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Britain’s latest invasive species – the flag fetish

March 23, 2021

About forty-five years ago, during my relatively short career in the music business, I managed a loud, high-energy rock band called the Mean Street Dealers. Unlike the punk bands that at the time were getting record deals on the strength of their ability to handle a hairbrush, they were proper musicians with experience gained way before the era of Sid Vicious. A bit like The Police in that respect, but ultimately less successful.

One day we did a gig at Bangor University in North Wales. It went fine, but one or two people voiced their objections to the fact that the keyboard player had a Union Jack draped over his Hammond organ. The flag was an innocent style affectation from our point of view. I guess it was a nod towards the mods of a decade earlier, and particularly The Who, who often used such symbols in their sixties record artwork.

What we had failed to notice was that the Union Jack was fast becoming the rallying flag for far right organisations like the National Front. We also forgot to take into account that Welsh separatist sentiment was strong in North Wales at the time. Second homes belonging to English people were being set on fire on a regular basis.

After Bangor, we retired the flag. It took a while for the Union Jack to rid itself of its association with the neo-Nazis of the time. In later decades, another flag served a similar purpose. The Cross of St George became the emblem not only of marauding England football fans abroad, but of the National Front’s successor organisations, such as the English Defence League. The Union Jack went on to become the symbol of patriotism during the Falklands war. During the London Olympics, Britain celebrated as it was raised in tribute to the unprecedented number of medal winners from these islands.

But by and large, we don’t use flags as icons of patriotism, and certainly not (far right groups excepted) as badges of political affiliation. We don’t salute them. We don’t raise them in front of every home. We don’t swear oaths in front of them, apart from those of the profane kind.

Until now. Or, to be more precise, until our flag walked away from the 27 other flags of European Union member states and stood proudly on its own. Or to be even more precise, since Boris Johnson’s government took office. Since then we seem to have developed a flag fetish. Or at least, the most influential group of Members of Parliament, who were most aggressive in promoting Brexit and now seem to have an ideological stranglehold over a government which seems to have brought the thinking of Enoch Powell into the mainstream, have created the fetish.

No self-respecting minister or Conservative MP fails to have a Union Jack in the background when speaking from their offices or even at home. The Labour Party, with some embarrassment, falls into line because it thinks that only by reaching out to the Brexity, nationalist tendency will it win back the seats it lost in the last election.

We even have the extraordinary spectacle of an MP asking the new head of the BBC in a Select Committee meeting why there were no flags in its last annual report. A cynic might say that this person, who then posted a video of his question on Twitter, is heading for high office. It’s ironic that while the government, in a deliberate act of policy, is splattering the union flag every which where, the union itself is in greater danger of falling apart than at any time since its formation three hundred years ago. Only economic concerns, I suspect, will prevent Scotland going its own way, with Wales quite possibly following in its wake.

You surely have to be utterly naïve to think that a stripy, multi-coloured symbol is going to contribute in any significant way to the preservation of a political entity. But that appears to be the mindset behind the proliferation of flags in our current political space.

What I most appreciate about my country is that we don’t need national flags to trumpet our identity. I find the flag-fetish in the United States deeply alien. It’s one of the reasons why I never mistake America for a cousin of the country from which it won independence two-and-a-half centuries ago. And I’ve always appreciated that a better reflection of nationality is often to be seen on stamps, coins and bank notes, where flags are rarely featured and designs, often superbly imaginative, reflect the times we live in even if they also serve as propaganda.

On my screensaver I have a succession of photos chosen by Microsoft showing different parts of the world – mostly landscapes. I can instantly spot a picture from Britain, be it from the Lake District, the highlands of Scotland, the wetlands of Norfolk or the cliffs of Cornwall. It’s not a question of preferring one view over another. I equally appreciate the landscapes of France, China, India or Sicily. It’s just a matter of recognition. It’s home. No better or worse than any other home. But look at a landscape, and you recognise that it long precedes us and will, unless it’s irreparably marked by climate change, be there long after we transient creatures, and the flags we choose to identify us, are gone.

That’s the only consolation I take from the cynically manipulated, small-minded obsession that seems to have invaded our shores. Like the grey squirrels, giant hogweed, murder hornets and coronavirus particles that have also arrived from elsewhere before them, you can’t see malignant clusters of Union Jacks – and saltires and dragons for that matter – from a few thousand feet above.

From → History, Politics, Social, UK, USA

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