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OP-ED: Flying the flag

  • Published at 02:54 am April 2nd, 2021
united kingdom britain flag union jack

How Boris Johnson is trying to light a fuse in the culture wars

This week the UK’s Department of Digital, Culture, Media and Sport (DCMS) announced that in the future, the Union flag will be flown every day from all government and municipal buildings. The current regulations only allow for the flag to be flown on certain designated days like the Queen’s birthday or Remembrance Day. The Local Government Secretary Robert Jenrick said:

“Our national flag is a symbol of liberty, unity, and freedom that creates a shared sense of civic pride. People rightly expect to see the Union flag flying high … as a symbol of our local and national identity.”

But is that what British people really expect? I think not. A few years ago, the then Tory Prime Minister David Cameron summed up perfectly the country’s ambivalence towards its national flag: 

“Reserve,” he said, “is an intrinsic part of being British. We are understated. We don’t do flags on the front lawn.” 

The government’s desire to create a British sense of civic pride by flying more flags from more public buildings is, well, frankly, un-British. British people generally shy away from the more blatant forms of national display and from overt symbols of patriotism. A bit of good-humoured, tongue-in-cheek flag-waving at the Last Night of the Proms is one thing, but the sight of the Union Jack being carried aloft by a group of heavily tattooed British National Party skinheads is quite another.  

The cheering crowds and the sea of flags at the 2012 Olympic Games was heart-warming, but when we see the self-same flag draped over the porch of a house or plastered on the side of a van, most of us shudder at the likely darker thoughts of the flag’s owner. That is, of course, not to say that everyone who flies a Union Jack from their rooftop or on their car is automatically a racist. But, because the flag has for so long been in the hands of the far-right, that -- rightly or wrongly -- is the conclusion that many of us draw.  

The distinction between a bit of good-natured flag-waving and the more sinister use of the national flag is a subtle and nuanced one. But it is something the government seems to have missed. It is when the flag is used for political purposes that it becomes problematic. And this is clearly what is happening here.   

Throughout the pandemic, the Union flag has been used as a backdrop for every prime ministerial and ministerial broadcast and press conference. It has even found its way into the homes of some government ministers. The aforesaid Robert Jenrick was on a video call to the BBC’s Breakfast program last week, when one of the presenters, Charlie Stayt, teased that the secretary of state’s flag appeared to be considerably smaller than those of his colleagues.  

The sheer silliness of a government minister actually buying a Union flag for his spare bedroom and then broadcasting it to the nation, seems to have been lost on 17 of his fellow Tory MPs who wrote to the corporation reminding it that “… the B in BBC stands for British.”  

Also at the BBC this week, another Conservative MP, James Wild, berated the incoming Director General Tim Davie, over the fact that the BBC’s annual report did not have any Union flags in it.  The former Tory MP Anna Soubry tweeted that “all sensible Tories will be curling up to their knees” in embarrassment. That goes for most of us non-Tories as well Anna.  

This sort of pompous nationalistic nonsense is simply not what most Britons are about. Most of us are secure enough in our national identity that we don’t need to be reminded of it by flying a flag.  What will be next? Swearing allegiance to the flag the way every American school child does before class each day? No thank you! Most Brits would cringe at the very prospect.  

Boris Johnson likes to think of himself as a quintessentially, patriotic British gentleman, in the mould of his great hero Winston Churchill. We have heard it in the rhetoric that he used when campaigning for Brexit and throughout his premiership. The most enduring picture people have of Boris was from 2002 when he was mayor of London and stuck several meters up in the air on a zip wire wildly waving a union flag in each hand.  

He looked ridiculous then and he looks ridiculous now by trying to force on to the country something that is so profoundly at odds with the British psyche. 

In 2007, Labour’s Prime Minister Gordon Brown also recommended something similar to that now-proposed by the Johnson government. Only this time, Brown was trying to reclaim the flag from margins and bring it back into the mainstream.

“In recent years,” he said, “the Union flag has all too often become the preserve of political extremists, a symbol of discord rather than harmony. It is critical that this symbol is not hijacked by those who work against (the) values of tolerance and harmony.” 

Well, that was 2007. Britain has changed dramatically since then. We are now divided on so many things: On Brexit; on immigration; on how we deal with the restrictions placed upon our freedoms by the pandemic. Brown wanted to move the flag out of the hands of the extremists and make it something everyone could rally around.

Boris Johnson, on the other hand, seems to want to politicize it and light yet another fuse in the culture wars. Brown’s recommendations were quietly shelved. I hope Johnson’s face a similar fate.

Kit Fenwick Fenwick is a freelance writer and historian.