Friday, 14 August 2015

Vexatious vexillology

The Snail. Its coat of arms shows the contrada’s colors – red, yellow and turquoise, with a snail on a white shield. Underneath, there’s a tile motif in red and yellow. It’s allied with the Porcupine, the Panther and the Forest, while its enemy is the Tortoise – their rivalry is probably the most ancient and deep rooted! 

Flags are a source of great debate dispute and disagreement. We proudly wave them, bury dead soldiers draped in them, and engage in complicated occult examination of what they symbolise. For some people another's flag is a source of offence - the "Butcher's Apron", a bloodied rag or a statement of oppression. People burn them, states pass laws preventing this and supreme courts spend hours discussing whether this is allowed or whether flag-burning is an act of free expression. In Northern Ireland a whole industry grew up around the matter of flags (and associated parades).

Flags embody a history, they are not merely a decorative banner available for successful athletes to drape round their shoulders as they do their lap of honour. And the colours or style of the flag isn't the issue but rather the importance of the banner to the place and the moment. It's true that flags grew up as a feudal statement, they were waved by kings, dukes and barons to signal their presence (and self-importance):

It is generally accepted that the banner and the pennon were both derived from the gonfanon, the war cloth, which was originally a flag fixed laterally to the staff. The gonfanon was in origin a lance flag, but already in the Bayeaux Tapestry some are larger and more ornate than others. It was natural for size to be indicative of the rank of the bearer. Hence in the 13th Century, after the development of that system of personal devices which we term armoury or heraldry, the larger flag, the banner, was the privilege of the barons and greater knights while other knights carried pennons, The significant point about the banner and the pennon is that they were personal flags: they identified not a military unit, but the baron or the knight as an individuals.

Some of these associations still remain - not just the pomp of heraldry or the cherishing of coats of arms but in the way footballers kiss the badge on their shirt to demonstrate their allegiance to the team (and in the importance of those symbols of the team - badges, banners, songs and slogans - to the fans).

So just as the flag was a means of identifying friends and allies, it was equally a way to see the enemy - armies weren't uniformed so the flags, colours and pennons were the essential identifier. As feudalism matured and the modern state began to emerge, the flags were adopted by those cities as symbols of their independent identity. With the birth of revolutionary governments - born as secular states from violent uprising - the importance of the flag became more pronounced. Citizens of the United State salute the flag - not as an act of worship but as a celebration of liberty. But this sanctification of the flag makes it an easy target for those who wish to oppose the USA.

In recent times we've seen various eruptions of anger, offence and self-righteous bleating around different flags - most notably the persistence of the flag (or one of the flags to be precise) of the Confederate States. But the acme of vexatious vexillology remains Northern Ireland birthplace of the 1954 Flags and Emblems Display Act and where the agreement dragged by John Major and Tony Blair from the bigots in Sinn Fein and the DUP included a reference to those flags and symbols. The Agreement recognised the:

“...sensitivity of the use of symbols and emblems for public purposes, and the need in particular in creating new institutions to ensure that such symbols and emblems are used in a manner which promotes mutual respect rather than division”

So the debate about flags became a core debate in Ulster politics featuring such things as the Flags (Northern Ireland) Order 2000 and statements like this:

“While it is legitimate for organizations and individuals to seek to celebrate cultural or sporting events in the public space, this needs to be time limited. If left on public display after a reasonable time, they cease to be an expression of celebration and can become a threatening attempt to mark territory”

All this reminds us that - however attached we are to that flag we love - these things are divisive. Sometimes this is deliberate and planned such as the recent 'online petition' from Scottish Nationalists over the union flag appearing on driving licences but often it is genuine. In my city of Bradford we have a flags policy that came about because of disputes about requests to fly flags to mark some event, anniversary or other occasion. Even then, there's the possibility of dispute as we discovered during the recent Israeli operations in Gaza - the Council flew the Palestinian flag (in the square not from City Hall) but refused a request to fly the Israeli flag. And across the year we have a cycle of flags flown - from the Pakistan flag on that nation's independence day through to the Welsh dragon on St David's Day.

All this takes us to the latest flag-related matter - or rather an absence of flag matter:

Olympic long jump champion Greg Rutherford says not having a union jack on Great Britain's World Championships kit is a "terrible choice".

The Briton, 28, tweeted a picture of his vest for the championships in Beijing, showing a British Athletics logo instead of the union jack flag.

Scot Eilish McColgan replied by saying "it looks like you're representing British Athletics instead of GB".

Rutherford agreed with the steeplechase star and said the change was "stupid".

Coming at a time of rampant Scottish nationalism (despite the majority of Scots voting to stay in the union) some will see the exclusion of the Union Flag as an act of cowardice while other will see the corporate nature of international professional sport as being at fault. Indeed the response from British athletics shows this (and that they miss the point entirely):

‘We discussed it with a number of people and athletes who thought it was a good idea. Remember England football have the three lions, England rugby the red rose, everyone has a distinctive logo except us. It’s not about rejecting the Union Jack — that’s why it’s still on the shorts and socks. And of course red, white and blue are still on the kit too.’

Referencing England rugby and England football is, to be kind, not exactly helpful to the debate! The point the athletes are making is that the flag symbolises what they are competing for at the world championships - when they set out as athletes their daydream will have been to run, throw or jump for their country.

It won't come as a surprise however that others have leapt into this discussion, taking issue with Greg Rutherford over the kit (and the flag):

Look at it, if you can bear to. With its cluttered burst of both right-angled and diagonal radiating lines, the British flag is heavy and overbearing, forceful and strident. On a battlefield it would make sense. Sure, this virulent standard served to rally regiments at the Battle of Waterloo. But today? At sporting events? It looks crap. Instead of suggesting unity, its sharp-angled divisions imply fragmentation. In fact, the relentless dynamism of its design evokes the shock and shatter of a cannon ball smashing into a French ship at the Battle of Trafalgar.

Discussing the aesthetics of the Union Flag is a fine matter (and yes there are some better looking flags) but that completely misses the point - our association and attraction to that flag isn't about its looks but about what it means to us. It is the symbol of our place, our nation. It is the banner under which millions of our ancestors fought and it is a representation of what we stand for as a nation and of our history. It is true that some are vexed by its presence but that remains, in part at least, the purpose of the flag - it symbolises a successful, free and united nation. And some people - whether quasi-republicans like the author of that last quote or chip-balancing Scots separatists - simply don't like this fact.

The quote at the top is from a tourist guide to Siena and is one of that city's contrade. What is reflects is that the use of symbols to mark a place is ancient and not a bad thing. The bad thing is when people want to take down those symbols because they've decided they are offended by them. For a long time - thankfully no longer - England's Cross of St George was banished as a racist symbol only to be seen waved by the violent and extreme. While there are still people who don't understand how we've recovered England's flag (and we've sport to thank for that), it is welcome that we can now fly it with pride and enthusiasm.

When flags and symbols are pushed aside - or worse still banned or abandoned - we succumb to those who see the flag as a problem or worse see the contest of symbols as a matter of little victories against the enemy. Those athletes heading to Beijing will be representing the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland - it's welcome that they are proud of this fact and that they want to display the symbol of that pride, the Union Flag.


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