Socialist Worker

Is waving union jacks just harmless fun?

Issue No. 2302

A reason to be proud?

A reason to be proud?

The Olympics and the queen’s diamond jubilee mean that union jack flags are everywhere in Britain.

More than 140 have been hung along Oxford Street in central London in preparation for the jubilee in June.

Many people say that flying the flag is just harmless fun.

But the flag is a symbol that our rulers use to try and make us feel proud of Britain’s bloody past.

They fly the flag to try and encourage nationalism and to emphasise national distinctions instead of class ones.

And royal occasions or sporting events are a perfect opportunity to push these ideas.

So, jubilees were introduced in the 1870s as a conscious marketing ploy to make the monarchy popular and make people identify with the British Empire.

The “historic” pageantry of the British monarchy dates back to this period.

The first modern Olympics took place in 1896. It wasn’t based on competing national teams.

Yet by 1908 rulers sought to whip up national feeling in the run-up to the First World War by imposing national teams on the games.

Historians of the Olympics have tried to rewrite history by assigning all earlier competitors a nation.


Britain is a society divided by class and riven with oppression. Our rulers try to distract from this by pushing the idea that Britain is a unit where we all have something in common.

This explains their love of flags. It is also why the Labour Party wraps itself in the flag more and more as it rejects any idea of class struggle.

But not all flags or all nationalisms are the same.

The union jack was always the flag of expansion and empire. The English revolutionaries who beheaded the king in 1649 didn’t use it. Chartists who fought for democracy in the 1840s didn’t either.

But it did fly over the slave ships that dominated the Atlantic trade in the 18th century. And it flew on the gunboats that imposed the opium trade on China in the 19th century.

It watched over the Peterloo massacre of workers in 1819, the suppression of the general strike in 1926 and British-run concentration camps in Kenya.

Unlike the union jack, the French tricolour and the US stars and stripes were originally flags of liberation.

But those who wave the flag to celebrate the values of the French or American revolutions ignore the imperialism that followed them.

Socialists don’t condemn people fighting imperialism who look to the flags of their nations. Successful nationalist movements can weaken imperialist powers and in doing so strengthen the working class.

But it is wrong to think that workers and bosses have a national interest.

Some on the left say we can reclaim the union jack and change its meaning. Given its history, it isn’t clear why we would want to.

In any case the flag will always be a national symbol of a country with a bloody history of oppressing ordinary people.

Nationalism, however dressed up, helps obscure the class divide in society and helps divide us from our fellow workers across the world.

That is why socialists should oppose all nationalism, and follow no national flag.

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Article information

Tue 8 May 2012, 16:29 BST
Issue No. 2302
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