The current imperative for Ministers – and Shadow Ministers, now they have imbibed a heavy swig of Blue Labour Kool Aid – to flank their desks with ever bigger Union Jacks, and the new regulations demanding that all public buildings fly it all the time not just on “flag days”, reminds me of the final scene in Moby Dick; in which, as the whaling ship sinks quickly beneath the waves, a last sailor going down with the ship – for want of anything better to do – nails a flag to its masthead.
We really do now live in a country in which the penalty for assaulting a statue of a slave owner can be greater than that for assaulting your neighbour, a Member of Parliament can consider it a serious question to ask the Director General of the BBC how many Union Jacks were incorporated in the Corporation’s latest annual report, and others can go on the radio claiming that having flags everywhere will “unify the country”. These are the same people who think the Brexit referendum has been a great step forward for national unity, on the basis that anyone who does not thrill to the flag and believe in the glorious new global Britain is evidently a traitor who can f*** right off.
But, seriously; unify the country by having an emblem that not everyone feels represents them thrust in their faces? In the North of Ireland? Or Scotland? Oddly enough, many of the people keenest on this regulation are also those who told a YouGov poll they would be happy for Scotland to break away from the rest of the UK if this was needed to carry through Brexit. Funny kind of Unionism.
The absurdity of the claim that this measure “unites the country” is demonstrated straight off the bat because the regulation does not apply to the whole country. The North of Ireland is exempt, just as it is from Prevent legislation requiring schools teach “Fundamental British Values”; for reasons which should be obvious, but dealt with in anecdotal detail later in case it isn’t. The Democratic Unionists – aleady panicking that the half baked oven ready Brexit deal has “sold them down the river” to Dublin and the EU with its customs border in the Irish sea, which has also led to Loyalist paramilitiaries ominously announcing their rejection of the Good Friday Agreement – have smelt a rat in this too and are demanding the flags regulation be extended to them too; as a symbolic assertion of unionism as its economic foundations crumble.
Their wheeze of changing the regulations to allow TWO flags on one flag pole, so you could have, say, a Union Jack and a Saltire on the same pole, begs the question which one of them goes at the top. This either means they haven’t anticipated this, or they think the fight is useful for them. They know quite well that it divides the country, but does so in a way that is far more beneficial to the Conservative Party than – perish the thought – emphasising the division that exists over selling the Health Service off bit by bit to the private sector and US Medical Insurance companies. Which is not good for them at all if we dwell on it for a moment. Best not think about that. Look at the flags instead!
But, even when you do, there are obvious issues.
I must have been about 5 the first time I came across a Union Jack. My Dad was digging it out of the back of our old pantry – a cold room used to store perishable food before fridges were widely affordable; but keeping bits and bobs of miscellaneous other stuff cool too, one of which was “our national emblem.” It was a rather battered and faded specimin, probably left over from VE day fourteen years before. It was the day of the Thurrock Carnival. This was nothing – nothing – like the event with the same name that happens in Notting Hill – and as unlike Mardis Gras as its possible to imagine. A sort of mobile mid-summer Harvest Festival in which the local factories, firms and anyone else with an interest in self publicity, would pile a selection of their goods into a display on the back of a truck, and drive them in a rather prosaic convoy through the town and on up to Blackshots Fields – where everything ended in an annual fairground; where dodgems could be ridden, helterskelters descended and goldfish won. At the time it felt like a celebration of plenty. We’d never had it so good. In its heavily industrial way, it was all a bit Soviet (though without the Cossack dancing and Red Army choir) and, being Thurrock in 1959, completely monocultural. No fabulous dancing groups with spectacular winged costumes, exploding like peacocks with thundering rhythms, aspiring to flight and transformation from suppression to freedom – like you get in Notting Hill – just the boggler, boggling rumbling of diesel engines carrying pyramids of soap powder, or sacks of cement, with a few girls done up in pink dresses perched on top and told to wave like the Queen; followed by the steady tramp of the Boys Brigade bugle band playing something wholesome. Rather conveniently, it came up our road; so we dutifully went out to watch and, to add some spice, waved the flag at it. As you did.
That was also the year we got a TV for the first time. On the News there were some regular set pieces that caught the attention. One of them was the Queen bashing Champagne bottles on the prows of ships while fluting “I name this ship Shippy Mcship Face. May God go with her and all who sail in her” in her high pitched tones and Windsor vowels, with everyone cheering as the metal monster gathered speed down the slipway and sloshed mightily into the Clyde or the Tyne, with a version of the flag drooping from the stern. Another – as the winds of change blew through Africa and the Caribbean – was a flag ceremony; invariably with a stuffy looking white bloke in an even whiter uniform and enormous cocked hat festooned with feathers saluting amidst a big crowd of happy looking black people, as “our national emblem” was slowly lowered; and something altogether more adventurous looking hauled up in its place.
Having it explained at cubs a few years later – in between playing spin the bottle, singing Scout classics like “ging gang goolly” and “Dad’s got a head like a ping pong ball” (to the tune of the William Tell Overture) and practicing knots. The montage of the saints flags of England, Ireland and Scotland, symbolising a three in one unity that was better than the sum of its parts, was presented as though the countries concerned had just decided to make friends. Possibly by shaking little fingers. “Make friends, make friends, never, never break friends.” As you did. The actual history was absent. The deal of convenience in 1707 merging the Edinburgh and Westminster Parliaments – at Westminster – with the Scots signing up as a junior partner in a joint imperial enterprise with the English that put the Saltire behind the St Georges cross (taking up a lot of space, but definitely underneath); and the more coerced Act of Union of 1801, adding the St Patricks cross; after Irish attempts at self assertion and home rule, emulating the American Revolution with Grattan’s Parliament in the 1780’s and the French with the United Irishmen rebellion in 1797, were crushed. And the Welsh? Just incorporated incognito as an adjunct to England which has always been primus inter pares. Crushing “rebelious Scots” is, after all, in the national anthem as one of the necessary measures required to make the King/Queen “victorious” – and possibly “happy and glorious” too.
At about this time Union Jack pennants started appearing on the antennae of the Lambrettas and Vespas that the local Mods parked up outside the Wimpy bar opposite the War Memorial; before pootling patriotically off down to Brighton at about 3 miles per hour, with RAF roundels painted on the backs of their parkas, aiming to pick a fight with some Rockers.
A few years after that Union Jacks started appearing on posters that had been stuck on the hoardings outside the local library by the National Front. “We’ve joined. Have you?” Average looking white family, short back and sides, ordinary perm, two kids; wanting to stop immigration. Then on their nasty little racist stickers that spread like a rash all over local lamp posts – which I spent the next ten years scraping off – with coins in case they’d stuck a razor blade underneath of course. And on the bigger stickers that appeared on the backs of Morris Travellers and such in comfortable parts of the countryside; “Support our Kith and Kin in Rhodesia”.
And in pop culture, the collapse of the old territorial Empire, and the loss of faith in the “chinless wonders” of the ruling class that had presided over it, expressed itself in some odd ways. A search for modernity that moved on quickly from the debacle, even as nasty imperial rearguard actions sputtered on in Aden – the “white heat of the technological revolution”, hovercrafts and the post office tower, a search for compensatory highs like a few Gold medals in Tokyo in 1964, winning the World Cup in 1966 and a splattering of Union Jack imagery over guitars and jackets worn by pop stars who were “conquering America”. This was both disrespectful and reaffirming. A bit like the dialogue in the Beatles Hard Days Night film, in which a crusty mustachioed city chap in a bowler hat hrumphs at Ringo “I fought a war for people like you” to get the reply “I bet you’re sorry you won.” But this was about to become ever more bitter and twisted as the notion that “British is Best” went down the pan with the devalued currency, the shipyards, the textile industry and BSA motor cycles. No matter how many company secretaries declared they were “backing Britain” by working through their tea breaks – the Japanese and Germans seemed to be able to make better goods cheaper, by the dastardly trick of actually investing in their manufacturing. “Who won the bloody war anyway?”
“The flag” by the mid seventies was neither innocent nor hopeful. You could occasionally still see one on a leftish demonstration on an issue like Anti Apartheid, as an affirmation by members of the Communist Party that the “Road to Socialism” in Britain would indeed be British. But even in pop culture it was no longer bright and shiny, as it had been for the Who. In punk it was tattered and torn, hung with safety pins. “No future. No future. No future for you.” Waved on football terraces by competing squads of thugs, and brandished in ugly street demonstrations by the National Front marching through areas with high immigrant populations to intimidate them; it was a flag for regression and nostalgia with overtones of brutality. The bunting for the Queen’s Silver Jubilee in 1977 had the look of similar Jubilees for Victoria at the height of Empire; and had a sense of being part of a ritual to gods that had died a long time ago. Though that made the believers believe ever more fiercely and kick harder to rage against the dying of the light. As it does.
In large parts of the country, a sight of “the flag” caused people’s hearts to beat faster out of a sense of threat, as it stood for a conquest and dominion, even on home ground. The sort of intimidating marches the NF staged in Southall and Leicester, with drums beating and flags flying and the police enforcing their right to do so, just as they had with Mosley in the thirties, were an annual cultural tradition for the Loyalists in the North of Ireland; aimed at keeping the 40% or so of the local population that wanted to unify with the South – or at least be treated fairly and equally – to stay in their place.
In the eighties the far right imploded, partly because Thatcher’s Tories moved on to their ground and waved the same flag against enemies without and within – from the North of Ireland to the South Atlantic to Toxteth to Orgreave and even the tail fins of British Airlines aircraft; while enterprises that had previously been owned in common – from gas, to electricity to telecoms and council housing – were sold off. The objective basis for a sort of comfortable social democratic patriotism, based on all this and a large manufacturing sector with reasonably decently paid unionised jobs was gone – as containerisation from the early seventies dramatically reduced the costs and increased the speed of shipping goods globally, cutting the legs off domestic manufacturing – the destabilising impact of mass unemployment just about massaged into acceptability by North Sea Oil rents – which kept the pound patriotically high -. but allowed whole areas of the country to become post industrial wastelands.
This too was sold to us as a patriotic mission to reinvigorate the nation, just as the last gasp of British Leyland – the Mini Metro – was advertised with no sense of irony as a vehicular echo of the opening credits for Dad’s Army: an arrow wedge of cars deploying aggressively on top of the White Cliffs to show Johnny Foreigner what an underpowered and rust prone small family car could look like. Who do you think you are kidding Mr Volkswagen? “Now we’re motoring!”
And we could all be entrepreneurs or owners of stocks – “If you see Sid, tell him.” A nation of rentiers building out of scale porticos around our ex council house doorways just to show we’d bought it. “My pink half of the drainpipe, separates me from you”. It didn’t work of course. Black Friday – as a graphic demonstration that the UK could not match Germany enough economically to tie the pound the the deutchemark – was the first step to leaving the EU.
By the mid nineties, when things could only get better, Tony Blair made a point of getting the Party members who turned up to greet his arrival in Downing Street to wave Union Jacks. This wave of “reclaiming the flag” had a hollow, self conscious, derivative quality to it – just as “Cool Britannia” was a pale echo of “Swinging London” and the Millennium Dome an ersatz Festival of Britain with no mission or confidence.
And now, here we are with a government that has no better idea – now its out of the EU – than to form square around the colours – buy more nukes – pull up the drawbridge against comer inners and maybe send them to rot in camps on the Falkland Islands, clamp down on protest, restrict the franchise and sing the old songs as the climate breaks down, the pandemic drags on and on, austerity kicks in and the young face a bleak future unless they organise to break with all this. Corbynism was the first attempt to do so. There will be more. In the meantime, paradoxically, attempts to grip harder from the centre also threatens to squeeze the Celtic fringes through Westminster’s fingers – pulling the flag itself apart.
The ease with which this could become violent is possibly not apparent to some of the Home Counties golf club bores who throng the Conservative Party – inside Parliament and out.
On a visit to Belfast in 1981 – after 12 years of the “Troubles” and armed insurgency had reached a peak in the IRA hunger strikes; a journey by cab down the Falls Road – the only way to do it with no buses – revealed a landscape of symbolic challenges. There were Irish tricolours everywhere. Almost anything taller than head height seemed to have one. The post boxes and kerb stones had all been painted green, white and gold in a forceful statement of allegiance. Small boys in green Harringtons and Dr Martens, classic skinhead look, collected for the Hunger Strike Committee along the middle of the road – and were doing a roaring trade. Looking up at a twinned block of flats many storeys high I could see small figures jumping from one to the other. Terrifying teenage kicks. Nothing to do with a flag, but a sign of a place on the edge and people prepared to leap across it.
Staying with a friend in the strongly Republican Andersonstown area, I went for a walk across a patch of waste ground with my head down in thought. Stepping back onto a road, I noticed that the kerb stones were no longer painted green, white and gold, but red, white and blue. Looking up, I saw a standard looking council estate. Every window had a Charles and Di wedding poster; in a conspicuous display of loyalty to a doomed project. At the end of the road was a small British Army fort with a big Union Jack over it. Not – in this context – an emblem that brought people together. Quite the opposite. A phrase Republicans used to describe it was “the butcher’s apron”, referring to the millions of casualties of the British Empire; and in particular, those in Ireland itself, 700 years of them, including the famine in the 1840s which killed so many people that the population of Ireland today is still lower than it was then. Something of which they were far more aware than most people in Britain ever have been.
Going with my friend and his partner and four year old on the way out to the countryside, he drove over a burnt out barricade and a nail burst his tyre. He jumped out and was making a change that would have done well for speed at Brands Hatch as a British Army armoured vehicle ground slowly up the hill on the other side of the road with a soldier standing shotgun on the back plate. The four year old girl, in an enormous voice, yelled “BOOO! BULL BOYS!” My friend looked startled. “Wheesht! Remember where y’are!” The soldier looked across quizzically as the Pig ground past. The kerb stones were painted red, white and blue; colour coding a welcome and a warning, depending on who you were.
No one wants to go back to that. The Good Friday Agreement has kept the peace precisely because it has relaxed the issues of identity – made it possible to coexist with multiple identities in the same space, with a series of fudged and overlapping constitutional arrangements. Irish, British, European. Putting Union Jacks on every public building in the North of Ireland will not go down well with anyone who’d prefer to see an Irish tricolour up there.
The DUP demand that this is done is like sitting on a drum of petrol playing with matches. The government has carelessly supplied them with the box