This is our truth, tell us yours
The row about Emily Thornberry and the flag draped home of a white van man is emblematic of much that is wrong about politics in England today.
The first thing to understand is that, for every flag waver for whom there is no deeper meaning than a pop song about Three Lions on a Shirt, there is another for whom the cross of St George is a densely coded statement about identity, anger and paranoia.
That coding has a meaning that extends beyond the meaning that matters to the flagwaver. To the observer, the St George’s Cross can carry with it all manner of implied threats. In my experience, some of the most vile homophobes and racists also venerated the St George’s Cross as an icon of their identity. If it has that meaning to me, as a man who passes as white and straight, you have to accept that a black or gay person who shares my view of it will not experience the flag positively. You also have to wonder if the flag waver may not be aware of the meaning of the flag, and to enjoy the provocation and the assertion of identity that goes with it.
It’s the case in many countries that nationalist and right wing parties venerate the national flag, or variations of it. In England, the cross of St George is on the one hand only the flag of a region of the United Kingdom, but on the other hand it’s the flag of a kingdom some of whose inhabitants assume they are the dominant political force in the United Kingdom. Part of the historical narrative of England is that the English invaded and conquered Britain, bringing an end to the dark ages, which is why the counter-narrative of the English as mercenaries who turned on their masters, as told by Gildas and his modern followers, is so subversive and controversial.
In a troubled political environment, where there is no settled national identity, flags can assume a disproportionate importance. Even counties have flags in England, and the business of finding a flag you can adopt as your own keeps county administrators busy. Northumberland, for instance, drapes itself in the flag of a lesser saint, Oswald, because of his martial and Saxon qualities, allowing the cross of its most venerable saint, the Irish pacifist and hermit Cuthbert, to be adopted by Durham, who only acquired a link with Cuthbert some time after his death. The invention of legends and histories to justify flags is a growth industry in England, as anyone who’s ever waved St Pirran’s cross at Glastonbury, or any other flag for that matter, probably can’t tell you.
This shouldn’t be taken as an anti-English diatribe. The English are amateurs at national myth fabrication compared to the Welsh, and the Scots veneration of Robert the Bruce is incomprehensible when one considers that he was also the Lord of what is now Hartlepool, and only called the Bruce because de Brus was too Norman to be Scots. The adoption of the dragon flag in Wales in 1959 was the culmination of a nationalist campaign that also included the burning down of an RAF site by Welsh nationalists who could easily be confused with fascist sympathizers.
Ed Miliband has made a political calculation that he can’t win an election, in the UK, without the support of English nationalists who venerate St George’s Cross. He’s made a calculation that he can placate the nationalist flag wavers who aren’t racist, and that he needs them enough to risk offending people like me, who hate nationalists and their lazy stereotypes, invented histories and cretinous politics. It’s a calculation Labour has made repeatedly since they lost Smethwick in 1964, and it’s a calculation that drives a proportion of the electorate away from Labour and into either abstentionism or a kind of dilettante tactical voting.
It would be wrong to ignore the possibility that Emily Thornberry was making a different calculation to Ed Miliband. In Islington, where lots of the the electorate will have experience of all the negative connotations of St George’s Cross, it may be that Thornberry knew exactly which side she needed to be on.