Growing up in South London I was pretty comfortable in my own skin, developing a clear sense of who I was. But I was also aware that my sense of identity was complicated - I’m English, a South Londoner and a Muslim of Pakistani heritage.
As a child, my attitude towards being English was very different. Englishness was experienced through a prism of the St. George’s flag, the flying of which was a hostile symbol for me and many other ethnic communities. Seeing it flying on council estates, I would walk quickly, assuming the occupiers weren’t friendly to someone of my ethnicity and religion. Growing older, I campaigned for highlighting the rises in racist crimes in London, particularly around the time of the tragic murder of Stephen Lawrence. I visited Tower Hamlets in 1993–94 to campaign against a BNP councillor, and saw for the first time the Cross of St George displayed for political purposes.
Yet attitudes towards Englishness have evolved – it isn’t a static concept. Sport can play a major role in self-identification, and I remember well how Euro ‘96 encouraged a blossoming of Englishness. Not only was tournament football coming home, but it was also a homecoming for the Cross of St George, saved from political extremism, and placed centre-stage in a way it had not been for many ages. And every football tournament that England has qualified for since has been marked by St George’s flags proudly flying from cars, houses and workplaces.
Many of our friends and neighbours across our country possess a distinct richness of identity, and on St. Georges Day this should be an immense source of pride, not something to be hijacked by those with extreme nationalistic tendencies, or those seeking to divide our country.
Patriotism is defined and emphasised by the richness of our other identities – be it Scottish, Welsh, English, Londoner, Yorkshire, the football team we support, our faith, or our ethnic background. And that’s why I’m optimistic about the future, and the country in which my daughters will grow up – a country that celebrates the best of many cultures, societies and identities.