St George's flags fly from residents' homes at the Kirby Estate in Bermondsey. (Photo by TOLGA AKMEN/AFP via Getty Images)

June 22, 2021   5 mins

Unlike the Americans, we’re not much of a country for flag-flying. We don’t fly them from private households and, unlike our European neighbours, we are not in the habit of flying them from public buildings. The only time you’ll usually see the streets decked with England’s colours is when, like today, the national team are playing football.

In fact, of the rare household flags you do see across the country, few are likely to be British. There’s been a Greek national flag flying in Walberswick for as long as I can remember. All last year our local Conservative Association had an Irish tricolour unfurled from the flat above. Ditchling in Sussex proudly flies the Cornish white cross at the moment, for some reason, and Eastbourne Town Hall the Gay Pride stripes, but that’s about it outside of major football tournaments. On the whole, like all other official symbols of our national identity — portraits, parades, anthems, uniforms and the like — we go quietly.

What does this tell us about who we are? First it speaks the truth: that states are all very well and we’d be literally lost without them, but that their official symbols are not what counts. What counts is generally found around the corner and that isn’t a flag up a pole. Our most telling identities are inherent in the people, although there are institutions — the armed forces, for instance — when popular and official expressions powerfully combine, and the battle flag is one of them.

Second, it shows a remarkable, non-political, political maturity. Communities come from the inside out. That is why they are communities. Raising a flag (especially the national one) in the middle of a community does nothing for that community, and is also just a bit naff.

The same goes for lapel pins. It was George W Bush, I think, who started wearing a tiny stars and stripes in his lapel soon after 9/11 and to my utter astonishment he kept it there and then Obama followed. British ministers do it now with Union flags or, in Hancock’s case, with the blue badge of the NHS. Warning to ministers: do you believe in our country or do you not? If you do, you don’t need to wear a pin. If you don’t, we don’t trust you anyway and a pin isn’t going to help.

Third, flags get tacky. They only look good for five minutes in a germ-free environment. After that they fly tattered and torn not by shot and shell, but by general indifference and neglect. Like weeds in the garden, flags that look like dishcloths are a bad sign. Leicester railway station used to have half a bush growing out of its clock-face and I can assure East Midland Trains that this did not inspire confidence.

Now flags are flying high in the Euro football championships, and like summer blossom, they burst out everywhere you are expecting them and in some places you are not. But like Christmas lights, or party balloons, or bare chests, they’re only there for the moment and the minute we’re out, so to speak, so are they. But if we win (did I really say that?) the whole country will come out like the Kirby Estate in Bermondsey and even Emily Thornberry will be forced to get her flag out to celebrate.

The point is, except on high days and holidays, we do not like to be told where we live or who we are, just as we did not need to be told by Gordon Brown back in 2007 what our national values were. Either they are our national values, or they’re not, and if they’re not they’re not, and if they are they are, and we don’t need teaching about them.

Only, they aren’t our “values” at all – more like pieties, and most Western democracies claim to share them. We look at ourselves more by managing, pro tem (it’s always pro tem), to come to terms with our history not by erasing what is shameful but by facing it, with all due humility. The rest can look after itself. For our history is us, not a set of values, or a lecture, or a flag, and of course it is never quite resolved. The trick is to keep it in play as an essential and positive part of who we are.

The Union “Jack” was originally the creation of a Scottish king (James VI, also James I of England) who wanted a Union of Great Britain when he found himself ruler of both kingdoms. Designed for the main masts of the Royal Navy, St Andrew’s silver saltire was laid over St George’s red cross for Scottish ships, and St George’s red cross was laid over St Andrew’s silver saltire for English ships. After the 1707 Act of Union, the Jack joined John Bull and Britannia as the third great icon of the Union state, gradually taking on a darker blue to better weather the wind and rain.

In the 1801 Act of Union with Ireland, St Patrick had no cross to offer and was not around to conjure his own martyrdom, so the flag designers found what they wanted in the red saltire of the Fitzgerald family. Stranger things had happened. In 1776, the Union Jack with stripes was the first flag of American independence, while the Welsh, who were in the Union from the start, were never in the flag, and the Irish, who were last in and first out (mostly), are in it still.

As the Union of Great Britain and Ireland was buckled together at home, and Empire accumulated abroad, the Union Flag became pre-eminent. The four home nations came to stand for the inner, more affective resources of the peoples they came to represent (and vice versa), while the Union Flag came to stand for the outer power and authority of a British state which, one way or another, claimed to represent them all.

Inner and outer nationhood was an asymmetrical mixture of politics and culture that has confounded pollsters ever since, with England, the dominant partner, subsuming its identity the most. When England won the World Cup in 1966 just about every flag at Wembley was a British Jack, even the corner flags.

It might be that the English have moved on from those sunny days and the rise of the plain red cross of St George signifies as much. When a British Government built the opportunity for formal secession into the constitution, at any rate for the Scots, Welsh and Northern Irish if not for the English (who were persuaded that they had nothing to devolve from), politics in these islands changed forever. From then on, not liking the government meant, or could mean, not liking the Union, and not liking the Union meant, or could mean, politicising all the affective power of the inner nation. How well that inner power would do after independence is anyone’s guess because it has far more pull inside the United Kingdom than out it. As in the football, Scotland plays best in England. Dealing with a far bigger, more complex, and alien Union in Brussels would test Scottish flag-waving to the limit.

For the English, the rise of the red cross of St George might be a response to devo-nationalism; it saw a renaissance around the time of Scottish devolution being passed in 1997, although it probably had more to do with Euro 96 the year before. It is certainly a class signifier against a liberal meritocratic caste who, although they have found their love of football (and never stop writing about it), appear to have lost their nation. To misquote Orwell, they would rather be caught stealing from Oxfam than flying the English flag in their garden. Which is a pity. The flag of St George saw action on the people’s side in the Peasants’ Revolt and in the English Civil War, and is streaming now in pubs and bedroom windows and yes, from hard-working dirty white vans, across the land.

Back in SW1, it’s a risky game for politicians to stand in front of the flag not because it makes them look zealous but because it makes them look dull. At the Downing Street press conferences, flanked by freshly ironed Union flags, Boris & Co looked like a firm of undertakers who had got a bit above themselves.

For sheer iconic beauty and power, politicians done up in Union Flags are never going to beat gold medal athletes wrapped in red, white and blue. Flags have their moment and then they’re gone — and on their own they are never going to do it for you. If you are going to fly the flag, find the people to fly it for you, and only then spontaneously, and in earnest and together. As it was ‘Ooray for Bobby Moore, and Kelly Holmes, and Jessica Ennis, so it’s ‘Ooray for ‘Arry Kane.

Robert Colls is Professor of Cultural History at De Montfort University, Leicester.