us could come out in hives.

A vote-hungry Alex Salmond wraps himself in the saltire and speaks of the "Braveheart Factor", blithely ignoring Hollywood's ludicrous glamorisation of that tale.

In newly-devolved Cymru, Welsh language fundamentalists are running around demanding their little-used tongue be supported at great cost to the (British) exchequer.

South of the Border, meanwhile, a nascent English nationalism will capitalise on today's St George's Day celebrations. It is a movement whose effects are only just beginning to be considered and it is too early to tell how it will all turn out.

Until recently, hardly anyone bothered with St George's Day.

Most of us Anglos, even patriotic ones, were uncertain of its exact date. We knew it was the same day as Shakespeare's birthday but, er, was that in April or November? Pass.

Today, it will be a different story. Red and white flags will flutter from taxis and the cabbies in their sarf London accents will tell you it is "igh time we got some respect, mate".

Church bells will be rung, St George's Day cards have been on sale in the High Streets and the English media are giving it unprecedented attention. Radio 5's Nicky Campbell phone-in is planning a serious discussion of English nationalism today and the papers will be full of analysis.

There has been the row over the BBC's guidelines on the use of the word British, an edict widely perceived as overly sensitive to Celts.

There was the court ruling forbidding an English pub from opening late on St George's Day, even though it was permitted to extend its hours on St Patrick's Day.

And there has been an agenda-setting book by historian Simon Heffer, which says: "If Scotland wants independence, let us be shot of her!"

Pandora's box is well and truly opened.

English nationalism has for so long been a joke. The worst manifestations were the soccer thugs who followed their teams to Europe and collected gendarmes' helmets the way young boys used to collect stamps.

But, otherwise, English nationalism, well, it was nothing more than bowler-hatted Thompson and Thompson in the Tintin books, or nerds with Frank Spencer tanktops and a nagging wife. The English were held to be placid buffoons, good for a hiding at Hampden Park.

Anyone who tried to stereotype a Scot as a tight-fisted drunk or a Welshman as a whingeing sheep-worrier was attacked as a racist. …