Home is Where the Flag is

14:41Ciaran McCormick

Last night, I sat down to watch the Confederations Cup. The match itself was decent, but in any of these major international sporting occasions, my attention is captured by all of the symbols that decorate the event. Football does this best. The national flag is everywhere - the TV coverage uses it regularly, a whole stadium of fans dress in their colours and even the team kits use it. Yesterday, Brazil was a festival of yellow, blue and green. Their rendition of the national anthem was passionate and awesome when they cut the backing track and let the stadium roar the rest. This is all so political because these symbols are the main way we can try and capture the identity of nations and understand the world.

Flags have interested me for a long time. To claim to represent such a vast number of people seems like an impossible task. Yet flags have a special place in our hearts and can mean a lot to people who have little else in common. Countries can recognise their history, such as
the former British colonies that still use the Union Flag in the canton of their own, placing it in the top left hand corner. They can be adapted for war and peacetime and have infinite other intricate meanings. A good example for me, comes from a little known Pacific island country, the Marshall Islands, which has my favourite flag. It was adopted with the beginning of its self-governance, showing it off as a powerful way of expressing statehood. It has a huge amount of significance, with the most obvious being its blue backdrop recognising its kinship with the ocean. It has two main parts - a star and a diagonal band. The star has parts for each electoral district and four main points for the cultural centres of the country. The diagonal represents the equator  with colours for sunset and sunrise, symbolising peace and courage.

The flag of the Marshall Islands - symbols of a lesser known nation


This type of intricate analysis of flags, which some may see as trivial may make me seem boring or geeky. Many will think of Sheldon Cooper from the Big Bang Theory who awkwardly filmed his own programme 'Fun with Flags'. But though I am probably both of those things, I still argue that flags embody what I believe comprises 'Politics Beyond Politicians'. It is about identity and how we see ourselves, how the citizens of the Marshall Islands view their nation. The pageantry of national symbols when they are paraded in football matches allow us to understand who we are and tell others. I love the spectacle and significance of flags, which Sheldon Cooper himself recognised when he made an apartment flag of 'a gold lion rampant on a field of azure'.

Sheldon Cooper is dealing with some political, rather than geeky, issues

However, flags also have some negative connotations. They can fall prey to nationalism trying to appeal to an insular and ignorant feeling of hatred towards those that are not a part of the stereotyped nation. The EDL and BNP both use the Union Flag heavily in their literature and websites. Indeed, the very idea of a national identity could be seen as a way of 'othering' those that do not belong to our idea of a nation. For example, the lyrics of one stanza of the Brazilian national anthem that I heard last night go as follows:

Beloved Land
amongst a thousand others
art thou, Brazil,
O beloved homeland!

This is patriotism at its heart - the idea of love for an intangible, inanimate idea of a country. Yet it privileges Brazil above all other countries. Most national identities do this and it offers an insight as to why nationalism can use these symbols as a way to exclude others that may feel exactly the same way but are perceived as an 'other' because of background, ethnicity, religion etc.

However, we should not abandon these symbols to those that would hijack them and distort them. The Union Flag is a symbol of openness and inclusiveness. It includes the Scottish Saint Andrew's Saltire and the Irish Saint Patrick's Flag. Admittedly without representation for Wales, it symbolises a multicultural and open spirit of polite Britishness. There is nothing inherent in it that says that we are better than any other state, it is the legacy of history that may attach that meaning in some minds. Though I am an atheist, I still sing the national anthem because it is a symbol that represents a part of my identity. I welcome anybody that wishes to fly any flag. In the aftermath of the murder of Drummer Lee Rigby, the use of the Union Flag to protest against Islam offended me as much as any desecration of the flag. It is a symbol of our heritage and identity, which includes a willingness to accept people whatever their background and beliefs. It cannot be used meaningfully as a tool of prejudice. I am looking forward to the healthy competition, rather than hate, of the next England match. It is a great opportunity to don some absurdly flamboyant Union Flag apparel and enjoy the spirit of peace and tolerance.

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