Shaping debate on religion in public life.

Is Britain Flagging?

7 May 2021

In light of the prominence of the Union Jack in the news over recent months, Greg Smith considers the complex relationships between flag, state, and church.

The newly unveiled Downing Street briefing room, replete with its twin union flags on a blue background, has provoked ribaldry not only from the usual satirists, but even from the editorial team at the Daily Mail. Together with the recent announcement that the flag should be flown from all UK government buildings every day, while councils will be urged to do the same from their premises, this marks a significant change in British attitudes and practice. Boris Johnson has clearly struck a raw nerve, as shown by the response of Keir Starmer—despite opposition to his ‘patriotic turn’ from within the Labour Party. The debate there is framed by such questions as: to what extent is it possible to embrace patriotism but reject nationalism and racism, and what is at stake in the pursuit of a ‘progressive’ patriotism, particularly in multi-ethnic and racially unequal societies, such as Britain today?

It is important to analyse what is going on, and why it is happening now. The most immediate issue is the defence of the Union. The United Kingdom is clearly far from united: with the results of elections for the devolved governments expected in the coming hours and days, the Scottish National Party is riding high in the polls and is keen to hold a second referendum on total independence. Meanwhile, Northern Ireland seems alienated and divided following the rushed and ill thought-out deal on borders and trade following withdrawal from the European Union. The pragmatic case for a united island of Ireland has never been stronger, though emotions on the Unionist side are still strongly against it. Even Wales in its management of the COVID-19 emergency has shown the value of devolved powers of government, while within England the regional divides, particular between North and South have become a major political issue.

These debates take place in the context of the shock of Brexit. Britain, looking back to the London Olympics of 2012 had seemed a country at ease with itself as multicultural, successful in economics, culture, and sport in a global and European context. Yet since the referendum, the country has needed to reinvent itself, and seems to be doing so in terms of a populist, predominantly white and English, nationalism. Indeed, writing from an Irish perspective, Finn McRedmond contends that exercises like flag waving are associated with nascent, insecure countries.

Over the last century the desire to wave flags has been somewhat muted in Britain (with the special exception of Northern Ireland). There are a few nationwide celebrations where the flags come out in a mostly harmless way, such as royal visits and weddings, jubilee street parties, the Olympics, and the football World Cup (though there it is usually the flags of the constituent nations of the UK). Meanwhile, the Union Jack is for the most part a branding icon sold to tourists, or an ironic symbol. In most other countries the idea of underpants printed with the pattern of the national flag would be seen as sacrilege.

But other countries have different cultures. In the USA, the stars and stripes has become a sacred symbol guarded by legislation. In public schools and the military there is a daily recitation of the Pledge of Allegiance:

“I pledge allegiance to the Flag of the United States of America, and to the Republic for which it stands, one Nation under God, indivisible, with liberty and justice for all.”

In states which have been though revolutions or national liberation struggles the bonding power of the flag is easier to appreciate, for example in Scotland, Ireland, France, India, and many previously colonised nations.

Maybe it is because of the sheer extent and dominance of the British Empire that, until now, no-one has needed to make the flag sacred as other nations do. And the associations with Empire persist. In 2012, YouGov’s nationally-representative poll of British public opinion discovered that the UK populace was considerably more likely to associate the Union flag with “Empire” (63%), than with a “modern, diverse Britain” (just 36% made this association). However, subsequent focus groups added nuance to these findings, and views may well have moved on post Brexit. While Paul Gilroy’s book There Ain’t No Black in the Union Jack: The Cultural Politics of Race and Nation published in 1987 (and reviewed appreciatively here) is now in its thirties, postcolonial  perspectives are increasingly pushed back by the new populist nationalists, as evidenced by the government spinning of the recent Commission on Race and Ethnic Disparities report.

Finally, there is the question of the church endorsing the national flag, which, though not as widespread as in the USA, is particularly acute in the established Church of England. Many side chapels house the flags of regiments that conquered, and sometimes massacred, Britain’s colonial subjects; civic remembrance ceremonies focus more on national myths than the Prince of Peace; and services for Scouts and Guides feature parades with the Union Jack. But would it not be preferable, as now often happens in urban churches like mine, to see displays of multiple flags, reminding us of the diverse heritage of our multicultural body? The Christian household is composed of citizens of heaven drawn from many lands. To some degree the image of the Union Jack with its overlapping crosses symbolises a nation state with multiple identities. Yet it also features an instrument of imperial torture on which our saviour and some of his early disciples died. The scandal of the cross might yet subvert the messages promoted by today’s political leaders.

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