By Ellen Morgan
All things British and beautiful are embodied in our beloved Union Jack; it is as constant and quintessential as our excessive manners and Big Ben. The fusion of four countries presents to the world a truly United Kingdom, going hand in hand with the stereotype of Brits as loveable tea drinkers who know how to form a queue. But the Union Jack has arguably taken on a different meaning in the last few years, now representing a country that is incredibly divided and has even been weaponized against anyone who threatens the ‘British-ness’ of our nation. So how did we get here?
For many years, it was the flag of St George that caused trouble, ever since it was adopted as the motif of far-right groups like the National Front in the 1970s and more recently the English Defence League. Piggybacking off the values of the British public to promote their own views and reinforce the message of ‘Britain for the British,’ means that today, the St George cross carries some unfortunate connotations: it is linked to groups that are not above shamelessly hijacking causes or patriotic emblems for their own gain. Maybe not to the same extent, but the Union Jack now carries similar nationalistic associations. Of course, there will be many who argue that they can be patriotic and not share the views of extremists seeking to blame anyone who isn’t ‘English enough’ for the country’s problems. However, because this is Britain, it is more telling to look at what isn’t said than what is actually being discussed.
The Brexit referendum in 2016 saw Dominic Cummings and the ‘Vote Leave’ campaign do what countless politicians had done before: they played on people’s subconscious fears to achieve an outcome that benefitted them. In this case, it was the British public’s prejudice and suspicion towards anything ‘foreign.’ Vote Leave did not explicitly say that people who immigrated to Britain and got jobs here were the ones ruining the country, but they didn’t have to: they claimed ‘the system is out of control’ and the British public were left to join the dots to find who was apparently responsible for this. The population were made to feel hard-done-by, and implying who was to blame cemented in a lot of minds the idea that Britain needed to be protected from the hands of anyone who thought they could profit off living in a country that wasn’t theirs.
This rhetoric surrounding the Brexit campaign is what has normalized racist and ignorance-fuelled language in recent years, which is often directed towards anyone who is seen as ‘other.’ From a notice in a Norwich block of flats wishing residents ‘Happy Brexit Day,’ to the Prime Minister claiming Britain does not have a problem with racism, it seems that the Union Jack has come to stand for a country that prides itself on its diversity, but is failing to update its attitudes in order to accommodate it. The foundations for this were laid during the Brexit referendum, but these sentiments managed not to resurface until the coronavirus pandemic shed an ugly light on how we prioritise those who fit into the mould of what we deem to be ‘British,’ and everyone else is left behind. This is reflected not only in the horrific statistics that BAME groups are more likely to die from the coronavirus, but was also evident on VE Day this year.
On May 8th, the public danced drunken conga-lines in the suburbs and celebrated all things British, and in a post-Brexit world with Boris Johnson as Prime Minister has an undeniably ‘white only’ implication. The Union Jack flags adorning driveways to commemorate the 75th anniversary of the end of WWII felt like a demonstration of national pride that was both aggressive and farcical, as simultaneously the Government was failing to protect multiple groups in society from the coronavirus. This now feels particularly poignant as the world takes to the streets to promote the Black Lives Matter movement, which just a month after VE Day is calling for nationwide educational reform to acknowledge the horrors of Britain’s colonial past, a time that is still viewed by many as a kind of Golden Age.
We must ask ourselves: if the Union Jack is an emblem of all things British, is this necessarily a good thing? At the moment it isn’t, but perhaps as a result of this year the face of Britain will change: we will acknowledge what we did centuries ago to be ‘Great,’ and work to actually make our society a level playing field. But for the moment we are still in 2020, a time when being proudly British is also aligning yourself with a country unable and unwilling to face up to its shameful attitudes.
Image: fernando butcher via Flickr