The Union Jack: The Story of the British Flag by Nick Groom

This is a first for Daly History – a review of a book, by an author who I have actually met before reading the book! To tell the story, and go off on a bit of a tangent, Professor Groom lives in the same village on Dartmoor that my girlfriend originates from.*

I found this a really interesting study. The title is a pleasant surprise in that it is perhaps slightly misleading – it isn’t just a story of the flag itself, but of the union in a broader sense, and indeed, it is a story of national identity and culture, not just of Britain but of its constituent parts too. Groom examines pre-Union Jack symbols such as the three lions, and also phenomenon such as the patriotic song.  Not only is it a history of how the flag evolved – sure, we all know about how the crosses of St George, St Andrew and St Patrick were combined – this book also takes a stuidious look at how the flag has been interpreted as part of national culture. The Union Jack has been used by the mods, and in more recent times by the far right. And of course there are those garish union jack shorts, and Ginger Spices union jack dress of the 90’s. The interesting this is, that the flag itself, in a physical manner, has never attracted the same reverence as the Star Spangled Banner. Try lowering the american flag, in front of an audience of american tourists. If the Union Jack was to be dragged through the dirt none of us would be too offended, yet if Old Glory so much as brushes against the floor, that event has cataclysmic repurcussions!

For me, the most pertinent and salient point made within is that British identity is at a crossroads. Whilst Ireland has partly seceded from the union – leaving behind Ulster – Wales and Scotland have, in recent years, been showing increasing independence. Witness Alex Salmond’s contunual posturing. So where does that leave Britain? who knows. But more tellingly, where does it leave England? For as long as anyone can remember, English identity has become subsumed by that of Britain. Inevitably the dominant partner in the union in many ways, until recent years the identity of the English nation was relatively vacuous. English sports teams sang the British national anthem, and more often than not their fans carried the union jack instead of the cross of st george.

Perhaps that is changing, and since Euro 96 English football fans have recently embraced St George –  I can receall watching England at Euro 2004, in a Lisbon Estadio da Luz carpeted in white and red. English success in Cricket and Rugby has probably also helped matters. But what exactly IS english identity? What is it to be English? It is so true that English identity has not evolved in the same manner as the other British nations. We think of English culture, and we think of morris dancing, or quaint little customs that take place in random villages. England doesn’t have a national dress, or even its own national anthem. And with Scotland and Wales potentially going their own way, perhaps English culture has space to evolve and emerge in the coming years?

I enjoyed reading this book very much. It has received rave reviews since its publication, and one can see why. It sits at an interesting and all-embracing nexus between history, sociology, culture and politics.

*…And Nick is quite some hurdy-gurdy player too.

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2 Comments

Filed under Book of the Week, politics

2 responses to “The Union Jack: The Story of the British Flag by Nick Groom

  1. John Erickson

    Bear in mind, we have no “personage” of the nation. Our president is a revolving-door position, and no one else really speaks for or represents our country. Add in the fact that the constituent nations of the United Kingdom have been around for centuries (if not millenia), while we have yet to hit 250, and we’re kinda lacking in representations. All we have is that “grand old flag”, and since our soldiers fight for the nation and the Constitution (rather than for King or Queen), the military types get a special attachment to the ol’ Stars and Stripes. :)
    And speaking of anniversaries (there’s a heck of a segue), are YOU going to get your Union Jack out for the Diamond Jubilee tomorrow? ;)

  2. x

    Yes but the actual federal US state has been around a lot longer than the German state or the Italian state. It has had the same political system longer than France has had her system; what are they on now the umpteenth republic? Though the US breaks down into roughly 7 groups of states that share underlying characteristics (Pacific Northwest, New England, Tri-state area, etc. etc.) it is much more united than say Spain and her regions. Spain would block an independent Scotland joining the EU for fear that her regions would want to follow suit.

    Oh yes Scotland!!!! Mr Salmond wants an independent Scotland; he seems always to be speaking an homogeneous Scottish race. Yet the Highlanders are Celtic and speak Gaelic. The lowland Scottish are well Scots and they have their own language called, well, Scots. The BBC provide a Scottish Gaelic TV channel but don’t do similar for Scots. (In Wales all official literature, from websites to road signs, is produce in Welsh and English at great expense even though only 21% speak the former.) And Mr Salmond bangs on about North Sea oil revenues yet conveniently forgets that much of the oil (and fishing grounds) fall into Orkney and Shetland waters. Both archipelagos have strong links with Scandinavia and have their own (little used) languages, A few years back a DNA study found that 60% of Orkadian males have Norwegian DNA not Scottish DNA. So perhaps we could safely ask, who are the Scots?

    As for us poor English I do feel that there is a healthy strain of anti-English feeling within the British establishment. Our politics and media are dominated by Celts. Perhaps I am paranoid but during the 6 Nations Championship I always get the feeling that the commentating in a England home nations is always slanted against the team in white! The history in our education system is very much loaded against the English too. The non-whites in the Empire were oppressed by the British, but often the word English is used. And the story of the White Commonwealth, Scottish Highlands, and Ireland is seen through a lens of English oppression too. When history is taught in schools then 80% or 90% who aren’t academically inclined half listen to a story that says in a very round about way that their ancestors are basically bad people. Too much Jallianwala Bagh massacre and not enough railways and immunisation. But these children spend the majority of their lives outside of school in culture that sees every brown face as a “Paki”; societies always demonises the other. This is cultural dissonance. And this is amplified when state institutions ignore the majority in favour of the minority. The danger comes from the majority being without a cultural anchor brings extremism. The trouble with extremists is that they have a predilection to modify history to suit their own ends. While a vocal minority within a minority can draw the whole of the latter into conflict with the rest.

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