Poppies: Britain's star-spangled banner

Just as the American right fears flag-burners, conservatives in Britain turn their backs on democrac

In July, a local news arm of CBS reported a "disturbing and potentially dangerous trend in one New Jersey community". Days before the Independence Day celebrations, someone had set fire to several of the US flags hanging outside the homes of Roselle Park residents. "It was just shocking to me," one victim, Jill Stanton, said. "There was nothing left . . . It was burned down to the metal."

Predictably, the comment thread below the article soon teemed with disproportionate expressions of disgust, many of which deviated from the story to blame immigrants, Marxists, Islam, Obama (or "Obozo", as the retired John calls him) and liberals for the ills afflicting the home of the brave, if not the world.

Those who disagreed with the onslaught of paranoia and xenophobia were met aggressively: "Could you be a Muslim? Wife wear a burqa? Daughters afraid to cross you lest you cut her head off? Who was it that flew those planes into the WTC?" wrote Julia. J-man, meanwhile, suggested what can only be described as a final solution: "Were I the president of the US in 2001, I would have flattened [the] precious Muslim world with saturation nuclear strikes."

This extreme or, rather, extremist veneration of the national flag may seem absurd; yet the culture behind it has roots going back to the immediate aftermath of the American civil war. In a bid to protect that symbol of fragile national unity from southerners who preferred the Conferederate alternative, 48 states declared flag desecration a criminal act.

More recently, in 1968, Congress passed legislation that made it illegal to "knowingly cast contempt upon any flag of the United States by publicly mutilating, defacing, defiling, burning or trampling upon it". This was overturned in 1989, when the Supreme Court ruled that such acts were constitutionally protected as forms of free expression. Justice William Brennan, who presided over the case, eloquently summarised his reasoning as follows:

We can imagine no more appropriate response to burning a flag than waving one's own; no better way to counter a flag burner's message than by saluting the flag that burns; no surer means of preserving the dignity even of the flag that burned than by . . . according its remains a respectful burial. We do not consecrate the flag by punishing its desecration, for, in doing so, we dilute the freedom that this cherished emblem represents.

In the UK, where it was illegal to suspend the Union Jack without permission from the local council until 2006 (unless it was from a vertical flagpole), national flags seem to bear less of an ideological burden. Yet the recent controversy over the Islamist group Muslims Against Crusades, which burned Remembrance Day poppies last November in protest against western foreign policy, shows that the corrosive impulse to stamp out opposition is alive and well this side of the Atlantic.

Elsewhere on Newstatesman.com, Nelson Jones and Steven Baxter have written in depth about the self-defeating nature of Theresa May's decision to proscribe the organisation -- and I wrote about the banning of Islam4UK, its previous incarnation, for Pickled Politics in 2010 -- so I won't repeat the argument here. Instead, I'll cite the words of Robert Jackson, a US judge who, in 1943, struck down a law requiring schoolchildren to salute the stars and stripes:

Freedom to differ is not limited to things that do not matter much. That would be a mere shadow of freedom. The test of its substance is the right to differ as to things that touch the heart of the existing order. If there is any fixed star in our constitutional constellation, it is that no official, high or petty, can prescribe what shall be orthodox in politics, nationalism, religion, or other matters of opinion or force citizens to confess by word or act their faith therein.

Fallen soldiers deserve respect, regardless of the moral ambiguities of the campaigns in which they served. The appropriate response to the attention-seeking idiocy of Muslims Against Crusades is, as Justice Brennan might have said, to counter that group's flames with a salute.

Yo Zushi is a sub-editor of the New Statesman. His work as a musician is released by Eidola Records.

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Will Euroscepticism prove an unbeatable advantage in the Conservative leadership race?

Conservative members who are eager for Brexit are still searching for a heavyweight champion - and they could yet inherit the earth.

Put your money on Liam Fox? The former Defence Secretary has been given a boost by the news that ConservativeHome’s rolling survey of party members preferences for the next Conservative leader. Jeremy Wilson at BusinessInsider and James Millar at the Sunday Post have both tipped Fox for the top job.

Are they right? The expectation among Conservative MPs is that there will be several candidates from the Tory right: Dominic Raab, Priti Patel and potentially Owen Paterson could all be candidates, while Boris Johnson, in the words of one: “rides both horses – is he the candidate of the left, of the right, or both?”

MPs will whittle down the field of candidates to a top two, who will then be voted on by the membership.  (As Graham Brady, chair of the 1922 Committee, notes in his interview with my colleague George Eaton, Conservative MPs could choose to offer a wider field if they so desired, but would be unlikely to surrender more power to party activists.)

The extreme likelihood is that that contest will be between two candidates: George Osborne and not-George Osborne.  “We know that the Chancellor has a bye to the final,” one minister observes, “But once you’re in the final – well, then it’s anyone’s game.”

Could “not-George Osborne” be Liam Fox? Well, the difficulty, as one MP observes, is we don’t really know what the Conservative leadership election is about:

“We don’t even know what the questions are to which the candidates will attempt to present themselves as the answer. Usually, that question would be: who can win us the election? But now that Labour have Corbyn, that question is taken care of.”

So what’s the question that MPs will be asking? We simply don’t know – and it may be that they come to a very different conclusion to their members, just as in 2001, when Ken Clarke won among MPs – before being defeated in a landslide by Conservative activists.

Much depends not only on the outcome of the European referendum, but also on its conduct. If the contest is particularly bruising, it may be that MPs are looking for a candidate who will “heal and settle”, in the words of one. That would disadvantage Fox, who will likely be a combative presence in the European referendum, and could benefit Boris Johnson, who, as one MP put it, “rides both horses” and will be less intimately linked with the referendum and its outcome than Osborne.

But equally, it could be that Euroscepticism proves to be a less powerful card than we currently expect. Ignoring the not inconsiderable organisational hurdles that have to be cleared to beat Theresa May, Boris Johnson, and potentially any or all of the “next generation” of Sajid Javid, Nicky Morgan or Stephen Crabb, we simply don’t know what the reaction of Conservative members to the In-Out referendum will be.

Firstly, there’s a non-trivial possibility that Leave could still win, despite its difficulties at centre-forward. The incentive to “reward” an Outer will be smaller. But if Britain votes to Remain – and if that vote is seen by Conservative members as the result of “dirty tricks” by the Conservative leadership – it could be that many members, far from sticking around for another three to four years to vote in the election, simply decide to leave. The last time that Cameron went against the dearest instincts of many of his party grassroots, the result was victory for the Prime Minister – and an activist base that, as the result of defections to Ukip and cancelled membership fees, is more socially liberal and more sympathetic to Cameron than it was before. Don’t forget that, for all the worry about “entryism” in the Labour leadership, it was “exitism” – of Labour members who supported David Miliband and liked the New Labour years  - that shifted that party towards Jeremy Corbyn.

It could be that if – as Brady predicts in this week’s New Statesman – the final two is an Inner and an Outer, the Eurosceptic candidate finds that the members who might have backed them are simply no longer around.

It comes back to the biggest known unknown in the race to succeed Cameron: Conservative members. For the first time in British political history, a Prime Minister will be chosen, not by MPs with an electoral mandate of their own or by voters at a general election but by an entirelyself-selecting group: party members. And we simply don't know enough about what they feel - yet. 

Stephen Bush is editor of the Staggers, the New Statesman’s political blog. He usually writes about politics.