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 contributing writer for the New Statesman. His latest album, It Never Entered My Mind, is out now on Eidola Records and is on Spotify here.

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Britain has built a national myth on winning the Second World War, but it’s distorting our politics

The impending humiliation of Brexit is going to have a lot more in common with Suez.

The Crown, Peter Morgan’s epic drama covering the reign of Elizabeth II, ended its first series with a nemesis waiting just off-stage to shake up its court politics. In the final episode, Egyptian president Gamal Nasser gives a rip-roaringly anti-imperialist – and anti-British – speech. The scene is set for the Suez Crisis to be a big plot point in Season 2.

Suez has gone down in history as the great foreign policy debacle of postwar Britain. The 1956 crisis – which saw Israel, France and Britain jointly invade Egypt to take control of the Suez Canal, only to slink off again, nine days later, once it became clear the US wasn’t having any of it – is seen as the point at which it became clear that even the bigger states of Europe were no longer great powers in the world. “President Eisenhower’s humiliation of Britain,” Jack Straw wrote in his 2012 memoir, “had been total.”

This was, though, a fairly limited sort of humiliation. Britain was not invaded or occupied; there was no sudden collapse in living standards, let alone a significant body count. Our greatest national debacle is nothing more than the realisation that Britain could no longer do whatever it wanted without fear of reprisal. As humiliations go, this one’s up there with the loss of status men have faced from the rise of feminism: suddenly, Britain could do what it wanted a mere 80 per cent of the time.

The Crown begins in 1947, when Prince Philip gives up his Greek and Danish royal titles and becomes a British subject, so that he can marry Princess Elizabeth. That year saw another British foreign policy debacle, one on which the show remains oddly silent. In the partition which followed India’s independence from the British Empire, 70 years ago this week, upwards of a million people died; in the decades since, the borders drawn up at that time have been the site of numerous wars, and Kashmir remains a flashpoint.

All this, one might think, might count as a far bigger regret than Suez – yet it doesn’t feature in the national narrative in the same way. Perhaps because partition was about the withdrawal of British forces, rather than their deployment; perhaps it’s simply that it all happened a very long way away. Or perhaps we just care less about a body count than we do about looking bad in front of the Americans.

I think, though, there’s another reason we don’t talk about this stuff: the end of empire is hidden behind a much bigger part of our national myth. In the Second World War, Britain is undeniably one of the good guys; for 12 months, indeed, Britain was the only good guy. Never mind that it still had the largest empire the world had ever seen to fall back on: Britain stood alone.

The centrality of the Second World War to the national myth warps our view of history and our place in the world in all sorts of ways. For starters, it means we’ve never had to take an honest account of the consequences of empire. In a tale about British heroes defeating Nazi villains, British mistakes or British atrocities just don’t fit. (Winston Churchill’s role in the 1943 Bengal famine – death toll: three million – by ordering the export of Indian grain to Britain rarely comes up in biopics.) In this dominant version of the national story, the end of empire is just the price we pay to defeat fascism.

More than that, our obsession with the Second World War creates the bizarre impression that failure is not just heroic, but a necessary precursor to success. Two of the most discussed elements of Britain’s war – the evacuation of Dunkirk, and the Blitz – are not about victory at all, but about survival against the odds. The lesson we take is that, with a touch of British grit and an ability to improvise, we can accomplish anything. It’s hard not to see this reflected in Brexit secretary David Davis’s lack of notes, but it’s nonsense: had the Russians and Americans not arrived to bail us out, Britain would have been stuffed.

Most obviously, being one of the winners of the Second World War infects our attitude to Europe. It’s probably not a coincidence that Britain has always been both one of the most eurosceptic EU countries, and one of the tiny number not to have been trampled by a foreign army at some point in recent history: we don’t instinctively grasp why European unity matters.

Once again, Suez is instructive. The lesson postwar France took from the discovery that the imperial age was over was that it should lead a strong and unified Europe. The lesson Britain took was that, so long as we cosied up to the US – Athens to their Rome, to quote Harold Macmillan – we could still bask in reflected superpower.

Until recently, Britain’s Second World War obsession and national ignorance about empire didn’t really seem to affect contemporary politics. They were embarrassing; but they were also irrelevant, so we could cope. Brexit, though, means that hubris is about to run headlong into nemesis, and the widespread assumption that Britain is a rich, powerful and much-loved country is unlikely to survive contact with reality. India will not offer a trade deal for sentimental reasons; Ireland is not a junior partner that will meekly follow us out of the door or police its borders on our behalf. The discovery that Britain is now a mid-ranking power that – excepting the over-heated south-east of England – isn’t even that rich is likely to mean a loss of status to rival Suez.

Morgan says he has planned six seasons of The Crown. (This looks entertainingly like a bet the Queen will be dead by 2021; if not, like Game of Thrones before it, he might well run out of text to adapt.) It’ll be interesting to see how the show handles Brexit. It began with the royal family facing up to a vertiginous decline in British power. As things stand, it may have to end the same way. 

Jonn Elledge edits the New Statesman's sister site CityMetric, and writes for the NS about subjects including politics, history and Brexit. You can find him on Twitter or Facebook.

This article first appeared in the 17 August 2017 issue of the New Statesman, Trump goes nuclear