Beloved by football fans and the far-right alike, the St George’s cross is a rare sight on the streets today, but could it fade completely as Generation Z take the reins?
The debate surrounding the toxicity of our national flags isn’t new. A 2017 survey found that despite its adoption by the far right, most people in Britain still associated the flag with pride and patriotism instead of racism and prejudice. But a politically engaged Generation-Z could be turning their backs on the national flag and patriotic flag waving generally.
A YouGov poll for the BBC found that only 45% of people aged 18-24 feel proud to be English, compared to 72% of over-65’s. This is happening at a time when young people are rising up as a force for change.
The Black Lives Matter movement gained renewed momentum this year following the brutal killing of George Floyd at the hands of Minneapolis police, sparking demonstrations here in the UK. At the centre of it all is the social media generation. They’re kicking up a fuss and it’s about time someone did.
In June, BLM protesters in Bristol toppled the statue of seventeenth century slave trader and philanthropist, Edward Coulson. The statue had stood in the centre of Bristol for 125 years, despite several attempts to have the statue legally removed. Many people didn’t even know Colston was a slave trader until the statue had been pulled down. In Britain, this provoked a nation-wide conversation about racism and the legacy of the British Empire.
But should our national flags, as emblems of Britain’s colonial past, be subject to the same scrutiny as our statues? How relevant is the flag for young people living in England today?
Most of the Gen-Zers interviewed aligned it with a particular class-coded image of “white, bald men with dragon tattoos,” smelling of “Stella, fags and heavy racism.” It’s a pervasive myth. In 2014, Emily Thornberry resigned from Ed Miliband’s shadow cabinet, after she tweeted a picture of a Rochdale terraced house draped in England flags. It seems we can’t imagine the England flag without envisioning the person waving it.
Since the EU referendum, the UK has been divided across generational lines. For Generation Z, who either couldn’t vote or overwhelmingly voted to remain, the image of the leave-voting ‘white van man’ serves as a figurative punchbag; a person to blame for their Brexit betrayal. As a classist trope, it does little to resist the structures of power that perpetuate these divisions, but its popular use among Generation Z points to a broader anxiety concerning the rise of the far right in Britain.
22-year-old student, Emily Broncz says she no longer feels proud to be English. Her flag waving days peaked during the 2012 Olympics and died following the Brexit vote. She thinks the England flag cannot shake its ties to groups like the English Defence League and Britain First and it no longer has a place in society.
“Whenever the world cup is on, people down my road put up England flag bunting but as soon as England get knocked out, it’s taken down. It’s never up for long, and it feels like there’s context to the whole situation.
When the footie isn’t on, the St George’s Cross feels like an anomaly in the very place it is meant to represent. If you choose to fly it, you’re a Stella-drinking, Mail-reading racist with a hard-on for Brexit. If you call out the flag for its ties to racist violence, you’re an agent of the PC brigade, stoking a culture war.
“It’s showing support for a team, rather than a set of ideals and a political view which feels very centred on England and ‘English values,’” she continues. “I think seeing a rogue England flag flying at a time when the footie isn’t on feels a lot worse. To fly the flag now feel like you’re showing support for skinheads and the EDL. It also suggests you’re blissfully ignorant to the atrocities of the British Empire and the legacy that it has left behind. I’ve been seeing it a lot more in my hometown. It feels like we’re going back to intolerance.”
Emily says that grand displays of patriotism felt misplaced in a society that’s confronting its colonial past. “When I was a lot younger, I always found it weirdly endearing that countries like New Zealand and Australia had our flag as part of theirs. But then that’s a testament to how little I understood about our country’s past,” says Emily.
“The Conservative party use the union flag because they know they’ll look fucking batshit if they use the England one, so in a way it’s no better. It’s just a happy medium for satisfying nationalists, it’s like the next level down.”
While she thought banning the England flag would only stoke divisions, Emily argued that we’re becoming a less patriotic society. “Those who are brazen enough to use the England flag will, but I think even the Union flag is leaking over into that territory.”
22-year-old community support worker, Jo Kamal, says England flag is a toxic symbol today, and that, as a person of colour, she’s never felt patriotic or proud of what the flag represents.
“My parents are Iranian refugees and they weren’t born in this country so despite being born here, I’ve never identified with [the England flag]. I don’t think that’s just because of my heritage, but for what the flag represents and patriotism in general.
“It makes me uncomfortable,” says Jo. “I can understand patriotism if it’s from a country that’s historically been repressed. There are many countries where their national flag is also a symbol of resistance and independence from colonial occupation.
“I don’t understand what English patriotism is if it’s not racism. What does it mean to be proud of colonialism?”
In some situations, the sight of the England flag represents a very real threat. In September, the Port of Dover was brought to a standstill by around 400 far-right activists, neo-Nazis and white supremacists branding the cross of St George. Their mission: to shut down the Europe’s busiest ferry port in protest against migrants arriving in the UK from across the Channel.
“When I see an English flag, I’m afraid,” says Jo. “I’m scared, because I’m anticipating someone aggressive and racist. To be openly waving an English flag outside your window is, for me, a territorial act. The England that the flag represents is white and it celebrates it as some sort of ideal.”
This was echoed by 20-year-old Sol, a design student from Brazil who lives in London. The England flag is a marker of what they’ve seen as a growing hostility towards people of colour in Britain.
“I’ll immediately feel unsafe and anxious, or like I’m not welcome. I associate it with people who use words like “foreigners” and who ask me to “only speak English” because I’m in their country,” says Sol. “Unless it’s an official government organisation [waving the flag], I’ll keep my distance or avoid altogether.”
But the debate surrounding the relevance of the flag might not be so red and white. The flag is for some a symbol of community built around sporting victory and defeat.
21 year-old Corbin Shaw is the Yorkshire born artist exploring the nuances of his relationship to the St George’s cross. His recent projects contrast statements such as “soften up hard lad,” and “I’m never going to be one of the lads,” with the hyper-masculine imagery of the flag.
“I feel like I appropriate its power to say what I want to say. I can’t deny it’s a symbol of [the far right], which I don’t associate with at all.
“But when I was growing up, I’d go to watch the football with my dad. We went to big matches, like going down to London for Wembley, and we’d get a flag made and it would have the words of our club on it,” he continues. “Those flags became iconic and my dad would hang them at his work. So, I see them in a sentimental way, really. It makes me feel proud of my city.”
Corbin says the flag works as a provocative canvas to comment on lad culture and ignite conversations about men’s mental health. He says he’s found new meanings in the flag and something to be proud of.
“I started making my flags after seeing how these hardy heterosexual men were subtly expressing themselves by making a flag for a friend who had passed away, for example, or through expressing their love for their city and their country.”
“I’d say in the current political climate change with the rise of the far right it’s a tricky thing to place myself in relation to the St. George’s Cross. But I do still love it regardless of the idiots who use it for their Tommy Robinson shite.”
Flown at fascist rallies and football games, the flag doesn’t occupy a casual space in our day-to-day lives. Ironically, our relationship with the St George’s cross is characteristically English. We’re uncomfortable with it because of its conflicting connotations and the questions is asks of us about national pride and what it means to be British.
But it seems the younger generation, driven by the desire to change their future for the better, are swallowing their pride and asking those questions. As we confront this country’s past, the England flag may vanish from our streets altogether. Whether it will be missed remains be seen.