The flag wars are here to stay

Flags have become synonymous with nationhood, character, spirit, and power. In an age of renewed nationalism, their power should not be underestimated.

A protester attempts to cover the Hong Kong emblem with a British colonial flag after they broke into the government headquarters in Hong Kong in June 2019, the 22nd anniversary of the city's handover from Britain to China.
A protester attempts to cover the Hong Kong emblem with a British colonial flag after they broke into the government headquarters in Hong Kong in June 2019, the 22nd anniversary of the city's handover from Britain to China. Credit: Anthony WALLACE / AFP via Getty Images.

As with pictures, so with flags. Each tells a different story, and since this decade seems to be one of growing nationalism around the world, we need to understand better the symbols of nationalism and the emotions they stir.

We began using these strips of painted cloth several thousand years ago. When the Chinese invented silk, they also came up with the means to create symbols recognisable at a distance, and portable enough to be carried for long journeys. The Silk Road ensured that the Arabs picked up the idea, and when Christendom and Islam collided in the Crusades, the practice spread to Europe.

These flags became synonymous with nationhood, character, spirit, and power. We learn what the colours and design of our flags mean, and imbibe that meaning in our youth, sometimes without realising it.

The flag of my own country, the United Kingdom, is a case in point. For decades, it was as if the flag simply existed, free from any analysis of its significance. There was no debate about its style, design, or meaning because there was no debate about the union of the kingdom. The 2016 Brexit vote and the rise of Scottish nationalism has changed that and caused the British to ask themselves how tight are the ties that bind together the various lines and colours in the flag? In the event of Scotland leaving the United Kingdom, it would have to be redesigned without the Scottish cross of St Andrew. Would the subsequent flag then have the same power and meaning for those left in the Union? There would also be an intense debate about the symbol of Wales – the Red Dragon. The current Union flag does not have a Welsh symbol because Wales is a ‘principality’ of England. However, while that may be the legal term for this land on England’s western border, the reality is that Wales is a nation. Woe betide any politician who, in the event of the flag having to be redesigned, dismisses the idea of including the Welsh nation’s symbol on any new version.

Across the Atlantic we now see a resurgent American nationalism, familiar in symbolism, but cruder in tone. President Trump’s inauguration speech veered towards nativism with his repeated use of the phrase ‘America First’. On both sides of the new president, behind him, the Stars and Stripes fluttered in a cold January wind, and seemingly blowing in a colder, more isolationist America. The very same flag which can stand for freedom and democracy – as, say, when planted on Iwo Jima, or in marking the country’s technological brilliance when raised on the moon – can also be seen at times as a symbol of arrogance and bullying. We may now be in one of those times and the flag is playing its part.

‘O say can you see, by the dawn’s early light’, asks the American national anthem, to which the answer is a resounding, rhetorical ‘yes’! All year round, but especially on the Fourth of July, the US is a riot of red, blue and white patriotism in a colour and pattern we trace back to the revolutionary war against the British. It was fought by the 13 colonies then established, hence the 13 stripes in the flag. The concept of freedom is woven into the pattern of the Star-Spangled Banner, and no matter your opinion of the United States, the flag still stands for freedom and democracy in its essence if not always in the practice of those in authority. If we want to understand Trumpism, we need to understand American nationalism, and part of that is understanding the flag.

This is the case with every country. Written into each nation state’s flag is a story – and some of the stories are problematic, especially in countries which on the surface are democracies whose government and national symbols are supposed to be inclusive for all citizens.

Iraq’s flag bears the shahada, the Muslim profession of faith. This was true during the years of Saddam Hussein, when it was written in his own hand, but the fall of his regime gave the opportunity to start again either with a new design, or simply by removing the handwriting. The Christians of Iraq could not help but notice, at a time when they were being ethnically cleansed from Iraq, that the state failed to take this chance to begin afresh and include them on the national symbol.

Conversely the Lebanese, acutely aware of the multi-religious state in which they lived, ensured that there was nothing religious on their flag – the famous Cedar Tree is a symbol of a country, not a religion or an ethnic or linguistic group. There is always a story behind a colour, even if its original relevance is sometimes lost in the mists of time.

Red, gold, green, and black are associated with Africa, and are seen in many of the continent’s flags, but their popularity is because of one particular country. The Ethiopian flag is red, gold and green, with a five-pointed star in the centre, which unofficially represents the Star of Solomon and dates back 3,000 years. Ethiopia was the only African country not to be colonised, and when other countries began to break free from colonialism many chose red, gold and green, in various designs, in recognition and honour of Ethiopia.

The propensity for green, black, red and white in the Arab flags can also be traced to a single source – the Pan-Arab flag of 1916. It was intended to represent one huge Arab nation for the post-colonial era. The white was for Islam’s Umayyad dynasty, the black for the Abbasid, and the green for the Fatimid. The red is probably for the Hashemite tribe and offers a clue as to why the Pan-Arab nation never came about. Why would such disparate peoples come together under one ruler? Nevertheless, we see echoes of the Pan-Arab dream in the flags of Yemen, Egypt, Syria, Jordan and others. To understand this is to gain insight into the modern region as a whole.

As national identity politics grows, so identity politics is on the rise within nation states – and with it the symbols of identity. Again, the US throws up a useful example. The Gadsden flag did not begin life in the late 18th century as a symbol of racism, but in this century people have levelled that accusation against it – and at those flying it. The Gadsden has a coiled rattlesnake on a yellow background. Emblazoned on it is the legend, ‘Don’t Tread On Me!’ Then, and now, it is to be taken as a warning, not a request.

Brigadier-General Christopher Gadsden (1724–1805) cannot have imagined that the flag he designed would still be flying 200 years later, but it has enjoyed a resurgence of late. Its use faded in the early 1800s, had a brief uptick in the South during the American Civil War, faded again, reappeared in the 1970s, and then enjoyed a surge in popularity after 9/11. The slogan captured the mood of many, but as use of the flag spread, its history hit a different nerve.

Since 2001, the flag has been taken up by various groups, especially in the South and Midwest. Before then it had not been associated with skin colour, more a state of mind. Many Tea Party supporters have used it at rallies to signify a dislike of ‘big government’, and an independent spirit, linking all the way back to the American War of Independence. However, Gadsden had been a slave owner, and since most people flying the flag were white and politically from the right of centre, it could be argued that use of the Gadsden flag was at the very least provocative. In 2014, a case was brought against a US Postal Service employee for wearing a baseball cap which bore the flag. The claim was that this constituted a racist symbol. The Equal Employment Opportunity Commission did not agree, pointing out that it originated ‘in a non-racial context’. However, it also said that the flag is ‘sometimes interpreted to convey racially tinged messages in some contexts’. So, interpreted, but not necessarily implied.

It would have been difficult to prove that an individual was purposefully signalling racist beliefs, as opposed to the ‘true American values’ of ‘rugged individualism’. The ruling underlined the complexity of flags and their connection to emotion. It implicitly recognised that, as with a work of art, the viewer brings to it his or her own emotions and interpretations in what is a constant two-way process.

Beauty is indeed in the eye of the beholder. To many Europeans, the European Union flag of 12 gold stars in a circle is a wonderful thing, symbolising a beautiful idea. But to others, in Greece for example, it might be seen as a symbol of faceless bureaucratic repression. In Athens, it is not unusual to find the EU flag defaced, or even burnt. Many Greeks who rally around their own flag in these exceptionally difficult times feel little or no emotional attachment to the 12 stars. This is true of tens of millions of people across the Union and demonstrates the failure of the EU project to win them over emotionally. War may have come to be seen as a little ‘20th century’ by many Europeans, especially intellectuals, but there are still many more people who would fight for their own country than who would leap out of a trench and towards gunfire crying ‘For Beethoven and the EU!’

The oceans of nation state flags we now see at nationalist party rallies across Europe are testament both to the resilience and now growth of nationalism. In 1918, in Russia, the Communists threw the priests out of the churches and padlocked the doors – 70 years later, as soon as the padlocks were removed, the faithful flocked back in. The teachings of Marx could not obliterate that pre-existing and more deeply embedded Russian culture.

It is a similar story with the EU and the nation state. For 70 years, the drive has been towards ever-closer union, and politically this may have happened. For the true believers in the project, it has happened not just politically, but also emotionally. However, for many others the pooling of sovereignty at the supranational level has been something given up reluctantly, and as a small majority of the British have shown, something to be taken back if it is deemed to have gone too far.

Some nation state flags are problematic, insofar as they may bear a symbol which excludes minorities. This tension – and the battle for the hearts and minds of Europeans – has not peaked. Following recent election results in the Netherlands and France, the dominant narrative in media coverage and among politicians has been that the Dutch and French had halted the rise of the extreme right across the continent. But this can be seen as wishful thinking at best, complacency at worst.

The Dutch far right increased its share of the vote and number of seats in parliament from 12 to 20. In France, the far right breezed through to the second round of the presidential election. It then doubled its vote share from the previous time this had happened – when Marine Le Pen’s father, Jean-Marie, stood in 2002 – winning 33 per cent of the vote as opposed to 17.8 per cent.

Liberal Europe may have portrayed this result as seeing off the challenge from the far right, which is exactly the same argument that was made in 2002. But to view a doubling of support for the extreme right over a 15-year period as a triumph is a strange logic. And the rise has not yet peaked. In Germany, Angela Merkel has tacked sharply to the right in a bid to restrict the growth of extremes, but unless there is extraordinary economic growth in Europe, and a reduction in immigration, there is little reason to expect nationalism to subside.

And let us add to these economic woes and the rise in immigration, another factor – technology. Numerous experts from the consulting firm CBRE, researching for Oxford University, predict that up to 50 per cent of jobs will disappear over the next 20 years as robotics and digitisation take over tasks currently done by humans. Jobs traditionally performed by men are said to be at a slightly higher risk of becoming obsolete.

If this is the case, it is accepted that some new jobs will be created, but at nowhere near the levels of those becoming defunct. A large proportion of the lost jobs will be in low-skilled industries, which is exactly where many of the immigrants will be competing with the less-educated native working-class populations of the countries to which they come in search of a better life. At this point, with both identity and economic welfare under threat, there’s little reason to believe that these sections of the electorates will choose to keep voting for the very same mainstream parties which oversaw what will seem to them a disaster.

The extreme left will do what it traditionally does – street politics mixed with strains of anti-Semitism in order to find scapegoats. It can even play the nation state card with some quick intellectual gymnastics in order to blame the evils of global capitalism for each and every ill. However, the extreme right will turn even more to the forces of national identity as a reflex reaction.

We will then start to notice the ancient symbols of Europe, which are in front of us all of the time, being hijacked for a time of renewed nationalism. To the nationalists, the cross in the Scandinavian flags could take on a deeper meaning than its mere inclusion on the flag of a nation state. Instead it could be taken as symbolising the type of nation state they want, and so the non-ethnic symbol of Christianity could become synonymous with being white. These symbols are found everywhere at both national and regional level – in the Greek and Swiss flags, in the five ‘stigmata’ dots of the Portuguese flag, on the Cross of Lorraine in France, and, seen but not seen, in the depictions of a lamb or a rose, both of which are deeply connected to Christian identity.

If taken up by the far right in the furtherance of identity politics, they could become a potent force. The English have already had a small taste of this. In the 1970s it became commonplace for the flags of both Britain and England to be flown by the extreme right. Some far-right activists began recruiting for members outside football stadiums on match days. Slowly an association grew in the public mind between the flags and the far right. The cross of St George on the English flag, in particular, began to be held as a symbol of the extreme right wing. The canvassing for support among football fans was, in the far-right’s mindset, a success. The numbers recruited were never great, but creating the association of flag-flying and overt patriotism among primarily working-class men gave them a visibility which far exceeded the support they actually had.

By the early 1990s, things had gone so far that much of the English middle class would no more fly an English flag than they would a swastika. The stereotype of ‘white van man’ was rampant, and if ‘white van man’ flew the cross of St George from his van, the assumption in many people’s minds was that they must, therefore, be a supporter of the National Front or the British National Party.

The English intelligentsia has long had a strange loathing for the English in general, and among some sections of it an assumption that a patriotic working-class person is probably a racist. The great British writer George Orwell summed it up well in a 1941 pamphlet entitled ‘The Lion and the Unicorn’. ‘England,’ he wrote, ‘is perhaps the only great country whose intellectuals are ashamed of their own nationality … In left-wing circles it is always felt that there is something slightly disgraceful in being an Englishman and that it is a duty to snigger at every English institution, from horse racing to suet puddings.’

This attitude so pervaded the intelligentsia that many openly mock signs of Englishness. Much of this is rooted in a deep embarrassment about colonialism, but it damages the cause of the very liberal values much of the intelligentsia believe they uphold. Because they know so little of their own country, and their fellow countrymen and women, they have created an atmosphere in which ordinary people feel they cannot express their patriotism for fear of being ridiculed or worse. When this happens, people turn inwards and cling more tightly to their identity and become more suspicious of those who they fear are seeking to dilute it. This is not a recipe for a healthy democracy, and versions of this recipe are cooked in most of the European nation states. But it is especially strong in the UK.

The English partially rescued their flag, ironically through the same vehicle that threatened to take it away – football. If you watch footage of the 1966 World Cup final, won by England at Wembley, there is hardly an English flag to be seen among the sea of Union Jacks. At that time, for the English, the British flag was synonymous with England – and England with Britain. By the time England hosted the Euro 96 football championship, the distinct identities of Scotland and England were more pronounced, and England were drawn to play against Scotland. Across the country, England flags began to appear as the English nation embraced the tournament, mostly in a fun, unthreatening, patriotic manner. The Cross of St George flew from windows, vans, motorbikes, and was emblazoned on t-shirts, hats, and scarves. Here was an excuse, and a space, in which you could fly the flag of your country without people assuming the worst about you. In 2012, the leader of the opposition Labour Party, Ed Miliband, made a speech about Englishness, arguing: ‘Since 1996, English football fans have helped to reclaim the flag of St George from the BNP.’ He was right – up to a point.

And the point of understanding the power of a symbol of nationhood, and of rescuing it? It’s really quite simple. First, if you do not understand its potency, you have less control over it, and most people agree that nationalism needs controlling, we only argue about the degree. Secondly, if you deny a people’s sense of themselves, indeed if you mock it, you cannot expect them to support you. The Road to Somewhere, by the British writer David Goodhart, depicts two social types, the ‘Somewheres’, who have a strong sense of belonging to their home locality, and an emotional and logical attachment to it, and the more mobile ‘Anywheres’ who, he argues, float above this space and are as at home in Stockholm as they are in San Francisco.

It has taken several decades of globalisation but people are slowly waking up to the fact that one of its effects has been, in some places, to push aside national identity and local culture. Simultaneously, those pushed aside have been told how successful this model has been for the world. It may well have been successful in many areas, for many people, but by no means for all, and those not flourishing in the changed world order have come to be known as the ‘left-behinds’.

If you want to take the ‘left-behinds’ with you, you need to understand them, and what it is that they are attached to, recognising that the love of one’s own does not automatically mean a dislike of others.

This essay originally appeared under the title ‘Flags in an age of renewed nationalism’ in ‘Nation, state and empire: Perspectives from the Engelsberg Seminar’Bokförlaget Stolpe, in collaboration with the Axel and Margaret Ax:son Johnson Foundation, 2021.


Tim Marshall