Friday, 29 April 2011

Whose Flag is it Anyway?

It may seem odd to see a post from me about Britishness. Like many people in Scotland, I rarely think of myself in those terms; less so on a day like today when the British media is presenting an image of the country which I can scarcely recognise. But that's why this is important.

There are many reasons to feel uncomfortable about the royal celebrations. For many of us, the royal family is an embarrassing anachronism, a feudal relic by nature racist, sexist and bigoted. I have nothing against the two young people who tied the knot in Westminster Abbey, but I dread to think what sort of life they've got to look forward to or, indeed, what one of them has suffered already. Strangers' obsession with the intimate details of their lives (and, let's face it, the whole pornographic fixation on the fate of the bride, a kiss standing in for the now less acceptable hoisting of a bloodstained bedsheet) has creepy stalker overtones that would surely see them sectioned were their attentions focused on anyone else. Pandering to it seems, at best, deeply unhealthy.

These are not, however, at the crux of the matter.

What appalls me more than anything else is that this tawdry show, dubbed by one supporter as 'the greatest reality TV show on Earth', and the very antithesis of class - is being touted as the epitomé of Britishness, of what being British is about.

Britishness, today, involved the pre-emptive arrests of dozens of people, most of them entirely non-aggressive, on the presumption that they might breach the peace. They included a middle aged professor who had hoped to perform a piece of street theatre; a student who intended to shout sarcastic comments; and a man who sang 'We all live in a fascist regime' to the tune of Yellow Submarine. A group of people who had assembled peacefully in a park to protest the fact that gay people do not enjoy the liberty to marry in this great nation were told to move on before, essentially, too many people saw them.

Britishness, today, includes an arrangement with several major broadcasters to the effect that no jokes will be made about the monarchy. Last night it included replacing Question Time with an insipid, hastily-produced biopic every critic has savaged. Perhaps that shouldn't be such a big deal, but the thing is, we have an election coming up in Scotland. There's also the impending AV referendum. How cheering it is to see democracy demoted in favour of fawning allegiance to inherited rulers.

I once sat down with a sociology class and tried to think of things that are British (not just English, the two often being confused). All we could agree on was tea (thanks, China and India). Yesterday a friend suggested red telephone boxes, which probably also fit. But today has prompted me to think of a few other things.

What is Britishness about? Do we really have shared values? I think that somewhere, beneath all the artificial ones, we do. I think that most of us believe in democracy, in freedom of speech, in freedom of association, in respect that is due to every citizen no matter the circumstances in which they were born. I think that we believe accused people are innocent until proven guilty; I don't think we believe in precrime.

I have a couple of friends who have gone giddy with delight over the royal wedding, and I don't want to bring them down. They're not doing the stalker thing and I appreciate that, for them, it's just a bit of harmless fun, not so different from the Oscars or the Eurovision Song Contest. But that freedom to express oneself should belong to everybody, including those who don't accept the royal line, those who resent having to pay for an extravaganza which they see as nothing to do with them.

In a fascist regime, people have been eagerly pointing out, one would not be free to discuss these things (this isn't strictly true, as a quick perusal of the blogosphere will show you, but never mind). But they're missing the point. Being able to talk about it doesn't make the loss of our liberal freedoms okay, any more that being able to complain afterwards makes a punch in the face okay.

What has happened today is about as far removed from Britishness as I can imagine, though it has plenty in common with the British dystopias of early twentieth century fiction. It's not patriotic to wave a flag at the royal carriage and politely ignore the fate of the protestors. That's a betrayal of the very values that give this nation cohesion. Britain deserves better. Britain can be better, but we'll have to acknowledge the rot before we can cut it out.

Now, I'm off to have a cup of tea.


  1. I will never consider myself a patriot, I barely consider myself to be British frankly given the crap I've had here there and everywhere about not belonging. But of interest might be a contrasting sort of patriotism/reimagining of Britishness. Arguably also not very inclusive either.

    The King Blues - Shooting Fascists
    (Chorus: "So I hope you've not forgotten,
    your granddad didn't vote for fascists, he shot 'em")

    I think Billy Bragg has had similarish attempts at reclaiming the flag and even some sort of nationalism away from unquestioning or racist forms of the same.

  2. Hi Jennie, I was there for the Republic party in at Red Lion Square in London today. I had a few reservations over whether republicanism could ever become mainstream, but otherwise appreciated a little sanity. I've had a piece running on ekklesia ( and have been talking to people all day about worries around civil liberties. I've been pushed, pulled and radicalised these past few months. As for 'Britishness', it only means anything to me if we're able to live in a grown up democracy. What we have now is post-democratic. I fear English nationalism, despite valiant efforts to retrieve it from the far right.

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  4. A sickeningly massive helping of two medieval concepts - royalty and religion - both of which should have long been consigned to the dustbin of history.

    I only caught a brief moment of the wedding as I flicked between channels, enough to hear a commentator say "...and their vows of christian virtue and purity...".

    I almost puked.

    How could any sane, intelligent person stomach such bilge.

    But we can't just claim that the fawning and sycophantic reaction to this event was a solely British one. It's clear that right around the world there were folks who found the whole glamour of "royalty" somehow overrode their own sense of worth.

    It's as if the human race has a gene that makes people instinctively want to bend at the knees.

    I guess I am a freak of nature. I didn't get that gene. :-)


  5. Further reading - this from Hannah, who was arrested yesterday whilst having a coffee with zombie friends in Starbucks, because she looked as if she mnight cause trouble at some point in the future:

  6. Chrissie, I agree with the contents of one of your dustbins. I understand why you might want to fill the other one with religion. I have to say I think that's a mistake, not only because people like me would end up (literally) rubbished but because secular humanists need the Christian left and centre ground to form a republican majority. The 17th C saw the only English brush with republicanism and whatever its flaws, that had a religious character. The end of the monarchy and the beginning of a real democracy will be brought about by all of us - secular or spiritual.