The fad for flags

The popularity of the St George's Cross looks more like a display of multicultural identity politics than old-fashioned nationalism.

Neil Davenport

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Topics Politics

Even before Euro 2004 began on Saturday, the football championship was already provoking considerable anguish – not because of the England team’s chances of winning, but because of the fans’ penchant for flying the Saint George’s Cross.

Whether draped outside house windows or flapping from the side of Mondeo cars and white vans, the red and white emblem has become a ubiquitous feature of the country’s landscape. Such displays of ‘Englishness’ have been greeted with delight and dismay in equal measures. Is it an alarming rise of ‘xenophobic nationalism’? Or is it part of a ‘fundamental human need’ to search for some kind of national identity? One thing is certain – the fad for flags goes beyond cheering on the England football team.

Philosopher Roger Scruton sees the St George’s Cross as a backlash against multiculturalism. ‘For years, the liberal elite have denigrated this great country in the name of political correctness’, he says. ‘In this light, we should surely be glad that we English have now taken to waving our flag.’ (1) Scruton is right to make the connection between multiculturalism and the rise of England flag-waving. But such behaviour is informed by identity politics, rather than by a reaction against it. So people interviewed on BBC London news argued that if ethnic minorities, and the Irish, Welsh and the Scottish, can celebrate their identity, why can’t we?

More revealing is that the interviewees also believed that flying the flag is a symbol of ‘unity’. No doubt many are mindful of using today’s politically acceptable etiquette. But as with the death of Princess Diana in 1997 or the Stop The War demonstration in February 2003, supporting England becomes a vehicle for that illusive Shared National Experience. And nobody has promoted football as an acceptable SNE as much as today’s political elite.

But for many among the elite, the sight of pot-bellied proles waving the Saint George’s Cross raises all kinds of dilemmas. Celebrating Englishness is seen as problematic because England’s cultural history jars against the terms and conditions of identity politics. Defining yourself by a particular tradition or culture has become a badge of hurt or grievance.

In an insightful episode of The Sopranos, Tony Soprano’s charges are embroiled with Native American Indians over celebrating the anniversary of Christopher Columbus. Much to Tony’s disgust, his minions are arguing that Italian Americans have suffered as much brutality as American Indians have. ‘What happened to celebrating people who got things done?’ was Tony’s bewildered response. Western societies today encourage, not the celebration of history-making achievement, but the commemoration of the brutal oppression suffered by our ancestors. Given that the English elites have generally been oppressors rather than oppressed, celebrating English identity becomes a tricky business.

So when the Guardian newspaper printed the Saint George’s Cross on the cover of G2, it felt the need to put a list of right-on disclaimers in the corner (2).

To be fair, even middle-class liberals these days are careful not to automatically equate supporting the England football team with racist thugs (though writer Clare Gorham compared the St George’s Cross to ‘a trickle of blood’). Instead there’s a different kind of unease. ‘The temptation of jumping into the bubbling pot of flag-waving, England-shirt-wearing hysteria over the next month will, for many, be a strong one…. I won’t be making the move’, says one stressed-out columnist (4).

This sums up the dilemma facing today’s soccerati. On one hand there’s a fascination with such joyously daft antics, and almost a willingness to join in – but if only they didn’t get drunk, or sing such drearily offensive songs. Supporting England and even waving the Saint George’s flag would be okay, so long as it was on the smoke-free, low-fat food, mind-your-language terms of the illiberal middle classes.

The sea of St George’s flags is not something to worry about, in that it does not represent xenophobia on the march. But given its attachment to identity politics, nor is it something to celebrate. People flying the Saint George’s flag are neither heroes nor villains – while those who would prefer us to curb such enjoyment are definitely worth getting in a flap about.

Neil Davenport is a freelance writer and social science lecturer at Barnet College.

(1) Daily Mail, 11 June 2004

(2) Guardian, 10 June 2004

(3) Guardian, 10 June 2004

(4) Guardian, 12 June 2004

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Topics Politics

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