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After the fairy cakes: the decline of the British national symbol

The unavoidable profusion of Union Jacks currently propagandising public space across the UK serve to feed a momentary diversion from fundamental political and constitutional problems in Britain. But as the Scottish voices of civic nationalism compete for space with the disjointed pro-union rhetoric of Ed Milliband, this smokescreen is increasingly being revealed as such. 

Mike Small
28 June 2012

What affect will this long long summer of British propaganda have on the campaign for Scottish self-determination? This is the question facing Yes (and No) activists as the Diamond Jubilee, merges seamlessly into the London Olympics, via the Ukraine and the more problematic upcoming SW19. The fear for those supporting Scottish independence is that the ubiquitous presence of the Union Jack in every corner of the visible public sphere must have some impact.

But like the idea that hosting the Ryder Cup, the Commonwealth Games or celebrating the 700th anniversary of Bannockburn in 2014 will have a positive affect on the Yes vote, these events are likely to fade into insignificance when Scotland votes on its future in two years time. By then the bill will have arrived for the Olympics (likely to be eye-watering) and the full cost of the Queen's knees-up will have landed too. Neither are likely to have Scots hearts beating with national pride as the Quad's austerity economy kicks in. But beneath this dynamic, between economics and Britishness (voodoo economics meets zombie nationalism) lies a deeper problem with flags and identity.

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A YouGov poll in May this year asked 'What Does the Union Jack mean to you'? 

The results were covered incompletely by the Scotsman newspaper, but the stand-out figure revealed that 44% of people surveyed in Scotland associated the flag with extremism and the far-right. The flag denotes a cosy retro world of the 1950s to many in England, but to a significant number of Scots it is associated with the ideas of the BNP, Empire and aggressive imperialism. It is, for many, the Butcher's Apron. 

If this is true, the total immersion in red white and blue may have a deeply negative impact on the public psyche north of the border.

As the BBC's Mark Easton wrote in January: "While the Scots, Irish and Welsh revelled in their separateness, England's cultural identity was based on the opposite - its importance in the wider United Kingdom and the world. While the Celts tended to look within their borders to describe themselves, the English looked beyond - identifying themselves, more often than not, as "British" and lamenting their diminished sense of imperial centrality. Brand Britain, therefore, relies on England's enthusiasm for the concept. But there are signs that, even here, the British identity may be falling out of favour." 

A poll in 2011 showed that just 20% of the UK population preferred to be described as British  . What's more, according to that poll, the number of people in England who would now describe themselves as English rather than British stands at 63% - up from 41% in 2008.

This is - presumably - the sort of reality that Ed Miliband is pursuing as he attempts to resuscitate and revive an English political project, and, simultaneously, a British national identity. A very difficult juggling act. Ed Miliband appears to be responding to the warnings raised by the left-leaning think-tank IPPR last January in a paper entitled: The dog that finally barked: England as an emerging political community  . The report argued that, with a referendum on Scottish independence looming, Labour was caught "between the Scylla of the failure of its English regionalist project and the Charybdis of its dependency on its block of Scottish and Welsh MPs". The party, IPPR claimed, was in denial about the English question. 

As the enthusiastic response of Nigel Farage and Nick Griffin to Ed's foray into serious British nationalism shows, Red White and Blue Labour has a real crisis ahead squaring the circles of outlining a progressive English narrative, an inclusive Britishness and defence of the Union in Scotland.

The Daily Mail yesterday wrote: "If I go to a supermarket in the centre of Oxford, where I live, every till is manned by a usually polite and efficient immigrant. Just three miles way is Blackbird Leys, one of the poorest areas in the country, where there are many white working class people living on benefits. This is the madness bequeathed by Labour." 

This sort of debate isn't part of mainstream culture in Scottish life and it presents Labour - pushed to the front of the No campaign alongside the hapless Charles Kennedy - with a real crisis. Miliband is fanning these flames and may be singed by the heat. The challenge is to present the Union as a force of progress; a unifier of common values. But playing to the crowd saying of his constituents is dangerous stuff: "They want there to be good jobs, they want their communities to grow strong once again. And they worry about immigration. Worrying about immigration, talking about immigration, thinking about immigration, does not make them bigots. Not in any way".

It's dangerous because the narrative he tried to develop whilst in Scotland was that of his immigrant parents, coming to Britain as a sanctuary. The union is, in this narrative, a progressive place. How can you be 'Stronger Together' (the slogan of the pro Union No campaign in Scotland launching this week) but also fearful of immigration? Stronger in common bigotry? This is playing to the lowest common denominator. It's a shocking move from someone once dubbed 'Red Ed'.

Labour and the Union Jack are being pulled apart. Speaking to an audience at the Royal Festival Hall in London, Miliband said: "While there is romanticism on the left about Welsh identity [and] Scottish identity, English identity has tended to be a closed book of late. People have been nervous that it would undermine the UK, but also because it connected to a nationalism that left people ill at ease."

It does, and continues to do so. Miliband's Great British Revival might have more chance of survival if it was in the context of a spirited defence of key British institutions: the Post Office, the NHS or a publically controlled rail network. Instead it exists in a policy void.

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The flag-worship and rapid retreat to the world of the 1950s is unlikely to warm people to a vision of a Britain that will carry them forwards. The signs are that whilst bunting and cupcakes might offer brief respite from what we are still coyly calling 'recession', the long-term prospect of British Union is dismal.

Officially, there were 9,500 street parties in England and Wales. But there were just 60 street parties in Scotland, and 20 of these were organised by the Orange Order, with funding from the Labour-controlled Glasgow city council. Given that these are people not wholly unfamiliar with the union flag, this leaves you with 40 in Scotland. This presents a real problem for the narrative of national unity.

In late 1982 Siol nan Gaidheal burned a Union flag at St Andrews Castle. They were later expelled from the SNP. Nowadays the case for independence is about sovereignty, self determination and democracy, it's not aboout flags and history. It's not about Braveheart and it's not about anti-Englishness.

In this sense there has been total role-reversal. England in Jeremy Clarkson and the coterie of tabloid and anonymous online Jock-baiters have a Siol nan Anglo tendency that Miliband should be careful not to speak to. He doesn't know what he might unleash. When Clarkson wrote: "On an emotional level, I don’t want to see Scotland leave the Union. It would be as sad as waving goodbye to a much loved, if slightly violent, family pet" he voiced this populist stand. Populism is a dangerous game. It's fine when it's the Union Jack adorning every conceivable object in celebration of the hereditary principle or London's bread and circuses, but when it's mixed with the debate on constitutional future, it may backfire.

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