For all Brexit’s gung-ho, why does Britain still have no national day?
Donald Clarke: You’d think there’d be a British St Patrick’s Day, with Union Jack beer
Former Ukip leader Nigel Farage: his suggestion that June 23rd, when Britain voted to leave the EU, should be declared “independence day” has received surprisingly scant support. File photograph: Vincent Kessler/Reuters
As you can already tell, nobody is certain about the facts here. It depends what you mean by country. It depends what you mean by national day. But, for the purposes of this column, we’re running with the notion that these are the only two countries that don’t celebrate a national day. They get on all right. Denmark is not hindered in its production of TV murder mysteries by the dearth of bank holidays during which men stomp martially across City Hall Square. Our neighbours function without a dedicated celebration of their increasingly fragile union.
What do these two know that everybody else doesn’t? Why do the Faroe Islands still grind to a halt for the death of St Olaf on July 29th? Why is Bahrain still honouring the ascension of Isa bin Salman Al Khalifa on December 16th? Why are we braving Arctic winds to sympathise with chilblained Kansan majorettes on O’Connell Street?
The Danish situation is the more peculiar. There is, on June 5th, something called Constitution Day, but it could not be easily confused with Bastille Day. Many Danes take the afternoon off. But nobody much gets in a nationalistic tizzy.
Impeding the advance
All kinds of complications have impeded the advance of a national day in the United Kingdom. That country is a parcel of semi-autonomous nations, each of which has at least one national feast day. The only one that properly embraces the notion sits at the upper right-hand corner of Ireland. Heck, they celebrate two national days. On Saturday, there will be enthusiastic bellowing in nationalist quarters and, around some unionist hearths, complaints about republicans “hijacking” St Patrick. (Lord Kilclooney, an unlikely recent recruit to Twitter crankdom, has already been down that road. “The republicans have taken over St Patrick and tried to expel all others as is their sectarian policy,” the former John Taylor grumbled on Sunday.) On July 12th, large sections of one community will bang drums while most everybody else takes a week’s holiday in Donegal.
The Scots and the Welsh don’t bother much with St Andrew’s Day or St David’s Day. A glass may be raised. But the main thoroughfares in Cardiff and Edinburgh remain largely unmolested by the giant papier-mâché heads that now parade through Dublin and Galway in mid-March. The English, many embarrassed about the negative implications of nationalism, are as likely to celebrate Shakespeare’s birthday on April 23rd as St George’s Day.
Despite all the faux-patriotic fervour in the wake of the Brexit vote, the UK remains largely uninterested in putting out more flags
That lingering guilt about empire may – as much as erratic competition from the various saints’ days – account for the lack of interest in a United Kingdom national day. There was, for half a century, something called Empire Day. From 1902 until 1958, the second Monday in March was so designated. The bash became a significant celebration and, in 1925, it sat at the centre of a grand British Empire Exhibition. Eventually, Harold Macmillan, that unreadable Tory prime minister, transformed it into “Commonwealth Day”. A few years later, in acknowledgment of decolonisation, he delivered his famous “wind of change” speech. Were the phrase “PC gone mad” then in usage it would surely have been flung in Harold’s direction. At any rate, the brief flirtation with annual patriotic hysteria was tidied away.
Independence from who?
We should also remember that the United Kingdom has never had to secure independence from itself. A staggering number of national days celebrate the relevant state’s disengagement from the British Empire (though not our own). That is the case with the United States, Botswana, India, Myanmar, Pakistan and on and on.
The British constitution formed itself gradually. The Civil War delivered a jolt of parliamentary democracy. The Restoration quickly confirmed continuity. One embarrassing Dutch engagement aside, the nation has not been occupied since the arrival of the Normans. There was no sudden invention. There was no sudden liberation. When would such a day fall even if it were wanted?
You can probably guess where this is going. Following the UK’s vote to leave the EU in 2016, Nigel Farage, sporadic leader of Ukip, unilaterally declared June 23rd as “independence day”. Annually, the British would light fireworks, eat ritual pasties and complain in unison about queues at the post-office. Over the succeeding months there has been no great urge to take up Mr Farage’s suggestion. Despite all the faux-patriotic fervour in the wake of the Brexit vote, notwithstanding the pockets of Little Englander belligerence, the UK remains largely uninterested in putting out more flags. Maybe the Danish and the British have the right idea. After all, if, once a year, they really need a day of patriotic bellowing, Ireland is only a short hop away. And they don’t have to clean up the mess afterwards.