Saturday, 7 January 2012

Fly kites rather than flags

I'll happily admit that flags, along with crowns, uniforms and most things requiring an internal combustion engine do nothing for me.

So my first reaction to the consultation paper released by my old Department on liberalising the regime for flying flags was to sigh and think 'haven't they got anything better to do'? (Answer, most certainly).

But on reflection, when I read the paper itself I found myself becoming more agitated. 

One suspects that part of the deal with Ministers on this obsession about flags (remember the flag of each English county has been  flying happily in turn over Eland House) was to say, if you insist but we're not spending much time on it. 

We all advertise our allegiances and support through symbolic gestures. I have at various times worn red ribbons, CND badges, Amnesty International t-shirts and a whole host of other more or less well advised demonstrations of support for causes or people. They were an individual choice but one intended to support the rights of others. They were also a bit of a fashion accessory (and in those terms I fear were more often than not ill advised - but then again my first girlfriend was an oboe playing Quaker who performed in a piece called The Gates of Greenham so perhaps it worked).  

Flags on the other hand are symbols of power. They always were and they always will be. The consultation paper says this in terms and goes further. Flags 'demonstrate power and identity'. They are also, and this I have to say surprised me, a 'very British way of expressing joy'.

So here, as they tend to say these days, is the thing.

This is some more of that peculiar phenomenon developed by the current Government of 'centralised localism'. We in Whitehall will prescribe that some more flags can now be flown without the need for the involvement of the local planning authority which will now extend to symbols of the vestiges of the Empire, the armed forces as well as the flag of 'any recognised administrative area of countries outside the UK' (the example given is of Australian states but one wonders just who will decide what is a recognised administrative area on which there might in some cases be strongly opposing views).

But more importantly the paper makes a significant observation in saying that the aim is to allow people to fly flags without needing to seek consent 'to the extent that this is possible without causing harm to amenity or causing offence (my emphasis)'. 

I had a look at the original regulations. They are concerned with advertising (in itself illuminating) and the guiding principles are for local planning authorities to exercise their powers, unsurprisingly and sensibly, in the interests of amenity and public safety (so not obstructing road signs and the like). There's nothing about offence. But it may be that the consultation paper in what looks like a throw away comment is actually closer to the mark.

This week we have had more of the now classic contemporary approach to 'apology' which goes along the lines 'I'm sorry if anyone has taken offence at what I said'. I'm sad that the latest example of this comes from my own football team. 

This has also been a week in which my local MP has been lambasted for some remarks which in a historical context were absolutely correct. The development of the British and other empires was greatly facilitated by a cynical divide and rule policy in relation to indigenous populations. It may not not have been well expressed (twitter does tend to have that effect) but as some more sane commentary has pointed out the hysterical reaction to the comments completely and deliberately ignores the systemic power dynamics .

Flags come with baggage. Lots of it. In areas of conflict between communities the whole issue of flags and symbols is massively heightened. Just think for a moment about how sensitive this has been and continues to be in Northern Ireland. And not just in the ways that one might imagine. Loyalist areas started flying the flag of Israel; some nationalist areas responded by flying Palestinian flags. Both were making some very clear and obvious symbolic points.

What might be described as the UKIP tendency is alive and flourishing. UKIP had a go at Telford and the Wrekin for having the audacity to fly the European Union flag. The sane response from the council was that different flags were flown at different times but that recognising that we are part of something bigger than our town, our county or our country was legitimate and important. In other words we wear multiple hats and we fly multiple flags. 

I'm not a flag flyer but I recognise their power (there is academic literature on the relationship between flags as power symbols and the fear that they evoke or exploit). Exclusivist approaches to local identity based on historic devices and power plays well to some constituencies. Personally, the 'Fox News' approach to flag flying - that it's fine to be completely unbalanced (indeed unhinged) on one channel if there is balance across all the channels - is completely the wrong way to go. 

I may be over reacting but I'd much prefer some kite flying about better ways of expressing communal solidarity than flying flags. 

Intriguingly, however, there is nothing in the regulations about another important piece of symbolism - flying the flag upside down.

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