I have a difficult relationship with flags and the past few weeks haven’t helped. From the loutish behaviour of a few English football supporters in Marseille, to the feverish nationalism surrounding the Brexit vote, to the trampling of flags following the exit of the England football team from Euro 2016. Flags have a lot to answer for.
I think my suspicion of them goes back to the late 1970s when, as much of Britain waved the Union Flag in celebration of the Queen’s silver jubilee, so another section of the population co-opted it as the symbol of far-right political parties such as the National Front and the British Movement.
“If I fly the flag,” my young mind wondered, “how will people know which of these I am supporting?” That schizophrenia dogs me to this day.
In large part, I am proud to be British, English even, still knowing all the baggage and connotations that come with such a statement. But my years in Denmark gave me an insight in the use of the flag in a different way – there it adorns buses on national holidays, it is placed on the centre of the table for birthday celebrations, and it is the dominant symbol on birthday cards and wrapping paper. Compared to the Union Flag and the St George’s cross, the Danes seem to have a much more benign and celebratory place for the ‘Dannebrog’, and I never saw it brandished with a sneer as is often the case in England.
My inner jury is still out on how Australia uses its flag. It seems to have its place at the usual array of military occasions and sporting events, and strangely, on many food labels, and there are a few country pubs and properties with their own flagpoles, but generally it seems mostly absent from the lives of everyday Australians except for when Australia Day comes around.
In a week when Britain seems to have torn itself into various camps that are defined by just how British everyone is – I received one accusation that living abroad should automatically disbar me from a vote and even an opinion on whether the UK should leave the European Union – that slight distance between everyday Australian life and the flag is perhaps to be welcomed.
Sure, I’ve witnessed Aussie one-upmanship along the lines of “I’m fifth generation Australian.” “Only fifth? I’m seventh generation.” And so on. But I haven’t yet heard anyone shout that first generation Australians can’t be Australian too, or that they should be deported for wanting to be. The refugee debate is another matter entirely, of course.
Because if Australia stands for anything, to me at least, it stands for extending the opportunity to become Australian to anyone who wants to and is willing to embrace the place and its customs.
And that seems in stark contrast to the UK right now where the opportunity to become British, or should I say English, seems to be being withdrawn and reserved only for those with the right birth certificate, the right accent, and perhaps even the right shade of skin.
The current spike in racist incidents in the UK, and the adorning of much of it in the British or English flag, reminded me of a moment at an England football match in the mid-1990s. A supporter behind me was asked why he was waving the Union Flag when the England flag is actually the St George’s cross. “The way I look at it,” he responded, “it’s our flag, plus that of all the countries we conquered and still rule.” This met with the approval of his questioner and for me, it serves as a high watermark for how unhealthy our relationships with flags can be.
I’m proud to be English, just as I was proud to live amongst the Danes, and just as I am proud to have been welcomed into Australia. I may even become a dual national of one of those other countries one day too, if they’ll have me. But there’s a darkness and a shame that sometimes comes with Englishness too, and I’m reluctant to wave my flag too furiously, lest it be construed as complicity with all those other things that are carried out under the guise of patriotism.
If only there was a flag with room for an asterisk and some small print, then we could point it out at times of confusion: “Yes, I’m from there, but I’m not with them. Look, it says so here at the bottom in italics.” It might not remedy all the ills of unhealthy nationalism, but at least it would help some of us to stand apart from the sneering.