Yesterday, Greece celebrated its 200th birthday, commemorating the anniversary of the country’s revolt against Ottoman rule which, after a long and bloody decade of war, saw the establishment of the first Greek nation state. On normal independence days, in every town and village in Greece, the blue and white Greek flag flutters from houses, shops, schools and churches.
This special anniversary year, huge Greek flags were raised, with great ceremony, from the Acropolis and across the country, with the island of Santorini raising a gigantic flag by crane as an expression of national pride. Such is Greece, a fiercely patriotic country because of its troubled and divided history, and not despite it.
It was very strange then, to observe the parallel flag discourse in the UK, seemingly taking place in another universe entirely. Making hay with the Labour membership’s howls of outrage at Keir Starmer daring to appear on video with the flag of the country he wishes to lead behind him, the government has decided to fly the Union flag from every government building in the country, with predictable results.
On the Labour Left, Corbynite apparatchik Kerry Ann Mendoza published a self-penned poem fully worthy of Adrian Mole expressing her horror at the very idea of national flags. On the Liberal end of Right-thinking Twitter opinion, the historian of medieval literature Dr Janina Ramirez displayed her academic credentials by warning that governments wishing to fly their own national flag can lead only in one, dark direction.
While Liberal opinion in this country is remarkably insular and hysterical at the best of times, the sheer horror and repugnance inspired in the British middle classes by the national flag is still worthy of analysis. It’s genuinely difficult to think of another country in the world, and certainly in Europe, where a government wishing to fly its own flag can inspire such howls of outrage. Is it a class thing? The cultural semiotics of the English flag, as Emily Thornberry famously showed, are a marker of the growing gulf between the Labour Party and the voter base it purports to represent — but is this now the case for the Union flag as well? An argument could be made that it represents a fear of nationalism, yet the comfort with which the flag-flying of our own separatist nationalist movements in Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland is accepted by the same people would surely imply the opposite.
Indeed, many of those shuddering at the Union flag are happy with an ostentatious form of flag-waving nationalism-by-proxy, with Corbyn-era Labour conferences displaying a sea of Palestinian flags on the one hand, and FBPE centrists forming a bizarre grey-haired army of EU flag-wavers on the other. Perhaps Britain is ironically crippled, in this regard, by never having to have suffered foreign occupation and a fight for independence of its own.
Countries that have come into being through a national independence movement, like those still struggling to be free, take pride in their flag as a unifying symbol of the nation. In Britain, this crucial place in the national memory is filled by World War Two, and the contested political binary of the NHS and Churchill deriving from it (as shown by the recent cringe-inducing spectacle of the Spitfire in NHS livery, the purest possible expression of 21st century British national symbolism).
The Great Flag Wars of 2021 may have been instigated as a trap to show how far apart Labour’s loudest cheerleaders are from popular sentiment, but the strange British middle-class desire for national self-abnegation it highlights is not a comforting sign. In a country teetering on the edge of dissolution, such unease with its own national symbols does not bode well. That the Union flag so effectively symbolises the country’s disunity may be a cultural meaning entirely unique to Britain, but it’s nothing to celebrate.