Despite not being a football fan, a nationalist or a car driver, I really rather like all those England flags festooned about the national vehicle fleet (and indeed pretty much everywhere else).
There are numerous detractors of which Janet Street-Porter seems typical. She bemoans ‘white van man’ and the pointlessness of football. Aside of the snobbery involved in belittling people for their working class jobs, she’s plainly wrong. The flags are on every kind of car. And even if, unlike her, you love the skill of the sport at this level, it has to be viewed as a cultural phenomenon above all else.
But these things aren’t why I like it. It’s the flag thing that makes me feel good.
It appears that the English flag dates from the Norman Conquest, relatively speaking soon after England’s unified nationhood began.
At the beginning of the 17th Century a single flag was required for shipping travelling between the countries of this island, and the first version of the Union flag was invented. As is so often the case, this free-trade agreement was thought to be a precursor to more complete union, and was accompanied by the introduction of a single currency and the first usage of the term Ã¢â‚¬ËœGreat BritainÃ¢â‚¬â„¢. The constituent countries were thought to be waning. In his decree introducing the flag, King James referred to Scotland only as ‘North Britain’, and the rest of the island as ‘South Britain’.
But such things arenÃ¢â‚¬â„¢t always fair partnerships. Slovenian or Polish governments may sell EU membership to their electorate as an equal footing with Germany and France, there may even have been the odd Uzbek who thought theyÃ¢â‚¬â„¢d get a good bargain from Soviet status, but if there’s a clash of interests there’s little doubt who’ll get the benefit. In the same way, for all the talk of integration, there has always been one dominant nation in the British union.
This has discouraged the English from thinking clearly on the issue and differentiating between England and Britain. Intelligent and educated English people will use the terms English and British interchangeably, often switching from one to the other in a single sentence, even though the words refer to very different bodies of land and people.
Even those in charge of the state have seemingly been unable to tell one from the other. Come with me to the Oxfordshire village of Sutton Courtenay where Herbert Asquith’s remains are buried.
He was Prime Minister of the UK in the early 20th Century. But that’s not what he thought.
From the point of view of its government, there had not been a separate nation of England since 1536. There has never been a Prime Minister of England, except as part of a wider nation. As such, AsquithÃ¢â‚¬â„¢s inscription is as ludicrous as if it declared him to have been Prime Minister of Nantwich.
I was intrigued by a footnote in volume 19 of The Complete Works of George Orwell, explaining a reference to AsquithÃ¢â‚¬â„¢s contemporary Marshal Foch.
I do like the idea of finding some act – preferably lewd – permissible under French law but prohibited under English and then doing it with impunity atop Foch’s statue. But whatever, let’s mosey along to Grosvenor Gardens and have a shufty at that statue for a sec.
‘I am conscious of serving Britain as I served my own country’?
That’s not what he said;
Given the anglocentric nature of the British institutions of government, education and media, it’s not surprising that the English have taught the rest of the world to confuse the concepts as well. So much so that the prefix ‘anglo-‘ is still used to mean British. When was the last time you heard anyone refer to Brito-American relations or Brito-European politics?
But even the word Ã¢â‚¬ËœBritishÃ¢â‚¬â„¢ is at best ambiguous and often inaccurate. The country is the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland, yet Ã¢â‚¬ËœBritishÃ¢â‚¬â„¢ can refer to things that are from either Great Britain or from the UK. There is no word for Ã¢â‚¬ËœUK-ishÃ¢â‚¬â„¢. I cannot think of another country that has no word for that which pertains to it.
In Northern Ireland, cars drive round with Ã¢â‚¬ËœGBÃ¢â‚¬â„¢ stickers on the back even though Northern Ireland has never been and will never be part of Great Britain. The international currency abbreviation for the pound sterling is GBP, even though it is the currency of Northern Ireland, the Channel Islands, Man and elsewhere. The UK goes to the Olympics as Ã¢â‚¬ËœTeam GBÃ¢â‚¬â„¢.
Yet for other things, such as the World Cup, we enter as four separate nations. No wonder we’re confused. Stopping this haphazard approach and taking the four-nation approach would help us define our national identity more clearly and remove some of the vestiges of English supremacy and overtones of annexation.
When we compete as one nation, the national anthem is God Save The Queen. When we compete as four nations, Wales and Scotland have their own anthems. Northern Ireland alternates between God Save The Queen and the Londonderry Air (the tune to Danny Boy). England, of course, uses God Save The Queen every time; the Englishness of the Union is reinforced to everyone concerned.
How can it be fair that the anthem of one of the four nations is the anthem of them all? How would it feel if the roles were reversed and English members of a UK team had to sing Flower of Scotland? Next up after shedding the Union Jack should be England getting its own tune. (My vote would be BlakeÃ¢â‚¬â„¢s Jerusalem. ItÃ¢â‚¬â„¢s got the requisite striving, yearning and historical elements but without the galling arrogance and glorification of militarism so common in national anthems.)
If we were to decide to separate a little further and shed the now we’re one/ now weÃ¢â‚¬â„¢re three/ now we’re four attitude it would give us a clearer understanding of our own and each other’s identities.
This need not even mean complete constitutional separation. It’s one of the reasons why Plaid Cymru shied away from using the word ‘independence’ for so long, preferring instead ‘full nation status within Europe’. You could make a case for Cuba or Bhutan being independent, but the UK – as one nation or four – or, say, Portugal or Italy can no longer be regarded as independent in any true sense.
Such redefinition should be on terms of equality and respect. This cannot be achieved while we still cheer a flag that symbolises the repression of many who lived and died under it, and is resented by a serious number of their descendants who live under it.
The Union Jack was invented at the time of our first forays of empire. It is the flag that flew over our worst excesses of imperialism. It is the symbol of that which brutalised and repressed millions, of all that was fought against by dozens of movements wanting self-determination. All around the world, it is a hackle-raiser.
This is not only the case far away but within the UK, as the Union flag includes symbols for non-UK territory and omits one of the constituent countries. The red diagonal cross is St PatrickÃ¢â‚¬â„¢s flag, an emblem of all Ireland from its time as a British colony. Although the Welsh flag had been in use for centuries before the Union flag, it was excluded from the design as the country was regarded as a mere English principality.
The English having their own national symbols and a clear sense of what they are (and what they are not) goes some way towards sorting all this out. The flags on the cars are a welcome catalyst.
When – as you will be unable to avoid until England are knocked out this summer – you see the footage of EnglandÃ¢â‚¬â„¢s World Cup victory in 1966, check out the flags. Union Jacks, every last one of them. In 1982 the England World Cup squad released a singalong record, This Time (WeÃ¢â‚¬â„¢ll Get It Right). If youÃ¢â‚¬â„¢ve more money than sense you can buy a download here. First time around, it was a piece of vinyl released on the one-off label England Records. What flag was used as the logo?
The inaccuracies stretch to the lyrics, and not just in terms of Ã¢â‚¬Ëœgetting it rightÃ¢â‚¬â„¢ equating to being knocked out in the second round. The opening line celebrates their unity under manager Ron Greenwood.
WeÃ¢â‚¬â„¢re on our way, we are RonÃ¢â‚¬â„¢s twenty two
So far so good. Well, not actually good; itÃ¢â‚¬â„¢s a typical old school football record of baritone gargling, but itÃ¢â‚¬â„¢s only wrong in terms of taste rather than fact. But for the second line, what rhymes with Ã¢â‚¬ËœtwoÃ¢â‚¬â„¢? How about something that denotes Scottishness?
Hear the roar of the red white and blue
In the last ten years, though, all this has been shifting. Euro 96 saw a marked increase in the number of England flags around.
In a pre-election broadcast in 1997 John Major hilariously warned that Labour’s devolution would ‘undo a thousand years of history’. He would do well to study some history himself and explain which thousand years of union heÃ¢â‚¬â„¢s talking about. The union with Scotland is only 300 years old, with Wales 500. And as able a politician as Blair has been, not even he could actually undo history.
The paltry devolution (I’ve yet to hear anybody justify why Scotland got a modest parliament yet Wales only got a castrated talking shop) has nonetheless played a significant part in helping the English understand their national identity. As the Celtic neighbours secede a little, so by default we must see what we are without them. The uptake of the England flag is evidence that this is what weÃ¢â‚¬â„¢re doing. This year IÃ¢â‚¬â„¢ve seen only one Union Jack and that was in Hadfield, a village so parochial it was used as the set for The League of Gentlemen. This time we really have got it right.
The English flag certainly has been used by a few tiny and obscure racist groups, but the mass use of the flag has the effect of effortlessly reclaiming it. People invariably have regional and national symbols. They get used by supremacists, the state and others who seek to wield power in the name of a nation, but they do not belong to them.
There is common history, culture and experience that bonds any group of people. IÃ¢â‚¬â„¢m European, IÃ¢â‚¬â„¢m English, IÃ¢â‚¬â„¢m northern, IÃ¢â‚¬â„¢m part of my family and social circles. None of these things need exclude the others. There is a need for a national identifying totem, a visual shorthand that is not any more inherently oppressive or exclusionary than a family name or regional accent.
A diminishing number still see far-right connections. One school banned the flag which has ‘been linked to the British National Party’. This ably illustrates the confusion I’m talking about. The BNP is the British National Party. They don’t wave English flags, they stick to the Union Jack. Furthermore, if they ran the show there wouldn’t be an England football team, they’d make us have a single British team. If anything, the English flag defies the BNP.
Aside from the easily squashed connotations of those trivial racist English nationalists, the English flag has far less of the Union JackÃ¢â‚¬â„¢s imperialist overtones. It is comparatively neutral.
As Billy Bragg reasoned on Euro 2004Ã¢â‚¬â„¢s flag waving,
Did these thousands of St GeorgeÃ¢â‚¬â„¢s flags represent a rejection of multiculturalism in favour of a narrow English identity? These questions could have been answered by looking at the occupants of cars adorned with the England flag. They seemed largely made up of families with kids who had pestered Mum or Dad to let them show their support for the national football team.Ã‚Â
Ã¢â‚¬Â¦I would have been much more concerned if there had been a spate of cars flying the Union Jack. In their campaigns for the elections, the BNP and the UK Independence Party (Ukip) used the British flag to represent everything that they stand for: an inward-looking, white society, angry at the present, fearful of the future, clinging to the past. There is an ugly xenophobia out there, but itÃ¢â‚¬â„¢s waving the Union Jack.
IÃ¢â‚¬â„¢m not saying that football is free of xenophobia or clarity on flags has been some magic cure for such sentiments. The Who Do You Think You Are Kidding Jurgen Klinsmann single with its war references is as unsavoury as The Sun that predictably promotes it. (Incidentally, even that song is a case of mixed national identities; the DadÃ¢â‚¬â„¢s Army title sequence has union jacks pushing back Nazi flags, while the lyrics sing of Ã¢â‚¬Ëœold EnglandÃ¢â‚¬â„¢). Three centuries and more of confusion, conflation and contradiction wonÃ¢â‚¬â„¢t be undone by half a dozen football tournaments.
The change of the last ten years is extraordinary though, and the apparently incidental momentum is gathering pace. With some deliberate steering, we could shake this thing off within a generation.