OPINION - Sadiq Khan: On St George's day, I'm so glad we have reclaimed our flag from the far Right

 (Jordan Pettitt/PA Wire)
(Jordan Pettitt/PA Wire)

England is a nation small in size but grand in vision. On this day of celebration, it is an opportunity for people to come together and mark with joy our country’s traditions, culture and history.

The England I know and love is a country where we are proud of our heritage and our heroes. Where we look after one another, especially in times of crisis. Where we cheer each other’s triumphs. And where we take pride in remembering all that we have achieved. We are a nation which gave birth to parliamentary democracy. One of our proudest daughters pioneered computer science, one of our proudest sons invented the World Wide Web. We are responsible for giving the world the words of Shakespeare and Jane Austen, and the songs of The Beatles, Amy Winehouse and Stormzy.

For me, the greatest feature of our country is the limitless opportunities it affords its people. This country gave me – the son of a bus driver and seamstress – the chance to go from a south London council estate to being Mayor of the greatest city in the world. Serving as Mayor of our nation’s capital is a profound honour and privilege because it is a chance to support Londoners to meet their potential, just as I was supported throughout my life.

As well as celebrating our successes, St George’s Day is often a time when we discuss what it means to be English. History shows it is not always easy to define. Many will recall the reductive, cruel Tebbit test – coined by the former Tory MP and Cabinet Minister – which sought to determine the strength of allegiance of all South Asian and Caribbean immigrants and their children by which cricket team they cheered. It is of course entirely foolish to believe that a person’s loyalty to our nation can be measured by the feelings invoked by a badge on a set of cricket whites. It is measured by a commitment to protect our democracy and the rule of law, to preserve our institutions and to uphold shared values like respect for others, equality and justice.

One of the many great principles underpinning our country is that we can have multiple identities and are not subjected to a bogus loyalty test, where we are forced to choose between our flag and our family history, our home or our heritage. I am a proud son of Tooting, I am proud to be a Londoner, English, British, of Pakistani ethnic origin and Asian heritage, European and of Islamic faith. There is no contradiction between any of those. And no tension between patriotism and pluralism.

We must reject those who claim to be patriots by...trying to narrow what it means to be English as a way of excluding others

At a time when forces are trying to divide us and tear at our social fabric, we must reject those who claim to be patriots by talking down our country and trying to narrow what it means to be English as a way of excluding others. There is nothing more patriotic than wanting your country to be better. And a true patriot is someone who pushes it to be so. Patriotism can be seen in our nurses who care for the sick, and in the churches, synagogues, temples, gurdwaras and mosques that have fed their communities and provided comfort during the cost-of-living crisis. It can be seen in those who serve in our Armed Forces, in business owners who provide the dignity of a job and a living, and in the countless, everyday acts of kindness, decency and solidarity.

I was raised to be proud of being British – and I have been for as long as I can remember. But the enormous pride I now feel in being English took longer to develop. When I was growing up, the St George’s flag was associated with the far right. But for me that changed when I witnessed England famously demolish the Dutch at Euro 96. After the final whistle, tens of thousands waved the red cross at Wembley and sang of football’s return home. It was pure ecstasy. In that very moment it was as if the St George’s flag had been transformed into a symbol of national unity.

As we commemorate our national patron Saint – and as we approach another Euros – let us do so by flying our flag with pride. Let us honour all our timeless traditions, except the one about underachieving in football tournaments on foreign soil! And let us stay true to our values by channelling that famous English spirit, and by cherishing and celebrating our diversity.

From my family to yours, Happy St George’s Day.

Sadiq Khan is Mayor of London