Talk about Newsnight

Paul Mason's Idle Scrawl

What colour is your England flag?

  • Paul Mason
  • 9 Jun 06, 01:06 PM

flags203.jpgLast Sunday I saw a man stop his car, leave it parked with hazard lights flashing and his mother sitting in the back seat, walk to the middle of a busy road and pick something up off the tarmac. It was an England flag; he was asian; his mother was dressed in an elaborate traditional silk. The flag had dropped off his car aerial. Later I noticed that my local pub had decked its windows out with St George Crosses...

....It is not a chavvy pub; in fact its interior decor is a lot like an Amsterdam coffee house and the clientele is the usual London canaille of men with stubble and women not wearing much and there is no way of telling whether they are off-duty special advisers, stockbrokers or drug dealers once they've been necking lager in the sunshine.

Today I was coming to work and decided to count the England flags and catalogue the variations. The pub flags have the word "Bombardier" across them and are advertising the beer of that name from the Wells brewery. The next flag I saw was on a white van and had the "three lions" on it signalling it was a football-specific flag. The man in the van was white, shirtless and wearing a giant gold chain round his neck. His wife was sitting next to him. These are the people English liberals are worried about when they declare opposition to flying the flag: namely the unskliled, self-employed working class of outer London with right wing views. A third flag flyer was a pizza delivery man, and it was a "vanilla" version bought cheap off a market stall. Apart from this there were not many flags at all; nobody on my bus or tube journey was wearing anything approaching England replica kit.

I walked through London's Soho district - traditionally cosmopolitan. On Old Compton Street only Comptons, a gay pub, and Swank - a men's clothing shop opposite - had prominent England flags (gay in the Old Compton Street sense, not the Chris Moyles sense). There were more rainbow flags on the street than red and white ones.

Then I turned the corner into Frith Street (home to a lot of Italian restaurants) to find a man on top of a cherry picker erecting a giant banner saying "Forza Azzuri" right across the street; then I had an espresso served to me by the waiters of Bar Italia who were wearing azure blue football shirts (the cafe is wall to wall Azzuri, including Juventus shirts signed by the players). There was a match between Austria and Croatia being shown on the big screen. This is normal at all times of day and year though.

Last night there was a thoughful piece on TV by Richard Eyre, former director of the National Theatre, and a discussion on the Andrew Neil show off the back of it, that revealed the debate about flying or not flying the St George Cross is actually as much about class and social complexity than it is about left vs right politics.

Here is my view of what is going on: there is very definitely a tendency among young people from immigrant communities to fly the St George Cross and wear the shirt; (I live in Lambeth where 40% of heads of households were not born in the UK). So the young migrant population that wants to be part of new British culture (rap, Radio 1Xtra, football, clubbing) has taken to the flag, but more especially the replica kit as a symbol.

On top of that there are a lot of migrants from Europe in London: about 150,000 Portugese people live within 3 miles of my house and the Portugese flag is everywhere; I am told the Poles are getting pretty flag-waving in the Polish parts of London right now too. Nobody seems to have any trouble with this at present - and in the big, multi-ethnic cities, it is contributing to the "flag identifies you" mood and probably boosting the tendency for English people to fly England flags.

On the other hand there is definitely a cultural adoption of the St George Cross among people who have started referring to themselves as "the indigenous community" - ie white working class Britons. As we discussed on Newsnight, this is partly a result of a rising English nationalism, fuelled by rubgy union and cricket (which have both become slightly trendier and less middle class), and devolution.

The third demographic of flag flying and replica kit wearing is children and teenagers. There is a "badge of belonging" phenomenon going on here: the worrying subtext is "any kid not wearing and England kit must have something wrong with them - or maybe their dad is Portugese". I don't know how that is playing out in playgrounds across Britain right now - if you're a teacher I would be interested to know what you're seeing and hearing.

Like Richard Eyre I don't remember there being any St George Crosses around in 1966, or at any time in my childhood until lower-division football fans started carrying them to matches. I will be supporting England in the World Cup - and I am not averse to flying the flag... but if I pass a downmarket pub decked with flags with lots of overweight suburned people sitting in the garden shouting abuse at people going past, my heart rate does tend to rise into that zone on the gym treadmill indicated "weight-loss". This actually happened to me the other day - about half a mile from where my trendy local pub is; and just shows that the English flag debate is all about context.

The current context is: the hottest week we've had for ages, lots of young people drinking pints in the sunshine from late afternoon; a spate of knife crime; a latent argument about the semiology of a red cross on a white background. Football, as we will see this month, has an incredible power to unite people across race, class and nationality; so does 5% abv lager. But both can have the opposite effect. How it pans out will have less to do with politicians and pundits than the people skills of Britain's pub landlords.

It's not just me worried about this - the deputy top cop in North Wales said yesterday:

"The danger is, and there are signs of this already in some of the situations we've seen in towns across North Wales, is that given the excitement and indeed the drink associated with the celebration of these football matches that that exuberance can spill over into abuse, into violence and into racism and that's completely unacceptable."

Meanwhile a German police chief has given the OK to England fans to wear dad's army helmets with the flag on the side. If you are wondering why the actual men of the Home Guard did not feel the need to have it on their helmets at the time dip into this essay about Englishness by a BBC journalist who was one of the Home Guard's founder members. He reported then that:

"In England all the boasting and flag-wagging, the 'Rule Britannia' stuff, is done by small minorities. The patriotism of the common people is not vocal or even conscious."

Clearly, since George Orwell's time, things have changed.

Comments  Post your comment

  • 1.
  • At 09:18 PM on 09 Jun 2006,
  • Ben wrote:

I don't buy into all this clap-trap analysis of flying the flag... people fly it cos they want England to win and are proud of the country. Those who don't either dont want England to win, or do but just choose not to fly the flag. Why must we always analyse things so deeply and start inventing different reasons why they do or don't fly the flag?

I was thinking along the same lines.

What if someone drove down the street with a German flag flying I wonder?

Something so simple goes to show how childish/nostalgic it is to believe in a unifying British culture.

British culture is ever more conformatity and xenophobia than culture.

As much as Big Brother keeps crime off the streets, people seemingly forget that the criminal class most of all follow football fanatically.

As someone said, those who wave flags the most are those who should least be allowed to do so.

  • 3.
  • At 04:31 AM on 11 Jun 2006,
  • wrote:


  • 4.
  • At 11:52 AM on 21 Jun 2006,
  • Jim Holroyd wrote:

The St George's flag could be an appropriate symbol for this multicultural nation of ours. Little is known about St. George he was possibly born in Turkey and is patron saint of Germany, Greece, skin diseases ... not just England. The cross is the symbol of the execution of a Palestinian refugee. The cross of St George was adopted as the flag of England by our gay French-speaking king Richard Coeur de Lion.

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