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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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Filed under Book of the Week, politics