flagging up the identity crisis

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 ‘Great Britain’. 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 aren’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 they’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.

Herbert Asquith's grave

He was Prime Minister of the UK in the early 20th Century. But that’s not what he thought.

Herbert Asquith's grave inscription

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, Asquith’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 Asquith’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.

Marshal Foch's statue

‘I am conscious of serving Britain as I served my own country’?

That’s not what he said;

Marshal Foch's statue inscription

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 ‘British’ is at best ambiguous and often inaccurate. The country is the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland, yet ‘British’ can refer to things that are from either Great Britain or from the UK. There is no word for ‘UK-ish’. I cannot think of another country that has no word for that which pertains to it.

In Northern Ireland, cars drive round with ‘GB’ 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 ‘Team GB’.

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 Blake’s Jerusalem. It’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 we’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 Patrick’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 England’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 (We’ll Get It Right). If you’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?

a crime against music

The inaccuracies stretch to the lyrics, and not just in terms of ‘getting it right’ equating to being knocked out in the second round. The opening line celebrates their unity under manager Ron Greenwood.

We’re on our way, we are Ron’s twenty two

So far so good. Well, not actually good; it’s a typical old school football record of baritone gargling, but it’s only wrong in terms of taste rather than fact. But for the second line, what rhymes with ‘two’? 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 he’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 we’re doing. This year I’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. I’m European, I’m English, I’m northern, I’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 Jack’s imperialist overtones. It is comparatively neutral.

As Billy Bragg reasoned on Euro 2004’s flag waving,

Did these thousands of St George’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. 

…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 it’s waving the Union Jack.

I’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 Dad’s Army title sequence has union jacks pushing back Nazi flags, while the lyrics sing of ‘old England’). Three centuries and more of confusion, conflation and contradiction won’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.

  1. Jim B said:

    Robert, to make matters even more complicated though, I know several Irish people who will react with anger or a wince to the phrase “the British Isles”.

    Whether or not it’s the official term for the geographical area is moot; they still see it as having connotations of ownership.

  2. Merrick said:

    Jim, I see your point (although the words Irish Sea have no connotations of ownership; then again, the English, Welsh and Scottish have never been under Irish occupation so are going to be a lot less sensitive).

    I remember someone in Bantry saying the neutral term was ‘North West European Archipelago’. It may be geographically correst but it’s jargony and far too much of a mouthful to ever catch on.

    Is there a phrase that gets used in Ireland that’s regarded as neutral?

  3. Ian said:

    You refer both to “The English having their own national symbols and a clear sense of what they are (and what they are not)” and yet, later, you claim “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.”

    Your parentheses are telling: I would be extremely interested in any way of articulating national identity that does not, at some point, have to resort to saying Umm, “we” are not like “them”, whoever “they” are. It seems to me that the attempt to forge a national identity ipso facto implies that there are others in contrast to whom that identity needs to be differentiated, and must therefore be exclusionary. Otherwise it is inevitably a pointless exercise. (It’s also worth bearing in mind the multiple meanings of the word ‘forge’.)

    Lastly, as I seem in danger of regurgitating each and every one of the 10 500 words I recently wrote about this, can I ask why there is a need for such a visual shorthand? What purpose will it serve? I paraphrase one of Eric Hobsbawm’s observations on the unspecific nature of invented traditions by saying that the British stand for the national anthem, but what does that anthem stand for? In the same way, this visual shorthand does not seem to stand for anything other than an inchoate, non-specific Englishness.

    Mind you, maybe that’s the best kind?

  4. More later in response to an interesting post, but just a comment on the British Isles business: in most circumstances speaking from within the UK and Ireland we can talk about “these islands” avoiding anyone’s possession. And why can we not also speak of “the British and Irish Isles” because after all Ireland has a considerable number of subsidiary isles as well.

  5. Sam said:

    “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?”

    This isn’t a fair analogy, it’s not as if Scottish Britons have to sing a song praising England. The English sing God Save the Queen (I think) beacause that is associated with Britain, and the English are the group of Britons that are the most proud of being British, whereas Scots are the complete opposite.
    The amount that the English are flying England flags is probably the same amount that the Scots fly the saltire (albeit not with plastic car flags) all year round, and you never see the Union Flag flying in Scotland.

    The English still fly the Union Flag quite a bit, with St George’s only being brought out for the football.
    Yes, England is the dominant nation and English nationality has never been under threat, whereas Scotland’s has. Now Scotland and Wales have had a taste of independence and are prouder of their flags and keener than ever to fly them, the English have seen it as unfair, and try to assert their nationality by flying the flag at football tournaments, only to pack them away again afterwards.

    The amount of people who consider themselves as English rather than British has risen because of devolution, just because of pure envy of thew Scots having their nationality confirmed, but the English are stuck as British.

    You say Wales was “regarded as a mere English principality.” well that is because it is. Wales has never had nation status, it has never had a King, so isn’t represented in the flag of the United Kingdom.
    It is only very recently people have considered Wales as a nation in its own right, and most bodies or organisations that are regarded or branded as English include Wales in some way, the ECB. The English Football Leauge has all the Welsh teams that are any good, the Welsh being for the national team and very minor leagues.
    Of course, Scotland has to have seperate bodies for everything, there are surpirsingly few which cover the whole of Britain anymore.

    A formal separation of all the parts of the United Knigdom will leave everyone worse off in the long term, the World Cup highlighting the fact that many Scots overtly despise the English, seperating the English and Scots further will increase this.

  6. “the English, Welsh and Scottish have never been under Irish occupation so are going to be a lot less sensitive”

    Where do you think the Scots came from? Why isn’t North Britain called Pictland?

  7. “you never see the Union Flag flying in Scotland”

    Oh yes you do. On top of Edinburgh Castle (well that’s crown property so not so surprising) and there are three flags permanently outside the Scottish Parliament – the Union flag, the Saltire and the EU twelve stars. There is a fourth flag pole which occasionally has something flying on it when it’s appropriate (e.g. visiting dignitaries).

  8. Shuggy said:

    This isn’t a fair analogy, it’s not as if Scottish Britons have to sing a song praising England.

    Yes, the line from God Save the Queen – “With a mighty rush, rebellious Scots to crush” – is usually tastefully omitted.

  9. Merrick said:

    Ian, a good point and you’re absolutely right. I think my use of the word ‘exclusionary’ is the problem. I meant it in the sense of being supremacist, hierarchically better.

    This is something we run into a lot with the multiple meanings of the word ‘pride’. I know many people who deny national pride, saying that they had no choice over their nationality and so cannot feel pride for it. There is another meaning apart from the credit-claiming one, and that’s the way we feel proud of a friend who does well. It’sd really help if there were two separate words. I suspect the confusion feeds the feeling of supremacism.

    Bondwoman, ‘the British and Irish Isles’ is still unweildy. If ‘European Union’ is commonly abbreviated and ‘United Knigdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland’ only ever said in full for legal reasons, we’ll need something catchier or at least acronymable. (And that’s before there are any objections raised by Welsh, Scottish or Cornish people about being called British).

    Sam, ‘This isn’t a fair analogy, it’s not as if Scottish Britons have to sing a song praising England’

    They should be glad we only sing the first verse. As Shuggy pointed out they may have problems with the line in the sixth about crushing rebellious Scots. It’s an English anthem.

    Your point that ‘the English are the group of Britons that are the most proud of being British, whereas Scots are the complete opposite’ only serves to reinforce what I said. It’s the Englishness of the Union that makes the English so comfortable with it (to the extent that they think the terms are synonymous).

    The amount of people seeing themselves as English has risen because of pure envy? Maybe we know different English people, but the ones I talk to had simply never questioned the difference between British and English before.

    “Wales has never had nation status” – I beg to differ. It doesn’t matter if you draw the distinction between ‘nation’ (a body of people) and ‘country’ (a piece of land). What else do you call a place that whose people have their own language, literature and culture stretching back centuries, distinct from their neighbours?

    Wales never had a unified leader, but was certainly a nation of people unified by language and culture whose land was divided into areas ruled by different princes. It did and does see itself as a nation.

    Certainly, the first official boundaries were drawn by the Act of Union 1536, but surely a prerequisite of such an Act is the notion of a separate Welsh country.

    The Welsh have less separate bodies for things, but that is to do with the nature of Union. The union with Scotland was instigated by a Scottish king who became King of Great Britain and Ireland. It was also a lot more recent and there were already Scottish national institutions of administration in place.

    The union with Wales had none of these characteristics and was essentially annexation, to the extent that the first section of the Act of Union banned the use of the Welsh language in the courts and government business.

  10. Sunny said:

    Great artice. The fact that the BNP don’t use the English flag and prefer the Union Jack never occured to me, but now makes sense. Heh…

  11. A good article, but I think you’re stronger (for the most part) on analysis than on action – you fall into the same trap as the union-builders, of trying to impose a rationalistic frame on the symbols of national identity. The fact that English people are comfortable with both flags, and the fact that we sing the UK anthem, might create asymmetries, but so what?

    I’d also add – although this is a much bigger argument – that any attempt to find an inclusive identity for a distinct group will ultimately fail. Even if you found such an identity (North West European Archipelago – oh, and St George’s cross should go, as it’s a cross and so biased towards Christian culture), and could then establish it (highly doubtful), over the generations it would simply become a new point of distinction between ‘us’ and ‘them’. Less rich and meaningful than the traditional symbols, but just as exclusive in the end. National identity is, as such, exclusive.

  12. Jonn said:

    Great piece.

    Oddly enough, a while back I found myself at a party in Brussels where I was the only English guy in the room. The two friends I travelled over from London with – neither of whom were from WASP-ish families – described themselves as “British”; but one, whose parents are Sri Lankan, actually took offence at the suggestion that he might be “English.”

    So – which identity has the racist overtones, and why?

  13. Merrick said:

    This just in from the fine person I was visiting when I saw that Union Jack in Hadfield:

    = = = = = = =

    just thought i’d say, hadfield may well be pariochal, but steve pemberton (league of gentlemen blokey) puts it like this: “Royston Vasey is an amalgam of all horrible little northern towns that we knew from growing up in that region. It is actually a place called Hadfield in Derbyshire.”

    also included for your delight, a couple of little known facts about Hadfield…

    “Glossop people, being sophisticated, tell ‘Irish’ jokes about people from Hadfield. (As Irish people tell jokes about people from Cork. And Cork people tell jokes about Kerrymen.) Hadfilters tell jokes about people from Padfield. People from Padfield don’t tell jokes, they just pick plums.

    Hadfield is said to have more pubs to the square mile (or is it per head of population?) even than Norwich.

    Not to be confused with Hatfield, scene of rail disasters. Or Hayfield, a charming Derbyshire village near Glossop. Or Padfield, a village near Hadfield.”

  14. Merrick said:

    Blimpish’s use of ‘asymmetries’ is the best euphemism for domination and repression that I’ve ever heard.

  15. Steve said:

    Jonn, that comment from your Sri Lankan friend is interesting.

    I have noticed that many Asians use the term ‘English’ to mean white people.

  16. dearieme said:

    “the English, Welsh and Scottish have never been under Irish occupation”: further to Pete’s point, chunks of England and Wales have been under Irish occupation too, but so long ago that the notoriously ill-educated English tend not to know it.

  17. Did you see the interesting programme on the Union Jack on BBC last night?

  18. kheng said:

    “you never see the Union Flag flying in Scotland”

    Back from a holiday in Edinburgh. I saw Union Jacks everywhere. Most building would fly the Saltire and the Union Jack, and possibly the EU flag.

    In Stirling, it was different. The only Union Jack was atop the Castle. Well, this is the place with the Wallace Monument.

    Also, the statement:

    “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.”

    As a non-UK citizen, I beg to disagree. It is probably the Stars and Stripes which raises ire. Most non-Brits treat the Union Jack with indifference.

  19. Merrick said:


    I beg to disagree. It is probably the Stars and Stripes which raises ire. Most non-Brits treat the Union Jack with indifference.

    There’s more than one flag that can rise ire.

    From Wales to Zimbabwe you can find people who see it as an emblem of the repression of their ancestors.

  20. Kirsty said:

    Sam wrote: “Wales has never had nation status”

    Sam, go into a pub in the middle of Wales and say that, and see what sort of reception you get! I think you’ll find that the Welsh have pretty strong views on whether they’re a nation or not.