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What do we do with the complicated history of the Union Jack?

In just the past 100 years, the flag has been associated with fascism, Swinging London, racism, and Cool Britannia – but what does it mean to young people today?

Introducing Horror Nation?, a new season from Dazed about the current state of the UK from the perspective of the young people who live here. Over the course of this week, we will be celebrating the good that is happening all across the country – the culture and the creativity, the artists and the activists, the positive forces for change. But we will also be confronting the reality that life is getting increasingly challenging for British youth, and that Britishness itself is in flux, or even crisis. Stay with us as we lift the lid on modern Britain and ask whether this really is a horror nation.

What do you think of when you see the Union Jack? Maybe you think of the far-right, racism, colonialism, and a stuffy old monarchy that should have been sent to la guillotine about 300 years ago. Maybe you feel a swell of patriotism and national pride. Maybe you just think it’s cringe – or you don’t think of anything at all.

It seems every time the flag has been thrust into the limelight in recent years, it’s sparked debate about what it really represents. Is it a pure expression of national pride? Or is it actually an alienating (or even racist) symbol? This isn’t just some niche Twitter discourse, either: a YouGov survey found that 19 per cent of Brits associated the flag with “racism and extremism” – a minority, sure, but hardly an insignificant minority. These sorts of clashing opinions have been around for decades too; even George Orwell, writing in 1941, claimed that those on the left in England generally felt “ashamed” of their country and “sniggered” at the flag.

This makes sense, given the far-right’s historic appropriation of the flag. “The emblem of the Imperial Fascist League, originally founded in 1929, featured a swastika superimposed over a Union Jack,” Nigel Copsey, professor at Teesside University and an expert in right-wing extremism and fascism, explains. “British Union of Fascists rallies in the mid-1930s would often feature Union Jacks too.” The brandishing of the Union Jack by the far-right arguably became most visible in tandem with the rise of the National Front in the 1970s and then the British National Party in the 1980s; infamously, racist groups such as these would occasionally chant “ain’t no black in the Union Jack”. 

Today, the Union Jack is arguably not as closely intertwined with the extreme right as it was in the 1970s, but for many people its image still carries a problematic legacy, bound up with racism, colonialism, and nationalism. Plus, it’s still a symbol which is undeniably more widely embraced by and associated with conservatives. It’s in the N of GB News’ logo; there are no fewer than four in the Downing Street briefing room; it was everywhere during the coronation celebrations last month. And, of course, as anyone who spends much time on social media will know, a ‘flag shagger’ has become shorthand for someone with conservative and doggedly patriotic views – usually with the Union Jack or St George’s flag in their bio.

But the Union Jack hasn’t always been an exclusively conservative symbol. In 1966, The Who graced the cover of the Observer, shot in front of a huge Union flag, with 21-year-old Pete Townshend in the middle wearing his famous Union Jack print jacket. Worn by Townshend – who at the time was a member of the Young Communist League and Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament (CND) – the flag appeared to be undergoing a transformation. It was waved in the stands at Wembley when England won the World Cup; Twiggy wore a Union Jack-print dress designed by Mary Quant in a 1967 issue of Vogue; flags were draped between buildings and in shop windows on Carnaby Street, London’s youth culture hub.

In the mid-60s, “the national flag suddenly started to look like a symbol of modernity,” writes Dominic Sandbrook in White Heat: A History of Britain in the Swinging Sixties. “Enterprising manufacturers churned out tens of thousands of Union Jack mugs, boutiques sold Union Jack T-shirts in Union Jack carrier bags, and eventually there were even Union Jack bikinis and knickers.” Off the back of this more irreverent use of the flag’s imagery, punks in the 70s used it to express anti-establishment sentiments, as on the cover of The Sex Pistols’ single “Anarchy in the UK” where it appears tatty and shredded.

The flag enjoyed mainstream appeal again in the late 1990s with the advent of Tony Blair and ‘Cool Britannia’. As Copsey says, “the New Labour government (briefly) appropriated the Union Jack to rebrand Britain as modern, vibrant, exciting and young,” while British cultural linchpins also embraced flag imagery: in 1997, Liam Gallagher and Patsy Kensit appeared on the cover of Vanity Fair in a bed complete with Union Jack sheets, while both Naomi Campbell and Kate Moss wore Union Jack-inspired designs at London Fashion Week. Most famously, Geri Halliwell wore a Union Jack tea towel sewn onto a tiny black Gucci dress at the 1997 BRIT awards – a look that has since inspired innumerable drag acts and fancy dress costumes.

Still, while the flag was widely embraced by cultural icons, young people and progressives in the 60s and 90s, it has never really meant the same thing to everyone. Did it really feel like an inclusive symbol for immigrants living in the UK in the wake of Enoch Powell’s ‘Rivers of Blood’ speech, especially considering his supporters marched through Wolverhampton in April 1968 holding a Union flag with ‘ENOCH’ stamped across it? Music industry executive Alan McGee nearly didn’t sign Oasis because he thought the Union Jack hung in their practice room meant they were fascistsGinger Spice’s dress was hardly an unproblematic choice either – the only reason the dress had the CND logo stitched onto its back was because Halliwell’s stylist was worried a Union Jack dress would still be associated with the National Front and perceived as racist.

“When a flag belongs to some, then, almost by default, it doesn’t belong to others or is alienating to them” – Alison Goodrum

What comes through in these contrasting examples is that, while the Union flag may be fluid, it is seldom, if ever, innocuous,” Alison Goodrum, professor at Norwich University of the Arts and author of The National Fabric: Fashion, Britishness, Globalization. “Much of its meaning may be context dependent: whose body is it being worn on, in what social setting and, also, how is it being read and interpreted?”. Evidently, differing attitudes towards the flag can reveal a lot about the experiences of various demographics throughout time. Take the 60s: an amazing time to be white, well-off, young, and living in London, sure – but also a challenging time to be Black in Wolverhampton. “When a flag belongs to some, then, almost by default, it doesn’t belong to others or is alienating to them,” Goodrum says.

What do our current attitudes to the Union flag reveal about life in Britain in 2023? That it’s as divided a nation as ever. A good time to be rich, conservative or over 60, a bad time to be poor, progressive or young. These faultlines became starkly apparent when the flag was most recently thrust into the spotlight, during the celebrations for the platinum jubilee last summer and the coronation this May: to mark the occasions, some people hung Union Jack bunting outside their homes or waving tiny plastic flags; others said the display of flags on Regent Street was omitting strong fascist vibes.

Arguably the most stirring recent uses of the flag are the instances where this complexity and division is acknowledged head-on. Take Stormzy headlining Glastonbury in 2019, wearing a Banksy-designed vest emblazoned with a faded, tattered-looking Union Jack. He went on to play a recording of a David Lammy speech about the disproportionate number of young Black people in the criminal justice system as part of his performance. Dua Lipa, meanwhile, wore a custom Vivienne Westwood Union Jack jacket and skirt combo at the 2021 BRITs, which on the surface seemed to be a more straightforward expression of national pride – but earlier in the evening, she had called on Boris Johnson to give NHS staff a fair pay rise, eschewing the ‘blind patriotism’ of the right.

It often seems unlikely that the flag – and by extension, patriotism – will ever be reclaimed by progressives and transformed into something truly inclusive. Sometimes it feels as though Orwell’s 80-year-old observation, that “in left-wing circles it is always felt that there is something slightly disgraceful in being an Englishman”, still rings true today. But Stormzy and Dua Lipa seem to have hit on something with their more creative reconfigurations of the flag, which critique Britain’s ruling class while expressing an emotional attachment to Britain itself. Perhaps this is a form of patriotism that the left can get behind: one that acknowledges our country is flawed, where the current ruling class remains hellbent on a mission to crush the marginalised – but also one that doesn’t want to give up just yet. One that celebrates our culture. One that sees the potential for how things could get better.

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