Is flying the St George's flag in Russia really “imperialistic”?

Police chiefs have warned England fans not to wave the St George’s flag during next month’s World Cup in Moscow. 

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Poor, misunderstood St George. He was the patron saint of Yury Dolgoruky, Moscow’s founder, and has remained the official patron saint of the city since 1730. Yet England fans have been advised to leave him behind next month.

In what sounds like prudent advice, police chiefs have warned England’s fans not to wave the St George’s flag during next month’s World Cup.

Football violence has often centred around capturing territory or symbols of opposing supporters’ groups. Russia’s violent but often politically well-connected and protected gangs have developed a brutal reputation in recent years. Ironically, press reports suggest that they originally modelled themselves on English “firms” of yesteryear, whose ageing members now waddle around on Football Lads Association demonstrations.

Sensible advice, then, but the police suggestion that the St George Flag is “imperialist” has provoked a wider debate about attitudes to the English flag. Emily Thornberry was famously sacked by Ed Miliband for a tweet of a St George’s cross flown in the Rochester by-election,  that was seen widely as disrespectful. (That Labour made little serious attempt to prevent Ukip winning the former Labour seat probably showed even greater disrespect for the people of Rochester).

Tory MP Nick Boles recently made a similar point about elite disdain. After travelling around central London on St George’s Day, he said: “There I was surrounded by parliament, the Supreme Court, the Treasury, the Foreign Office – all the great offices of state – there wasn’t a St George’s flag to be seen. It is completely bonkers and it is not surprising that people feel that the governing class is somehow a bit ashamed of English identity if we make such little effort.” With the exception of the Supreme Court, the institutions Boles mentions are entirely British. England has no parliament, finance ministry or foreign affairs of its own. Nonetheless, Britain’s ruling elite certainly shuns the flag of St George as readily as it dismisses the idea that England should have any political institutions or cultural recognition.

Still, acceptance of the flag is not unquestioned. Attitudes are polarised, though with more valuing its symbolic nature than rejecting it. According to British Future research, the St George’s flag is seen as belonging to people of every race and ethnic background in England by 57 per cent of the public. Significantly, and confirming the decline in the idea that English is an ethnic identity, 57 per cent of all black and ethnic minority, and 58 per cent of Muslims share this view of the flag belonging everyone. (The England football team is an even stronger unifying national symbol of a nation that belongs to all its citizens, with three-quarters of the public, BAME and Muslim communities all sharing that view.)

By these measures, support for the flag is widespread, but not as widespread as English identity itself. There is no basis for rejecting the flag, but, as Boles suggests, plenty of good reason to make more effort to integrate the flag into our national life. For those of us who are fed up with its association with a minority of drunken football fans, this can’t come too late.

Perhaps surprisingly, Labour now seems to be making more effort than the Conservatives. In a poll last summer, Labour edged ahead of the Tories as party that best represent England’s interests. Both Jeremy Corbyn and Diane Abbott tweeted enthusiastically on St George’s Day, and the party has promised a St Georges Day bank holiday. “For Labour, England and St George” may yet be a slogan to inspire.

John Denham was a Labour MP from 1992 to 2015, and a Secretary of State 2007 to 2010. He is Director of the Centre for English Identity and Politics at Winchester University