Well, I have just added ‘Brexit’ to my WordPress account dictionary. I am scarcely surprised that the word has yet to enter the English lexicon in all corners just yet; it’s been less than 9 months since the momentous vote on 23 June 2o16.
For many Remainers (another word WordPress dictionary does not recognise), the vote was nothing less than a triumph of vintage English xenophobia, epitomised by the Union Flag, commonly known as the Union Jack. Is it the Union Flag or the Union Jack? The correct name is disputed. The etymology of the word does not concern me here. Suffice to say, I prefer Union Flag, for reasons I will spell out below. Henceforth, all mentions of it will be under Union Flag, shortened to ‘Flag.’
The Flag’s associations are mixed. But for many Remainders of a liberal or progressive political persuasion, they are negative. It’s the badge of far-right.Some people cannot see it without having disturbing visions of shaven-headed thugs, in leather jackets and skin-tight jeans, faces distorted by hatred and fear, laying into a dark-skinned migrant with their bovver boots. That’s not all. For many, it is the symbol of just about every crime against humanity: slavery, the concentration camp, genocide of native peoples, to name just a few.
It’s almost as if the Flag itself has some demonic property; there is almost a terror of those who feel any form of affection for it, for anyone who feels this must be feeling the first stirs of dark impulses that will lead to donning black uniforms, topped by a peak hat with a death’s head badge, along with shiny jackboots. From there, it’s downhill, all the way to the gas chambers.
But the Union Flag is not the same the Swastika (or the Nazi’s appropriation of the symbol). That flag will never lose the stigma rightly attached to it as it is, to borrow a phrase coined by the historian Michael Burleigh, the epitome of an ‘anti-civilisation’, with just about nothing to compensate by way of redemption. By way of contrast, the Union Flag has sometimes been the banner of racism, imperialism and plunder but those things are not the sum of it. It is also the banner under which ideas of freedom from tyranny and human rights have spread around the world, standards by which we judge not only foreign dictatorships but our own country; under which great strides in scientific knowledge have been made, contributing massively to improving the welfare of humankind.
The Nazi Swastika was a symbol of a racist state that by definition excluded certain categories of people – wholesale – from belonging and slated them to be destroyed. The Union Flag represents a civic nationalism that does not – by definition – exclude people who were not born white British/English. In my own office, in a team of 10 administrators working for the state, 6 of us have near-ancestors, one generation back, born outside the UK, from 3 different continents. You would not have found Jews, Gypsies or overt homosexuals working in administration of the Nazi state.
What does all this have to do with Brexit? It is because I fear that the apprehension among Remainers that the UK will be less defined by a civic nationalism and more by an ethnic nationalism may well be justified, in the longer term. The Union Flag will become less inclusive than it is now. The country for which it flies will never be Nazi but it will be more introverted. more fearful of foreigners, more tempted to scapegoat outsiders for the problems that will inevitably persist, and from which leaving the EU will provide no deliverance. It does not have to be this way. The Leaver Daniel Hannan for instance argues that that a liberal, open tolerant civic nationalism can thrive outside the EU. Maybe – the problem is that many of Leave’s cheerleaders do not want to see such a thing.
But this is not about what might or might not happen in the future. This is a backward looking piece in the sense of trying to work out how we got here. The fact is, progressives must bear some of the blame. How so?
First, in denying that the Union Flag can represent a broader, tolerant form of nationalism, they have acquiesced in the far-right’s appropriation of what is supposed to be a national, civic symbol, that does not belong by right to one section of the population. ‘There ain’t no black in the Union Jack’ say the fascists and racists and many progressives agree, albeit not from a shared premise. Given the far-right has been allowed to appropriate it, it scarcely surprising that it has weakened as a symbol of national unity that can transcend division.
This is where terminology gets heated. Try using the term ‘Union Flag’ to a progressive who prefers ‘Union Jack’. The argument will get heated. Why? Because Union Flag is a lot more neutral and inclusive that Union Jack. The Union Jack, for complex reasons that we need not dwell on here, has been stigmatised by all manner of pejorative associations in the way that ‘Union Flag’ has not. The progressive will resist this redesignation, because they see it as dishonest attempt to wipe the flag clean of its imperial crimes. To wipe the flag clean is ensure we forget our crimes, meaning we will commit them all over again. Trying to argue for the Union Flag is like trying to wash clean the original sin. It is not possible because we cannot escape our fallen colonial, racist and imperial nature. Only in this version of the original sin, unlike the original version, it is only white people who are forever damned, as if racism, to take just one evil, is a flaw found among white people only.
But if one can argue that the Union Flag is not the Swastika in a red, white and blue colour scheme, then this progressive way of thinking is a terrible mistake. It deprives liberals with the resources to develop common symbols that can bind a diverse, variegated society. This leads me to a broader observation. We have celebrated every form of belonging and group affiliation except for one, the one held by the majority of the country, and who are still the majority, in spite of the all the changes toward a multicultural society since the Second World War: the white British, or English. Everyone else’s expression of group identity is acceptable but not theirs, stigmatising any attachment to the Flag as an expression of ineradicable bigotry. Is it any wonder that we have seen a backlash?
I hope I am not misunderstood here. I have said before that civic nationalism treats individuals on their merits, not on their group affiliation. I have said that an immigrant worker, doing the dirty, shitty jobs and paying their taxes, deserves more merit than a white, indigenous lager-swilling lout. I do not sentimentalise white working class culture. Not all aspects of it are attractive. Its anti-intellectualism for instance and its occasional propensity to indulge in football hooliganism are features of indigenous culture I do not like.
But the same could be said for some of the minorities of this country. I dislike the homophobia of Muslim Imams and West African charismatic preachers. I dislike gangsta rap and the celebration of criminality and gang culture. But while it is safe for me to signal my disapproval of certain aspects of indigenous culture that do not match up to progressive principles, it is not so safe to signal likewise for minority cultures. To do so is risk being drummed out of the liberal club, on the suspicion that I am repressing dark urges to click my heels together, fling my right arm in the air, and stock up on Zyklon-B.
Do I need to make myself clearer? I fear that I do. So, just for the record: if I criticise minority practices, I am not saying that I want to see them rounded up or exterminated. Likewise, if I criticise aspects of white, working class culture, I am not saying that I want to see them exterminated en masse. In spite of this, I still fear that my reassurances will only be accepted in relation to the second example, and not the first.
So what am I for? Well, I should hope the thrust of this argument already points to that: a civic nationalism that can incorporate difference, under a shared symbol. A symbol that does not deny difference but does not adopt an ‘anything goes’ cultural relativism, a symbol that does not mistake tolerance for indulgence. A symbol that judges individuals by their adherence to shared civic standards and does not privilege one group over another, or penalise anyone for deciding to leave their group and go their own way. A symbol that allows us to recognise and live with our differences with honesty and respect. A symbol that does not censor or silence the difficult conversations that we need to have with each other to come to terms with each other. We are all condemned to live with one another, Brexit or no Brexit, because we can’t wish for people who think or look different from us to just vanish.
What should that symbol be? Why, none other than the Union Flag, of course.