Fighting the Flag
“Doubtless there were men alive
With only half a liver,
Some had no heart,
And many had no brain.
But a man without a flag?
As the commentators, pundits and entertainers who fill our airwaves and newspaper columns praised the enduring British spirit in keeping going despite the rain; as Palace insiders commended the continuity of tradition in ‘these changing times’; as banks, businesses, promoters, poets and musicians attempted to sell their commemorative offerings; one thing struck me as a sign of real change in British public life.
I am unmoved by the passing of 60 years of the reign of Elizabeth Windsor. Put it this way, I am in favour of equitable social relations and fair division of land: parades for monarchs are not really my thing. However, what I could not avoid was the fluttering flags from car roofs; the faded, ‘40s retro-look bunting; the billboards advertising jubilee chocolates, butter or mobile phones all bedecked with what we inaccurately call the Union Jack.
Flags mean different things in different countries. In much of Scandinavia, national flags are a common sight. In France the Tricolour flies from municipal buildings, representing something bureaucratic. In the U.S.A they are raised with patriotic fervour. In many post-colonial states, the flags are symbols of independence, overthrow of colonial rule or the unity of sectarian groups. In Britain, the crosses of England, Ulster and Scotland have been for ages associated with the horrors of empire and blind nationalism.
Now the flag is partly reclaimed. It is about being British; nothing to be ashamed of. And yet, what does that mean? “Being British” is a deliberately nebulous concept – just something that people ‘be’ or a set of undefined ‘values’ they subscribe to. When pushed, defenders of Britishness come up with a list of Victorian stereotypes that hardly match day-to-day experience on this island (politeness, posh accents, stiff upper lips) or general, vague liberal values (tolerance, diversity, fair play). The ‘citizenship test’, which most born-and-bred British people would fail if they had to take, exposes the falsehood of its claim to test or assess anything in reality. It looks dangerously like a race test. There are British people and there are “ethnic minority communities”, who may be embraced, celebrated, welcomed, accepted but who are never quite, in this kind of discourse, British.
From 1948, the peoples of the largely broken up former British Empire, were made ‘Citizens of the United Kingdom and Colonies’ and could enter and stay in the U.K without any restriction. In 1962, immigration control was resumed. Being British is linked, undoubtedly, to being white and Christian. The flag flies from Buckingham Palace, at the front of military regiments and in the hands of the far-right nationalists.
Keep Calm and Carry On. Stop thinking and accept it all. The 1940s are back. We are all in it together. Austerity Britain. Retro bunting.
I love the country where the majority of its people distrust the symbolism of its flag. The attitude seems to say, we will not accept your official version of who we are. Only unthinking nationalists would want to raise that butcher’s apron. We who live here want to be agents in the shaping of the world in which we live. We shall not ‘carry on’ while the billionaire land-owners parade their wealth in front of our dispossession and disempowerment. We shall not try to exclude this group or that group from the enjoyment of the land and the resources of this planet. We shall challenge the ‘truths’ that dominate the mainstream of public discourse. We shall unite under our own imagery and symbolism.