In Denmark, many houses have small Danish flags outside. In many other countries, displaying the national flag is a normal thing to do.
So is it a problem to fly the UK national flag, the “Union Flag”, or in England, the red and white cross of St George?
For me it is impossible to separate these emblems from their use as symbols of imperialist power and domination.
The Union Flag, which incorporates the flags of the saints of Ireland and Scotland, has flown over all the countries colonised, ruled and robbed by this country. Significantly it does not include the flag of England’s first colony, Wales. In both that omission and the incorporation of the other two nations’ flags (by conquest in the case of Ireland, and by a somewhat dodgy co-optation in the case of Scotland), it embodies the hegemony of us English. It appears in the corner of the flags of a number of former colonies, including New Zealand and Australia – in the latter case a reminder to the population of how the Queen’s representative dismissed the Labor (they use American spelling for this word)) government of Gough Whitlam during the crisis arising from opposition to the attempt to establish a National Health Service.
The flag of St George, far from being a neutral symbol of England, has associations with racist nationalism. Some want to take back the symbol, making it some kind of people’s symbol. It is used to indicate support for sporting events – something I have never been able to understand: why feel any kind of affinity or ownership for athletes who happen to share one’s nationality, usually no more than an accident of birth. The red cross has origins in the Crusades, (although then it was white, and the French monarch used red – the switch taking place later). So in its roots it is also associated with an early colonialist adventure. St Gerorge as patron saint though only seems to have been adopted from the reformation onwards.
Now I am English, and I love many things about my country. Its countryside, its apples, Shakespeare, Dickens, Hardy and the composers of the 20th century and the 16th. I lovee the hedgerows, despite many being the historical tool of enclosure and dispossession. I like English beer, and Eccles cakes, even the weather.. I’m proud of the way England gave refuge to waves of persecuted people (and ashamed that it makes it so difficult now). I’m proud of its role in defeating Nazism, and of my parents’ generation’s struggle in hardship to do that. The radical traditions of the Lollards, Levellers, Owenites, Chartists, the Clarion club, the SDF, the suffragettes and the Independent Labour Party, the co-operative movement, the Tolpuddle martyrs, the NHS and my own free education. Lots of things.
But I feel a perpetual unease too. My country, while oppressing countless of its own people through dispossession and enclosure, witch-hunts, transportation and worse, and wage slavery in the mills of the capitalist industrial revolution, also oppressed those in other countries, stealing and destroying their sources of prosperity., through deliberate de-development It trafficked hundreds of thousands of people to the New World as slaves. And in living memory it tortured and murdered freedom fighters in Africa, it evicted the Chagos islanders from their home to make room for a US military base, and it is responsible, along with the US and others, of the destruction of Iraq and the creation of the conditions for so-called Islamic terrorism.
And that unease is all associated with our flags, symbols paraded whenever the country’s rulers need our help to dominate other peoples. And that’s why it is a different matter to display those two flags, from the use of the national flag by the Danes and those of many other nations.
No, I don’t like to see St George’s flag adorning houses, whoever lives there. We need to find better symbols to represent all that is good about England, and about Britain. The rose would do fine – preferably the dog rose or the sweet briar from the English countryside. As a transitional approach, a flag of that sort could be flown alongside the old imperialist symbols – just as in Bolivia the plurinational wiphala, of the indigenous movement flies officially alongside the flag of the republic, itself associated with the racist domination of original peoples by European-heritage elite. That is the kind of sensitivity we need here, not the knee-jerk reactions based on superficial class identities.