At first glance, the union flag might seem to be perfectly innocuous. After all, it’s just a design to represent the UK right? Well… not really.
The union flag has rarely been without controversy throughout its 400 year history. Whether the 18th century frictions over unequal representation of the nations or the associations with the National Front in the 70s and 80s, its use has been symbolic of more than just the union it was created to represent. After the Guardian revealed a leaked document from the Labour Party outlining plans to utilise the union flag as part of its campaign tactics in February, the flag has once again become central to political debate.
With a history so long, there are many periods of time which could be focused on regarding where the flag picked up some of its connotations. The fact that the same flag used to represent 1600s Britain is still used to represent modern-day Britain could be questionable in itself. But here I will be referring mainly to its 21st century uses (and abuses) in politics.
For me, when I see the union flag I don’t instantly think of the beauty of the British countryside, or tea, or the queen, or anything else that’s supposedly ‘quintessentially British’. In a political context, I think of UKIP, the BNP and the Tories. Perhaps a sprinkle of football hooliganism too, but I mainly reserve that for the English flag. That’s not to say that I believe that’s all there is to the UK of course. Whilst I’m not naturally a particularly patriotic person in my Britishness (the same cannot be said for my Welshness), I do feel very privileged to have been brought up in the UK and there are many aspects of it that I love. But this is what happens when the flag is used so heavily in politics and used as a means to divide and whip up hatred.
The British National Party (BNP), an openly fascist, racist party who opposes all multiculturalism and has an actual policy section in their manifesto titled ‘Reversing Islamisation’ has the union flag in the shape of a heart as its logo. UKIP under Nigel Farage consistently pushed a frankly horrifying caricature of a beer-guzzling, cigarette-smoking, ‘champion of free-speech’ (read: racist and bigoted) as the model of Britishness. UKIP is also very attached to the union flag, plastering it on every surface possible. So when the message of British = white, racist, anti-immigration, nationalist etc. is being repeatedly associated with the image of the union flag, it is only natural that those messages quickly become merged into one.
And now we come to today’s governing party, the Conservatives. Although generally not as covert about their nationalist messaging, it’s fairly apparent that they’ve made significant efforts to attract the post-Brexit UKIP voters. And what better way to do this, whilst maintaining their veil of acceptance and inclusion, than to wave the British flag? The flag is seemingly being used as a dog-whistle (and not a particularly subtle one at that) to appeal to those voters and make their position known without saying anything politically incriminating. After all, what’s wrong with being proud to be British? This March, BBC Breakfast’s Naga Munchetty and Charlie Stayt pointed out the slightly ridiculous obsession with the flag in government ministers’ on-screen interviews, which appeared to cause a huge amount of offence judging by the number of tweets with union flags (predictably) in their usernames attacking the pair. Of course the comments led them to be reprimanded.
This obsession with this brand of ‘Britishness’ associated with the union flag quickly alienates huge swathes of the population and whilst attempting to create this patriotic feeling of unity, it inevitably also creates a feeling of otherness. Unfortunately our current political moment seems to favour more divisive, populist politics, and the union flag is a key tool for parties to play up to this. It does feel like a bit of a shame that this is what the flag has come to mean, and I’m not sure how it can ever truly shake the connotations it currently has, but I do know that all the parties should be fully aware of the weight of the decision to proactively use the flag in politics. I do worry that the left is over-inflating the number of nationalist voters and by promoting the usage of the flag (with all its connotations) it is fostering more nationalism where it’s not intending to, taking the flag and the UK further down a path back to the past, not the future.
Ella Neve Wilton is a SOAS Junior Digital Ambassador, currently studying BA International Relations and Korean.