After nearly a year and a half of postponements, this summer’s delayed international competitions have seen a resurgence of patriotic display. In May, Eurovision was broadcasted to over 7 million UK viewers. In early June the Euros began – closely followed by the Wimbledon Tennis Championships and the Olympics. Football proved especially popular this year – the Italy vs England final attracted 31 million UK viewers, making it one of the most-watched moments in British television history.
Nevertheless, for a proportion of the population, waving flags and singing the national anthem does not appeal. For them, the idea of ‘national identity’ remains a touchy subject bound up with a sinister colonial history. The question remains whether these two positions – one of joyous patriotism and the other of a rejection of nationalism – can ever be reconciled.
Britain has – paradoxically – a fragile sense of identity, making it difficult to know what it means to celebrate Britishness
In this country, there is a deep uncertainty over our national identity that has never been resolved. In part, this is due to the ambiguous relationship between ‘Britain’ and ‘England’. A recent opinion poll quoted in Prospect Magazine found that some members of the population, for example those living in the counties of Essex and Norfolk, aligned themselves with a sense of Englishness – whereas more metropolitan populations, such as those living in London, would be more likely to identify with Britishness.
The liberal left-wing of the country tends to shy away from embracing an English identity, and find English flag-waving embarrassing and even ominous. For them, Englishness is associated with whiteness and dominance.
However, the left-wing rejection of national identity does not just stop with Englishness. The British flag, the Union Jack, also holds dubious undertones that reach back to Britain’s colonial past and expansive Empire. Many elements of British culture are borrowed, or even stolen, from its former colonies.
Despite the pomp and ceremony associated with institutions such as the monarchy, Britain has – paradoxically – a fragile sense of identity, making it difficult to know what it means to celebrate Britishness. This weak sense of nationhood stems not only from the importation and assimilation of other cultures, but also from the exportation of distinctively British culture.
The English football slogan ‘Football’s coming home’ refers to the idea that a win in a major tournament would bring football back to its birthplace. This acknowledges the fact that football, as we know it, originated in Britain. But, due to its successful export, it has become a global phenomenon and is no longer a defining aspect of our culture.
The UK populace was considerably more likely to associate the Union flag with ‘Empire’ (63%), than with a ‘modern, diverse Britain’ (36%)
It is a common perception that other nations associate their flag with rich cultures, distinctive cuisine and religions more easily. Without a common sense of what it means to be British or English, patriotism often seems pointless, with people simply celebrating a flag that is devoid of meaning.
In recent decades, attempts have been made to transform the image of the Union Jack from that of oppression and imperialism, to that of diversity, unity, and tolerance. The 1990s saw the rise of ‘Cool Britannia’, a period of increased pride in the culture of the United Kingdom, when the flag was portrayed as a symbol of hope and embraced by the new Labour government of Tony Blair.
The Young British Artists, such as Damien Hirst and Tracey Emin, and the Britpop sound of bands such as Oasis, Blur and Pulp were part of a cultural ‘renaissance’. They all embraced an overtly British identity to promote a new distinctly British image, evoking the image of ‘swinging 60s’ while also being forward-looking, innovative and norm-breaking.
However, as the recent upsurge of nationalism has demonstrated, these positive associations quickly dissolved. Even in 2012, a year of increased patriotism with the London Olympics and the Queen’s Diamond Jubilee, the flag continued, for most people, to symbolise imperialism. A 2012 YouGov poll of British public opinion demonstrated that the UK populace was considerably more likely to associate the Union flag with ‘Empire’ (63%), than with a ‘modern, diverse Britain’ (36%). It is clear that the Union Jack was not sufficiently rehabilitated by Blairism.
Yet, as the events of this year have shown, there is still hope. The meaning of a symbol is conditioned by its context, which means there is always potential for change. Even though the rehabilitation of the Union Jack has proven difficult in the past, it remains possible for the meaning of both the British and English flags to be transformed.
Strikingly, English flags were also used in the cover-up of this abhorrent vandalism [of Rashford’s mural]
Outside of the Euros, someone waving an English flag could be seen by many as an indicator that someone may be xenophobic or racist. During the Euros, however, the English flag took on more positive associations. Gareth Southgate has recently been praised by the media for delivering ‘progressive patriotism’.
According to the Financial Times, while Boris Johnson’s government was keen to align the England Team’s victories throughout the Euros with their post-Brexit nationalistic narrative, Gareth Southgate – the team’s manager – seemed to play for the ‘other side in England’s culture war’. The England team – managed by a Remainer and captained by a player who regularly donned a Pride armband – took the knee in protest against racism at the beginning of each game, and was clearly not keen to play into the narrative that the government was promoting.
When England lost to Italy on penalties, the three players who missed were subject to vicious racist abuse, with the mural depicting Marcus Rashford in Manchester vandalised shortly after the defeat. However, the overwhelming backlash to the unacceptable abuse endured by these players has demonstrated that a flag, which has been appropriated by English nationalists, can become a symbol of tolerance and unity. Before the mural’s restoration, many people covered up the abuse with messages and symbols of peace and love. Strikingly, English flags were also used in the cover-up of this abhorrent vandalism.
The Euros this year attracted viewers and supporters from across the political and social spectrum. Liberals waved English flags in support of a team whose values aligned closely with theirs. Football seems, at least temporarily, to have helped reconcile a sense of patriotism with liberal values – while also marginalising the negative aspects of nationalism. Maybe it is the association of these symbols of national identity with fundamental values that might produce a more lasting change than the ultimately superficial fashion for ‘Cool Britannia’.
Southgate seems to be trying to show us, the solution may be that we need to redefine what it means, or at least what it could mean, to be British and English
The Union Jack and St George’s flag are important reminders of a difficult history that includes colonialism, imperialism and oppression. It is crucial that we, as a nation, learn from our past, rather than deny it. Nevertheless, there is much to be proud of. In his open letter, written ahead of the Euros, Gareth Southgate praised British culture, and liberal values such as tolerance and inclusivity to which so many continue to aspire.
Upholding a more progressive English ideal, Southgate pointed to efforts within the realm of the arts, science and sport, as well as fondly reminiscing upon the Queen’s Silver Jubilee and his grandfather’s memories of the Second World War. Most importantly, Southgate appealed to a sense of Englishness built upon respect and kindness.
So is patriotic flag-waving reconcilable with liberal values, or will it always tend to be the preserve of nationalists? Can flag-waving come to represent the better aspects of our country?
Southgate seems to be trying to show us, the solution may be that we need to redefine what it means, or at least what it could mean, to be British and English. Perhaps, before progressive supporters put their England football shirts back in the cupboard, they should consider the danger of handing our national symbols back to right-wing nationalists and populist politicians.
If we continue as a country to identify with positive and inclusive values, as Gareth Southgate and the England team did during the Euros this year, then hopefully, there may eventually be the building of a stronger, more progressive and more unifying sense of national identity. The Union Jack, and even the St George’s flag, may then represent values that all in the nation are truly proud of.