Robin McAlpine: Why we must talk about the four flags that define us

Common Weal director and CommonSpace columnist Robin McAlpine argues that flag-waving shouldn’t be so easily dismissed by a liberal elite. 

IT IS with some amazement that I read the view that flags don't matter in modern Britain. For good or for ill, flags stand as an emblem of the political fractures that define contemporary British politics. To argue otherwise just seems obtuse.

Britain is caught in a period where the promotion of state interests (can we just call it propaganda?) and the identity of the state's citizens are both diverging and interfering. And since flags represent a complex and shifting mix of propaganda and identity, it is hardly surprising that they offer us an illuminating glimpse into what is happening.

I'd argue that there are four flags which are in different ways defining us in Scotland. (Actually, there are more if we look at the influence of what's happening across Europe and in the US and in Wales and Ireland, but let's keep this manageable). Each has a distinctive meaning and a different group of people underneath.

The more the elite are propagandising for their flags (the Union Jack and the European flag), the more they are losing ground to the Saltire and the St George's Cross.

Let's start with the Union Jack. This is a state flag (other than in Scotland and Ireland where it is also the emblem of Orange politics). Nowadays it represents only the British state and those who identify closely with it (particularly the post-war generations of fairly affluent but generally quite reactionary citizens who are slightly lazily but not inaccurately described as 'Daily Mail readers').

Historically, it is an imperial flag. If you aren't aware of the range of atrocities carried out in its shadow, you need to read more (I'd recommend Mark Curtis's Web of Deceit as a good primer). Today, it is the brand of the remnants of that collapsed empire – the monarchy, the military, the Foreign Office, the secret services, the arms dealers, the landed elite and so on.

It has became an overtly political tool in recent years – you can pick your own moment but I particularly trace it back to Gordon Brown's invention of 'Armed Forces Day' in 2009 which has always seemed to me to be a jingoistic establishment reaction to having lost uncritical public support for the military during the Iraq War debacle and to rising anger at the unfolding financial crisis.

Since then we've been subjected to it endlessly – on the BBC, during the referendum campaign, in the embarrassing, fawning coverage the Royal Family receives in this 'kingdom'. It speaks of privilege, order, power, deference and those who believe in these values.

Surprise that the Union Jack is met with hostility? After all our military adventures, the deliberate 'them and us' polarisation of the Thatcher years, the role of Britain in Ireland?

The most interesting development is that this version of elite Britain has left such a large number of people behind. The most visceral image of this is the rise of the St George's Cross. This has become the flag of the English dispossessed, the angry working class who don't get to sit at the Union Jack table and are often now barely receiving the crumbs that fall from it.

None of the four flags have beneath them a unified community and there is drift between some of them – but none is more fragmented than those that come together under that red cross on white background. Scotland in the 1970s and 1980s went through an often fractious 'journey of the soul' to decide what we were as a nation. By 1990, when a Scotland rugby team made up of many high Tory unionists walked out at Murrayfield and sang Flower of Scotland, that journey came to its conclusion. It was OK to be Scottish.

England is only just beginning that journey. It is caught in a spectrum that reaches from a Billy Bragg version of England to a BNP one. The flag is carried equally by working class Labour voters who feel forced out by that elite Union Jack and by the fabled 'Little Englander' who sees their 'white' country as under threat. For both, it speaks of a burning desire for some respect, for some sense of being part of a nation in which they matter.

Right-wing, unionist and some liberal commentators have been very reticent to accept that it is probably the Saltire which has best embodied a tolerant, civilised vision of what a nation can be

Then there is the flag for a liberal elite who don't like flags. It's the blue one with the golden stars that no-one ever carries. The flag of the European Union has the great, bureaucratic benefit of having no real identity, no meaning other than power – but a power that passes itself of as collaboration (which it is – it's a collaboration between very powerful people).

Its adherents tend to live in London and have columns in the Guardian. They seem to believe that identity is inherently dangerous and think that a flag-without-identity is the best compromise. They don't understand people who have identity based on where they live – in fact, they seem really scared of people who have identity based on where they live.

They feel like they've lost the arguments, that they are besieged in a Britain filled with people who fail to understand that only the liberal elite knows whats best for them. They sometimes sound like they're in an episode of The Walking Dead and that they're the only humans left alive.

They lecture people living in poverty and on zero-hour contracts about why they must support a European Union which is 'protecting their workers' rights' – generally without irony and often with little self-awareness of what they're saying. They don't see their backing for the Blair kleptocracy as relevant.

They call for a stoic and orderly poverty without end but call it 'internationalism'. They have given up offering a story to the poor and brand anything that smacks of hope as 'unelectable'.

The flag of the European Union has the great, bureaucratic benefit of having no real identity, no meaning other than power – but a power that passes itself of as collaboration

Then there's the Saltire. The right wing media can go on about hatred and division all it wants, that's not what that flag means to those underneath it. Yes, it involves identity and pride and of course there are some small-minded people there. But it really is an egalitarian pride, a gentle one. Politically, it is most closely associated with campaigns for greater economic equality and against nuclear weapons. I honestly doubt that anyone anywhere in the world feels threatened when they see a Saltire.

Right-wing, unionist and some liberal commentators have been very reticent to accept that it is probably the Saltire which has best embodied a tolerant, civilised vision of what a nation can be. It is neither an apology for the misuse of power nor a call for the expulsion of 'the other'. Since they have tended to set themselves up as 'the voice of reason', I can understand why they get so frustrated at being outflanked.

But to make arguments like the use of the Stars and Stripes in the US “isn't nationalist”? I mean, seriously? My partner is Mexican. Or that “the Spanish flag [doesn't] provoke such strong reactions”. For real? Not even in Catalonia or the Basque Country?

I honestly doubt that anyone anywhere in the world feels threatened when they see a Saltire.

Surprise that the Union Jack is met with hostility? After all our military adventures, the deliberate 'them and us' polarisation of the Thatcher years, the role of Britain in Ireland? Or, at the heart of the matter, the argument that for the UK Government to put the Union Jack on its materials is legitimate but to scrutinise it or discuss it isn't?

All these claims appear in the one article I reference above. All are intellectually bereft and all are a myopic misreading of the world as we live in it now. Globalisation was a process of economically disempowering nations (and many of their citizens) for the benefit of international financial elites. Across the globe there is an angry backlash, much of it articulating itself around the nation state.

But we're supposed to look away and pretend this isn't happening? Not discuss it? Not try and understand it? It is precisely this aloofness which has created the dynamic in which flags are being waved more vigorously than ever.

I know that many on the left are uncomfortable with flags, almost as if the negative aspects they can embody are a result of the flag itself rather than being a social phenomenon. I'd love to live in a world less divided than the one that has been created by the wanton neglect of the elite. But until I do, I will continue to look at the world as it is.

Across the globe there is an angry backlash, much of it articulating itself around the nation state.

And that world is being reframed all the time. Since the referendum I've had a chance to spend time with a lot of movements for democratic autonomy – in Flanders, the Veneto, Catalonia, the Basque Country. I've talked extensively with radical voices from around the world. I have forged strong contacts in the North of England, a part of Britain treated with even more contempt than Scotland.

There are big, substantial changes taking place. In different ways they are functions of how power and control is clashing with place, identity and disposession. Flags are simply a short hand for what is going on. The more the elite are propagandising for their flags (the Union Jack and the European flag), the more they are losing ground to the Saltire and the St George's Cross.

I have chosen the flag under which I feel most comfortable. What I am arguing is that the meaning contained in that flag in 2016 is one we should nurture and support. So long as it represents a nation of all the people that live here, eager to work cooperatively with other nations but committed to social and economic justice, then it seems to me by far our best option.

I know that many on the left are uncomfortable with flags, almost as if the negative aspects they can embody are a result of the flag itself rather than being a social phenomenon.

The Union Jack followers don't like it. Scotland is a place they keep their nuclear bombs. The are trying to undermine that version of Scotland; it would simply be naïve to argue otherwise. They'd like it if this became a unilateral fight – they keep propagandising, Scotland keeps its head down.

So let's not keep our head down. Let's not accept the subservient, Union Jack version of our future. They're very willing to impose for their version of our future. Are we properly ready to argue for ours?

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