A confusing cross to bear
Despite all the World Cup flag-waving, nobody seems sure what the St George's flag is for.
Within 24 hours of England’s penalty shoot-out defeat at the World Cup, the millions of St George flags that had adorned pubs, cars, white vans and bedroom windows had been sheepishly taken down. And I mean millions. In June alone it is estimated that 10.5million flags were sold; 27 per cent of adults purchased one. Some purchased more than one. UK culture secretary Tessa Jowell famously flew two flags from her official car.
What does this breathtaking upsurge in flag-waving mean? For some of us, the World Cup is a month-long feast of football on which to gorge ourselves silly. But for others the tournament is a time to agonise over our national self-image. And of course, such is the confused state of national identity that nobody can ever agree what the waving of St George flags actually signifies. To fly or not to fly – that is the question. Is the flag of St George a symbol of chauvinism – the white man’s flag? Or has the flag been reclaimed from the racists and come to represent a tolerant, inclusive patriotism?
It is a decade since the phenomenon of Cool Britannia first appeared to herald a hipper, softer national identity, and yet today the spectacle of mass flag-waving still sends shudders down some people’s spines. Leftist cultural commentator Mike Marqusee, for example, described the Nike advert featuring Wayne Rooney with a red cross daubed across his face and body as a ‘disturbing image’ (1). New Nation journalist Angela Foster, quoted by David Conn in a Guardian article, said, ‘I don’t think many black people flew a flag…. Most of us still feel it is hostile and feel quite threatened by it.’ (2)
Conn also quoted an unnamed ‘football source’ who complained that, ‘The England fans mostly stood apart from the carnival…. Support for England is still aggressive, lumpen and boorish, but nobody wants to talk about that.’ Brian Coleman, leader of the Tory group in the London Assembly, also expressed unease about the conduct of fans. ‘I am as patriotic as the next man, but the sight of drunken football fans singing the national anthem out of tune in a German square makes me wonder exactly what sort of patriotism the World Cup has stirred up’, he wrote in his local newspaper column.
But for every case of flag-induced anxiety there were plenty more who welcomed the new popularity of the English flag. ‘The St George’s cross has now been firmly wrested away from the far right’, said Kevin Miles, spokesperson for the Football Supporter’s Federation. ‘The idea that English national identity has to be nationalistic, xenophobic and racist has completely gone now.’ (3) Taking issue with David Conn’s article, Mark Perryman celebrated the fact that ‘inner-city England has fans of every colour wearing England shirts, and in Germany more black and Asian fans than ever before travelled to support the team’ (4). Likewise, Robert Crampton in The Times (London) enthused that, ‘Amid all the pessimism concerning the alienation of young Muslims from mainstream society, it’s cheering to report that a significant number of cars driven by Bengali youths in the East End of London are flying England flags.’ (5)
So, who is correct – the flagphobics or the PC patriots? Well actually, both sides are wrong. Of course the flag still connotes white supremacy for an insignificant rump of no-mark Little Englanders. However, for most people the St George flag has lost its racial connotations. But that doesn’t mean that the champions of a new inclusive patriotism are correct, either. In truth, the flag has been largely emptied of any political content – much like public life itself. It is pretty much just a football flag, a signifier of support for the English football team and very little else. The flag is seldom displayed in any context other than a football tournament. Even on St George’s Day there is no popular enthusiasm for flying the flag.
I say largely emptied of political content and that’s because I have detected an emerging sniffiness towards the flying of the St George flag. While there is no longer a deep-rooted fear of the jingoistic mob, there is an increasingly vocal snobbery about the sort of people who fly the flag. No longer a symbol of racism, the St George flag has come to be seen as the chav’s flag – a symbol of vulgarity and naffness. ‘The car will not sport those flappy England flags if I have anything to do with it’, wrote India Knight in The Sunday Times. ‘It’s not that I have any trouble enthusiastically supporting England…. No, the problem is one of class. I think the St George’s flag is, well, not quite our thing.’ (4)
Although the Guardian‘s arch cynic Charlie Brooker didn’t explicitly mention the c-word, it wasn’t difficult to decode his sneering contempt for the flag-waving classes. ‘Nowadays, when you see an England flag on a car, sprawled across a T-shirt, or flapping from a novelty hat, you no longer assume the owner is a dot-brained xenophobe’, wrote Brooker. ‘Instead you assume he’s just an idiot. And you’re right. He is…. Personally, I’d jettison the big red cross/white background malarkey in favour of a black rectangle with the word CRETIN printed in the centre in stark bold text.’ (5)
‘In some quarters the flag is still seen as unforgivably naff – like keeping your coal in a bidet, or going to the corner shop in your curlers, or celebrating your love for your mum with a tattoo’, remarked Tony Parsons in the Mirror. ‘Some think the St George flag is the province of a certain section of society, like inflatable snowmen at Christmas.’ (6) The notion of the flag as indicator of chavness was borne out by a Propertyfinder survey which found that the St George flag was up there with caravans, garden gnomes and excessive Christmas lights in the top 10 turn-offs for prospective buyers.
So, just when you thought it was safe to drape yourself in the St George flag, think again. It’s a semiotic minefield, this flag-flying business. You might not be seen as a racist lout, but people will think you’re a pikey. The real irony, however, is that nobody will laugh at you for supporting a rubbish football team.
(1) In thrall to St George, Guardian, 27 June 2006
(2) Sour English stereotypes linger amid the flag-waving, 12 July 2006
(4) Stop knocking England fans – they’re an international success story, Guardian, 19 July 2006
(5) Dad, how come rich people don’t fly flags and show they’re patriotic?, The Times (London), 21 June 2006
(6) My class war moment, Sunday Times, 4 June 2006
(7) Supposing… It’s time to get tough on flags, Guardian, 26 May 2006
(8) Make this flag the English standard, Mirror, 5 May 2006
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