Cast your mind back ten years or more. I can remember all the way back to the 1970s. For most of that period, to see a house in the UK flying a flag from a pole was rare. It was also deemed by most people to be odd. Now, I just don’t mean the Union flag, or the St George’s cross, the Saltire or, for that matter, the coolest flag, the one with a bloomin’ dragon on it (I mean, come on – it’s a bloomin’ dragon!). I mean any flag whatsoever. The British were not in the habit of personal flag flying unless for very particular circumstances such as the Queen’s Silver Jubilee. Indeed, where I grew up in Pembrokeshire there was only ever one flag you might occasionally see being flown outside a private house – the stars and stripes. There was an RAF airbase nearby, RAF Brawdy, which hosted a US Air Force contingent, some of whom took houses off-base. Some of them flew flags on poles from their gardens. And, well, we’d smile. Americans, right? Bless ‘em, they’re not like us.
Why do Americans so invest in their flag, and feel the need for these ostentatious public expressions? A young nation might feel compelled to overcompensate rather, to assert itself amongst the older nations but come on, the importance, and yes, even pre-eminence of the US has been obvious to all since The Second World War. So, what else? Why might a country founded by religious extremists ejected from the civilised world who then embarked upon one of the most successful genocidal campaigns in all human history wish to reduce their sense of national identity and history to a flappy graphic; whilst insisting to the world that it, and by implication they, embodied the great moral good and hope for all humanity?
A flag can provide a handy strategy for avoidance of uncomfortable complexities.
Now, don’t get me wrong. The flag has its place. It’s a shorthand, a reference. It can be useful as a rallying point in sport or, sadly, war. If one is especially impressed by royalty, what else might one do but wave a flag for the Queen as she rides by? For those moments of enormity, where the mere articulation of words will never be up to the challenge anyway, such as Remembrance Sunday, or to cover yet another coffin of a returned hero, then yes, a flag serves as synecdoche for all the feelings that words never quite manage to encapsulate, feelings of belonging and duty and gratitude.
There is, very definitely, a place for a flag.
But what the flag – any flag – isn’t, is a substitute for consideration, thought, for knowledge of history, for moral deliberation, and for understanding between peoples. A flag doesn’t do that. It isn’t for that. Indeed, the danger of the flag is that, as we have seen repeatedly through human history, it is presented as an alternative to consideration and understanding. After all, consideration and understanding are demanding, require a confrontation with complexity, a complexity that may well throw up, amidst all those spurs to pride and celebration, some uncomfortable truths. History is not supposed to be a sanitised folk tale affording a nation a warm rosy glow. History is supposed to be about interrogating complexity, about seeking out a better understanding. And the complexity that a historical interrogation must be expected to reveal is a problem for the many who want simplicity, warm rosy glows, comfort, and an infantilised relationship with the world-spanning history of a civilisation a few thousand years in the making, informed by countless cultures as they invaded us and then we invaded them. History is there to make some sense of all that; hopefully to enhance our understanding of each other and, indeed, the human condition itself.
But “sod that for a game of soldiers”, say some, “I just want my prejudices backed up. Gimme a flag to fawn to”.
We’ve all seen the Nuremburg Rallies footage, serried ranks of flags, flags, flags, the swastika again and again and again, insistent, the focus for all adoration, the totem for a nation’s idea of itself and its intent upon the world, insisted upon beyond the point of absurdity and well into the realm of the hysterical. Funny, hilarious – until you scratch the surface to find what all that has been deployed to disguise. The hysterical flag fetishism that obviates the unpalatable fact of extermination camps for Jews, Gypsies, the disabled and homosexuals. The flag that speaks of an encapsulation of national identity that will succeed only by exclusion and reductionism, and which requires a blind, mindless obedience to the authority that wields it.
Thing is, there’s nothing special about the Nazi’s splayed spider in white circle on a field of red. That design is not blighted by any magical, mystical evil. It’s just a design, a graphic, a bit more involved than a tricolour, a little less complex than a Stars and Stripes or a Union flag and obviously, just nowhere near so bloomin’ cool as a bloomin’ dragon (cos nothing is – it’s a bloomin’ great dragon!). What the swastika (originally a Hindu sign for peace) might serve to promote, excuse and occlude could as easily be promoted, excused and occluded by tricolours, stipes, stars and crosses. Even, I’m afraid, dragons. Because it isn’t about which flag, it’s about how a flag, any flag, is deployed, by whom, why, and what they use it for.
Now consider the last few years, the Brexit vote and its aftermath. I have been part of the protests against Brexit outside parliament where we were often confronted by people waving the Union flag as we waved our flags. The other side would often chant at us “we’ve got a better flag than you” to which I would respond, pointing at their Union flag, “That IS OUR flag”. Because it is. We flew the Union flag too. I’d be waving the bloomin’ dragon and the gold stars on blue of the Council of Europe (which is not in fact, the EU flag – the Council of Europe has 47 members and whilst the treaties that are the basis for the EU do stem from the Council of Europe, the EU has only 27 members. We are, to this day, members of the Council of Europe. It is important to know what a flag is and what it is intended to stand for), but the Union flag is MY flag. Contrary to the ignorant prejudices of the louts opposite, I was not campaigning for the EU. I was campaigning for the good of the UK, which was best served through membership of the EU. I was campaigning in support of Churchill’s great strategy for the countering of fascism, which came from the Council of Europe and developed over decades into the EU. I was campaigning to oppose rising fascism. I was campaigning to be as British as British can be, because the British oppose fascism. It’s sort of like our folk dancing (we don’t talk about Morris).
Contrary to what those guys tried to make out, we at SODEM flew all the flags. Yes, the gold stars on blue, but also the Union flag, the Saltire, the Cross of St George, the Irish tricolour, the Ulster Banner and, of course, the bloomin’ dragon. And sometimes people came to join us from around the UK and brought St. Piran’s flag (the Cornish flag) or the flag of Yorkshire, or various others besides. These flags flew with all the others, because we did not have one flag. We had all the flags, all the identities. We were diverse in identity and we celebrated them all. And the flag of the Council of Europe was flown because it facilitated all those other identities, but it did not replace them, which had been, of course, its great contribution to peace in Ireland.
Indeed, Steve Bray made a new flag, the Unity flag, a splicing the Council of Europe flag and the Union flag. And why not? The Union flag is itself a splicing of three flags – the Cross of St George, the Scot’s Saltire and St Patrick’s Saltire (obviously, there’s no bloomin’ dragon cos that would just take over. Who’d care about the crosses if there was a bloomin’ dragon on there? You can see the problem. It’s a bloomin’ dragon).
Whereas the guys on the other side had just the Union flag and yes, sometimes, the Cross of St George (if we don’t count the flags for political parties – they flew UKIP and Brexit Party flags, which, of course, brings us back to the swastika which become the de facto national flag of Nazi Germany, but was originally a political party’s flag). For us flags were an opportunity to open things up, to celebrate breadth, for those guys flags were a means to closing things down, to reducing and narrowing perspective. And often they raised the bleat “how come you can fly your dragon and it’s not fascist or racist but if we fly the St George it is?” To which, of course, the answer is that flying the St George’s Cross isn’t racist or fascist. It’s the flying it as though it trumps all other flags and deploying it as a means to closing down discussion that is the racist or sometimes even fascist bit. The raising of that flag to quell other flags, to pretend it presented some final word, some answer to all the other identities, all the other questions: that’s the problem. Ours was a community of identities, theirs an assertion of superiority based in nothing more than totemic, blind, unquestioning faith, a position adopted merely because looking at the questions raised by our history was terrifying for them. History, properly pursued, didn’t give them the Boys Own romp of Johnny foreigner put in his place by the plucky British, but rather a web of competing interests where sure, in serving our own interest we may have brought a great deal of development to the world, but there were human costs to that. And any narrative that doesn’t cast them as the hero (even though we’re often talking decades or centuries before their births) is just too uncomfortable for them. The poor dears.
The times one of them asked me “was Churchill racist?” and I answered “he was a complex man, a product of his time, a Renaissance man in some ways, a painter and writer, an historian and a romantic, and yet a patrician, who, it must be remembered, started out as something of a radical for his time. And yet many of the prejudices of his time are evident in him, although he was open to other cultures and had a deep respect, for instance, for Islam. And yet he could categorise, and not always in a nice way, racial groups. But in the end, it must be admitted, he led the world in the defeat of the worst racists the world has seen”, and they’d respond “don’t give me that – answer the question”. I had answered the question, just not with a “yes” or a “no”. Because for adults, not all questions may be answered by just yes or no. Just as, for adults, complex questions of history may not be answered with a stripy, starry, or even dragony flappy graphic.
And now here we are in 2021, and it is undeniable that something has changed. British government ministers, which means Conservative Government ministers, seem incapable of appearing in a TV interview unless backed by multiple Union flags. It seems our new normal, along with working from home and Zoom meetings, is also to include the sort of flag veneration that we, as a people, once found to be either hilarious or darkly troubling. One, perhaps, ought not be so very discombobulated that the Covid-19 briefings from number 10 have featured Union flags in the background. The flag does resonate for some, it might afford some comfort. The deployment of a national totem might, in such circumstances, provide a focus that we must come together, all of us Brits together, united to combat this disease, making common sacrifice for the good of all, notwithstanding a certain person’s cross-country trips to test the eyesight. However, whilst I can admit of this latitude, it is perhaps worthy of note, that when press conferences were given in the thick of the Falklands war, there is no Union flag evident behind Ian McDonald. But then, of course, we were in that war, yet again opposing fascists, and we wouldn’t have wished to have muddied the waters by using fascist iconography. Indeed – I invite you (when you’ve finished reading my wonderful piece here, obvs!) to try a little experiment. Do yourself a little Google image search of Winston Churchill and count all the times he posed in front of a Union flag. Go on, do it.
This Conservative regime seems intent on pressing the Union flag upon us beyond the degree we have so far seen even in times of war.
So it was perfectly natural for Charlie Stayt, on BBC Breakfast Time show of Thursday 18 March, to gently rib Robert Jenrick, Secretary of State for Housing, Communities and Local Government and Granting Planning Permission to Party Donors, about the Union flag indiscreetly positioned at the back of the room. He mentioned that it was smaller than the flags some of Jenrick’s colleagues had been seen to sport, and the mics picked up some studio sniggering as Jenrick stoically maintained the fixed smile of one who wonders when those firing squads will be ready. Indeed, co-host Naga Munchetty then noted that there was a portrait of The Queen in the background too, the implication being that Jenrick had definitely had his patriotism Weetabix.
Well, of course Stayt and Munchetty mentioned it! We British are the nation of Spitting Image and Swift. Pointing out the absurdity of our ruling classes has been amongst our proudest traditions for centuries. The pomposity of Jenrick invited the admittedly crude satire (one suspects anything more subtle might have been wasted on him) of invoking a notion of flag envy, riffing on penis envy, as the Minister sought to bolster his conspicuous display of patriotism with an image of our Queen herself.
But it didn’t end there. When Munchetty later “liked” the tweets that commented on the incident, she was reprimanded by the BBC and constrained to publish a statement saying “I liked tweets today that were offensive in nature about the use of the British flag as a backdrop in a government interview this morning. I have since removed these likes.”
Indeed, 17 rather hysterical Conservative MPs were moved to write a letter stating “We have been inundated with complaints from constituents on this matter. We feel that the hosts need reminding that the B in BBC stands for British and that the comments and attitudes on display towards both our flag and our Queen were inappropriate and also disrespectful.”
But what was “inappropriate and disrespectful” about the presenters attitude towards flag and Queen? They made no comment on flag or Queen. For it was not the fact of the Union flag or Her Majesty that occasioned the derision of a BBC TV studio (not to mention, much of the Nation), but rather a politician’s conspicuous exploitation of the Union flag and Her Majesty.
Munchetty works for the BBC. So, perhaps it is not too outré (oh, sorry, French word – is that allowed?) to suggest a connection between her reprimand and the recent accession of Tim Davie (one-time Council candidate for the Conservative Party in Hammersmith and deputy chairman of the Hammersmith and Fulham Conservative party in the 1990s) to the post of Director General of the BBC (so, no worries regarding any political bias there). Davie has proudly proclaimed his agenda of ending the “left wing bias” of a BBC which had long since ceased to report any news especially harmful to the current regime, such as when the courts found against the government twice in one day (yes, it got mentioned somewhere on the BBC website, but not on the news or Newsnight). One of his first acts was to cancel the popular BBC2 satire show “The Mash Report”, because it was, after all, lefty tripe or something, despite featuring Geoff Northcott whose entire USP is that he is a right-wing comedian.
In a moment of solidarity, Huw Edwards, BBC news anchor, posted a photo of himself before a flag. But it wasn’t the Union flag. It was the bloomin’ dragon. So, obviously, it made for a better photo. He posted with the photo “Flags are now mandatory – very pleased with my new backdrop for @BBCNews at Ten”. But he too was reprimanded and required to remove it. Which he did, then posting a photo of the BBC flag, a *white flag* with the logo, with the comment, “Gutted. My pro-flag tweet has been cut down in its prime. By order.”
However, we have not yet reached the peak of this Tory flag fetishizing hysterical frenzy.
On Monday 22 March 2021 the previously mentioned Tim Davie, Director General of the BBC and model of disinterested political balance (who canned The Mash Show because it wasn’t right-wing enough), was subject to a grilling by one James Wild MP. The Conservative Member for the constituency of North West Norfolk, who had been we must assume, deemed to be an actual adult by its constituents when returned to parliament in 2019. He was sitting in the Public Accounts Select Committee and, by zoom call, his turn came to question the BBC DG. In what we may assume to be a flagrant contravention of current party dictat, there was not a single Union flag evident in the room behind Wild, but this dereliction of party duty did not prevent him from launching upon Davie (now, it seems, cast in the role of rabid red and commie) the catastrophic broadside: “In your annual report last year, 268 pages, do you know how many Union flags featured in any of the graphics in those glossy pages?”.
Yes! En-smirked to such a degree that even Priti Patel might have felt compelled to give him 9 out of 10, James Wild chastised the absence of Union flags in the BBC’s annual report. Seriously.
Wait. We still haven’t got there.
On Wednesday 24 March the Department for Digital, Culture, Media and Sport announced that public buildings were now to fly the Union flag every day. Every day. Well, everyday but for the odd special occasion when another flag is required. Traditionally the Union flag has been flown on designated days, about 20 a year, but now it is to be flown pretty much every day.
We’re British. We always possessed the confidence in ourselves that did not require the posturing of “cod” identity we often saw in other nations around the world. We held that our “betters” might warrant our derision, and we pitied the nations that fell to the idiot conceits of desperate reliance upon symbols. Not for us massed rallies before flags whilst hysterical, posturing little men smirked and hid behind totems that they made to stand as excuses for evil. Never would we fall for that. We are British. Massed rallies and religious fervour are not our thing. Ask the Archbishop of Canterbury.
But this is the problem: a sizable chunk (though not, as they would have us believe, anything that remotely approaches a majority) of the British population have been rendered complicit in a fascist coup. And the terror of that is that every Britisher knows that the fascists are the enemy. The great enemy. It’s like Doctor Who and the Daleks, Dracula and Van Helsing, Holmes and Moriarty. There’s no grey area here. You’re on one side or the other, and for a Britisher to be fascist is for that Britisher to be a traitor to the proudest of our history. Even the Queen served to defeat Nazism. Even the Queen herself.
So the ramping up of this hysteria must be expected to keep going. This government will push it all the way – because they have nothing else now. The reality is there, it is pressing in, but when finally accepted by the country the Tory party is inevitably cast as the greatest traitor in British history.
All around us people have their fingers in their ears, singing the “la la la, I can’t hear you!” song, anything, anything to avoid facing the reality of an imploding UK. Flag veneration is serving the exact purpose it served in 30s Germany: a focus, a thing to concentrate on and invest in to the exclusion of an insistent reality telling the country something very unpleasant about itself and what it is doing. And it is corroding a national character that heretofore understood such behaviour to be at worst both contemptible and malign, or at best, cringingly juvenile and insecure. It’s called “gaslighting”, convincing people of an insane position by manipulating them so that they are not able to admit that the reality is even there.
We were once a proud and confident nation. Regardless of political belief, every Britisher understands in their heart that this flag obsession is not an expression of confidence. Even the ones pursuing it.
But then, they’re terrified. And hysterical. And they have nothing else.
Just as well there are no massed rallies for the flag obsessed hysterical planned. After all, The Festival of Brexit is definitely not a massed rally for the flag obsessed.