Return of the Jack

The London Olympics herald the reclamation of the Union Jack from the far-right.

On Saturday night, I watched the British Olympic football squad win Gold in the “Uncanny Impression of the England Team” event by duly crashing out on penalties in a quarter-final. As I stood there, sobbing into my soon to be discounted replica shirt, I was struck by the oddness of my makeshift tear catcher. Two thoughts sprang to mind: Firstly, that this Stella McCartney designed football kit was probably the most fashionable thing I owned and, secondly, that I was wearing a piece of clothing emblazoned with the Union Flag* – something that, just a few years ago, I could not have imagined.

“There ain’t no black in the Union Jack” was the infamous chant of the National Front, a British far-right, whites-only political party. Formed in 1967, its membership peaked in the 1970s, coinciding with a large Asian migration wave that brought my family to England, a wave that felt the brunt of the NF’s new-found popularity.

For my grandparents, the Jack was not an image of solidarity and strength of union, but was rather indelibly linked to skinheads looking for a fight and the bricks that flew through their shop windows in those early years and right through to the 1980s.

By the time I came about, the NF had declined, but its successor, the British National Party, was rising and became headquartered in the borough that I lived in. I grew up associating the flag with those who would snarl racial epithets at me in the street, and this is exactly how they wanted it to be – indeed, the BNP’s founder, John Tyndall, wished to make the Union Flag “to the niggers what the swastika is to the Jews”. It worked. To see it hanging from pub windows and the sides of houses felt like a warning – your sort are not welcome here – and would induce a sickening, sinking feeling in my stomach.

It can be hard to explain that reaction and why one might continue to have it. I’ve often been told that I should “get over it”, that racism isn’t the overt, systemic problem it once was (which I agree with), and that it’s unfair to burden a simple flag with these connotations, especially since it’s also strongly linked to more positive, prestigious organisations, such as the armed forces. Others argue that this sort of thinking drives wedges between communities and does nothing to foster integration.

Yet this is not a question of lack of effort or split allegiances – I have well integrated, ethnic-minority friends, as British as a Westminster sex scandal, who would gladly consider a tattoo of the English flag, the Cross of St. George, (which has its own image problem), but baulk at the idea of getting inked with the Union Jack. It’s a powerful, lingering response, but very much an unwanted one, and those friends still consider themselves British despite it.

Of course, the hijacking of the flag for the purposes of intimidation did not go unnoticed or unchallenged, but the response by anti-racism campaigners, while well intentioned, was often heavy handed and played right into the hands of those they were trying to fight. For example, efforts to prohibit the flag being displayed by students in schools led to a backlash, carried by cries of liberal elites and minorities conspiring to Ban Britain.

Thus, the flag was fractured. An embarrassment to some, a masthead for violence and division to others – what a sorry fate this was for a symbol of cohesion, blending the standards of Scotland, England and Ireland (with Wales represented as part of England – controversial in itself, but for another article).

There have been other, more refined, responses: attempts to not cede the flag but instead infuse it with positive meanings, the most memorable of these being the mid to late Nineties lovefest that was ‘Cool Britannia’. Around this time, sensing the zeitgeist, the BNP attempted to en-wig the pig of racial discrimination by ditching Tyndall and thrusting a new, Cambridge educated leader – the cuddly Nick Griffin – into the political limelight. Thus armed, they started to run the more delicate line of speaking for a lost majority, too scared to voice opposition to immigration for fear of being branded racists.

Despite coinciding with the delivery of a fresh government and a few brilliant tunes, the Cool Britannia image soon faltered as the spate of guitars and figure hugging dresses splashed in the red, white and blue started to feel like hollow fads. It was all certainly cool, but cool is fleeting – especially when millionaire musicians and popularity chasing politicians are involved – and the “movement” was dead within half a decade, rapidly giving way to a new age of cynicism, suspicion and foreign invasions.

In contrast, the BNP went from strength to strength, constantly increasing its number of members and councillors. In 2008, they secured their first seat on the London Assembly, in 2009 they followed it up with two seats in the European Parliament. Forty years on, the far-right’s stranglehold on the perception of the Union Jack seemed strong as ever, competing only with the military, as the sorrowful sight of flag-draped coffins returning from Iraq and Afghanistan became more and more common.

Now, I believe there is an opportunity for that to change. I believe that these home Olympics Games have given Britons’ of all backgrounds a chance to form and cement a constructive conception of their national flag. One might point to the mixed masses of flag wavers who lined the streets for last year’s Royal Wedding and the Queen’s recent Diamond Jubilee, and claim these events as the turning points. I disagree – for, apart from them being celebrations of deference and privilege (that the Will and Kate Show was billed as a marriage of a prince to a commoner was both slightly untrue and spectacularly patronising), and despite the public’s fondness for the Royal Family, I suspect most people were more enthused by the resulting days off that the festivities allowed.

I joyfully daubed a poor representation of the Jack on my face for the wedding last April, but I have to acknowledge that I felt a twang of strangeness whilst doing so. Perhaps it seemed a little forced, an attempt to prove myself a Brit rather than something natural. My grandmother, on seeing a photo, nearly had a heart attack and I hastily explained that I hadn’t become a BNP poster boy, I was just a man wanting to have a good time with his friends and indulge a publicly sanctioned excuse to get drunk three times in one day (mission accomplished).

However, over the last week and a half, the success of the diverse, hard working and heavily Union Jack branded Team GB in these – so far – immaculately run Games, seems to have powered an wholesome, organic surge of pride and identification that, while distasteful to some (sorry Morrissey) has, to my mind, finally overcome the flag’s unpleasant connotations and allowed it to be universally embraced as a national emblem.

This might all be a temporary rush and no doubt, for some, the flag will always be a reminder of Imperialism, the Butcher’s Apron aggressively touted around the globe by an English dominated (there is a persistent, ugly elision of ‘England’ and ‘Britain’) military union.

Technically, there still “ain’t no black in the Union Jack” – despite actual, clumsy attempts to rectify that – but the next time you turn on the TV and see the packed Olympic stadium roaring home a British athlete, turn your attention from the track to the stands and take in the colourful array of shoulders proudly bearing that once tainted banner. Not because they’re trying to be seen as British, but because they are, and they’ve come to support their fellow countrymen and women in their quest for the extraordinary: revelling in their triumphs and commiserating with their failures.

Fittingly, the BNP were effectively wiped out in the local elections earlier this year and for now the Union Jack feels free to fly, elegant and inclusive. As far as Olympic legacies go, that’s not a bad start and I’ll continue to wear my shirt, comfortable in the knowledge that, even together, despite our sporting successes, we’re still pretty rubbish at football.

*For the pedants: Technically, the correct name for the flag of Great Britain and Northern Ireland, when flown on land, is the Union Flag but as Union Jack is overwhelmingly common usage, I use both terms interchangeably.

**Cheers to Bansri & Anika for the photo – looking good, guys.

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