I can’t escape. Flags and symbols are everywhere right now; they are powerful and they are devisive, rallying points and acts of defiance. Flags are flown in triumph by winners, but are also prized as badges of pride and defiance by losers. They are also often mindless and inconsiderate and thus not always carefully deployed. Everywhere, they are to do with claims, overt or covert, to imagined pasts.
Recently we’ve seen debates about ‘heritage’ and ‘identity’ linked to flags, symbols and statues that are directly connected to my academic research both on the Early Middle Ages and the memorials and monuments of the modern world. I’m speaking about the disputes surrounding Confederate flags and statues in the US. This is because white supremacists have not only been displaying Confederate flags, but also Nazi flags, and a range of far-right symbols, some deriving originally from Old Norse and Germanic mythology and archaeological sources. Confederate flag sales are rocketing and flags look set to be the symbolic and material means of disputing identity and race.
Flags in the UK
We’re more ‘civilized’ and ‘reasoned’ in our use of flags in the UK, right? Of course not! Some parts of the UK have long been sick of flags and their sectarian use: I’m thinking in particular of six counties of Ulster known as Northern Ireland. I remember visiting parts of Armagh and Belfast in the 1990s and finding what might otherwise be a neutral and incidental use of the Union flag and the tricolour deployed in terrifying fashions. I’ve also felt very uneasy seeing Danish and Swedish flags flying from private homes and been told ‘that’s okay, it’s normal’. Maybe, maybe not. Yet there are parts of mainland Britain where flags are used as assertions of identity in a less than inclusive manner.
So, in the UK, flags have never gone away, but flags are now back in a big way and part of national debate and attention. For instance, flags have also been used on either side in the recent independent referendum campaign in Scotland, in the Brexit referendum campaigns and subsequently. They are used by major political parties, particularly those on the right, in the two recent General Elections of 2015 and 2017.
Most recently remainers/remoaners are using EU flags to resist the insanity of Brexit, taking them to the usual annual debacle of flag-waving southerners at The Proms to challenge the Union flag’s supremacy. Britain is leaving the EU without an economic plan and without a hope, and those that criticise it are told to shut up. Flags focus resistance. From the Proms to the Queen’s hat, the debacle of Brexit has emerged and unfurled around flag-use in public yet again.
Flags in the Welsh Borders
There you get it: flags induce fear in me, but sometimes they also emboldened me. I’m fascinated and disturbed by them, and I think many people feel the same. Flags are uncomfortable.
Still, flag use is contextual and their appropriateness depends on perspective, yet it is rarely neutral and almost always confrontational at some level, whether it is class, gender, regionality, nationality or regarding religion or politics.
Let’s pick some examples. At my academic workplace in Chester, on a building just under 2km from the Welsh border, there is always a Union flag, beside which there is currently Y Ddraig Goch on a lower flag pole, displaying a subordinate position. On the other side of the building there is currently a St George’s Cross flag and, again on a lower pole, the flag of Japan. Various other flags have been flown in recent years, marking links between the university and different parts of the world, and allegiance to nations affected by catastrophes and terrorism. Sometimes it appears random, since I can’t find how and where the decisions are made to fly the flags at the University. But there they are, and their presence, their spatial relationships, and their relative heights, convey symbolism, just as is their lowering as a mark of mourning and respect.
At home in Wales, I have no flags, but there are occasional characters who fly flags on their private properties in my area: some Welsh, a few displaying English affinities. Fortunately, unlike (say) the US, no sane person is really going to fly flags on their private property. Still, businesses occasionally do and sometimes this is connected to heritage sites. Hence it is of particular interest to me. For instance, outside a hotel near my favourite archaeological monument: the Pillar of Eliseg, the Abbey Grange Hotel proudly flies three flags, Y Ddraig Goch, the Union Flag and the Flag of Europe. Cynics might see this as simply hedging bets to appease tourists from all over the UK and beyond: displaying equally these flags is perhaps a sign of neutrality. Yet as Brexit approaches, it no longer appears neutral.
Likewise, the campaign to have flag of Wales flying over Flint Castle has been linked to political and social disputes over recognition in the border county and pride in their town. Most Welsh heritage sites proudly fly the flag of Wales as depicted here at Rhuddlan Castle. For locals and tourists alike, there is a complex tension here, flags of a region/nation flying over the instruments of their medieval conquest and colonisation.
The Black Country Flag
Then, recently, I encountered the Black Country Flag for the first time. Designed by a schoolgirl and winning a competition, this is now the ‘official’ flag of the Black Country and embodies symbolism supposedly read as celebrating the traditional iron working and glass working industries of the region. It is a flag created via a competition by the Black Country living museum, and therefore is a flag connected directly to the heritage industry. It is a heritage creation! The black and red allude to the colours of the area: black by day, red by night, taken from a quote from 1862 by the American Consul in Birmingham. The white funnel in the centre embodies the glass-making kilns of the region.
The chains? Ironworking and chainmaking industries, although interestingly this doesn’t appear on the Wikipedia page.
A woman of colour, who happened to be an MP, dared to criticise the flag, and immediately was cast as claiming the flag was racist and should be banned.
She hadn’t said that of course, but Eleanor Smith MP rightly raised the problem of the mutability of the flag, and in particular the chains. This raised an interesting piece in The Guardian, which rightly raised the racial and imperialist dimensions of Britain’s industrial past that cannot be, and shouldn’t be ignored. The flag itself isn’t perhaps ‘racist’ anymore than any symbol is racist inherently, but the fashion of its use does raise complex issues about the past and the romaniticisation of heritage industries in particular. The fact that no one realised chains might be connected/associated with slavery is in itself a shocking realisation of Britain’s denial of its past.
Then, I saw the Black Country flag for the first time in the landscape. In the Welsh landscape. And yes, I felt just as uneasy as Eleanor Smith. My immediate thought was ‘oh no, some fascist or lunatic has raised a far-right flag over their tent’. Then I looked again and thought ‘oh, maybe it is the flag of an ex-slaving Caribbean republic to symbolise their freedom from repression’. Then I recalled glancing at the newspaper stories a few weeks earlier and realising this was the ‘official flag of the Black Country’, brought to North Wales on holiday by someone and pitched to celebrate their far-distant homeland. Regardless of purpose or significance, it was incongruous, disturbing and, yes, it immediately made me think of slavery, repression, imprisonment and inequality.