Rise in Union Jack flag-waving is a sign of deep anxiety in the UK

Finn McRedmond: Exercises like flag waving are associated with nascent, insecure countries

British prime minister Boris Johnson’s government issued a Union Jack decree. Photograph: Hollie Adams – WPA Pool/Getty Images

British prime minister Boris Johnson’s government issued a Union Jack decree. Photograph: Hollie Adams – WPA Pool/Getty Images

 

The British are not a performative people. They hold dear the quality of quiet patriotism. With a few noteworthy exceptions, demonstrative nationalism and flag waving are not very British at all. So the recent governmental decree that the Union Jack should fly from all government buildings in England, Scotland and Wales on all days (not just special occasions) seems rather at odds with this carefully crafted national character trait.

That is the prevailing narrative, at least. And this latest drive to brandish the Union Jack at every corner has become impossible to ignore. Politicians deliver statements flanked by the flag; a BBC presenter apologised after liking “offensive” tweets criticising a minister for displaying it; the BBC (again) was scolded for not having enough Union Jacks in its annual report.

Why is this happening? Nation building exercises like flag waving and anthem singing are associated with nascent, insecure countries. In the comparatively youthful United States it’s normal in many places to fly the stars and stripes in your front garden; the Irish Free State saw the tricolour become ubiquitous as the new nation tried to assert its identity on the world stage; on the 50th anniversary of Bangladeshi independence this week the London Eye was lit up in its colours.

Britain, to say the blindingly obvious, is older as a nation state. But countries reinvent themselves. And when they do they need new national stories. In the wake of the second World War we might claim a new Britain emerged: the welfare state was massively expanded, the NHS was created, and with that a new vision of the nation. Perhaps in the wake of Brexit (better treated as a symptom, not a cause, of reinvention) and with the union under existential threat, a new Britain is emerging. Flag waving is just the government’s way of telling us the vision it is pursuing.

What the Conservatives may mistakenly see as politically shrewd is destabilising for Northern Ireland

There has long been a tussle in the national psyche between competing ideas of Britain. On one hand there is the British nationalist story, a nation whose primary characteristic is that it is a singular entity, represented by its crown and flag and anthem. That it comprises of four constituent parts is secondary, or even incidental. On the other hand is the idea of Britain first and foremost as a multinational state. A union of four nations emboldened by powers of devolution.

Unsubtle attempt

The present ubiquity of the Union Jack is an unsubtle attempt to assert Britain as the former. With the union in peril the government is crafting a vision of post-Brexit Britain that makes the British nation and its symbols as visible as possible. It may not be openly hostile to devolution, but it is indicative of a government uncomfortable with how far it has gone. And it speaks to a deep anxiety about growing fissures between Scotland and Westminster. Unfortunately flying the flag is a rather flimsy way to reclaim the robustness the union once boasted. It is the qualities of the cause, not pictures of the cause, that convince people.

But more than that, this latest venture in flag waving is at odds with the political realities of Britain right now. Scotland is a fully realised nation on its own terms (for most swing voters the Union Jack has little emotional pull). And Northern Ireland relies on its hybrid sovereignty and smudged relationship with the Republic for its ongoing peace. Pursuing a vision of Britain that inflexibly asserts the dominance of the Union Jack rather than acknowledging these nuances begins to look counterproductive.

And what the Conservatives may mistakenly see as politically shrewd is destabilising for Northern Ireland (stop me if you’ve heard that one before). Though Northern Ireland is not subject to this decree thanks to different legislation, the conversation about flags has landed squarely on its doorstep. The Conservatives demonstrated their unique strain of ineptitude: announce the decree, tell unionists in Northern Ireland it doesn’t apply to them. What on earth did they expect the DUP to do?

Of course the DUP has called for the decree to extend to Northern Ireland. It is a long-standing unionist anxiety that Northern Ireland may be left behind from the rest of Britain. And it is Arlene Foster’s raison d’être to make noise when this is happening. What might seem like a harmless bid for national myth-building to those in Westminster is fodder for the constant attritional battle over identity in Northern Ireland. And it is fodder made from some of the most sensitive symbols of all, at a time when tensions are running higher than they have in years.

The whole charade is evidence of a Conservative Party still out of step with Northern Ireland. And it speaks to a government anxious at the far-reaching impacts devolution has had on the union. Perhaps it is another symptom of a country suffering an identity crisis. Taking these things together, Britain is primed for reinvention and a new national story. The problem is the Conservatives are attempting to sell a story about a Britain that doesn’t exist any more.

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