When British artists start phaffing about with Union Jacks and posing for photographs, they do so in ignorance.
Nothing is more hackneyed, juvenile, narcissistic.
The roll call of artists is manifold and includes some greats. Each artist does it in seeming ignorance – but really in fawning emulation – of the last. A kneejerk, unthinking, and very bad habit carries down the generations.
Ostensibly, it seems a revolutionary pose. The artist is announcing him or herself as a very British rebel. ‘Here am I, a very British rebel!’ the artist seems to say. ‘And here’s everything I am rebelling against!’ i.e. the Union Flag, nay, Britain itself. But nothing could be less rebellious.
It is in fact jingoism. Artistic Blimp advertises Empire. They might think they are ‘detourning’ the Jack, but assuredly the Jack is detourning them.
It’s ego. ‘Here am I!’ the artist seems to say. ‘A very British icon!’
Or we could also translate the gestural grandiloquence into French: ‘Le Royaume Uni, c’est moi’.
Most – Morrissey apart – are grovellingly angling for CBEs, MBEs, OBEs and KBES.
‘Britain may have plundered pillaged and raped its colonies!’ the artist seems to continue. ‘But it has also given you…. me!’ (‘Us’ if it’s a band).
It’s a vulgar appeal to the football stadium of patriotism. It encroaches on BNP and EDL territory.
Undoubtedly, the would-be rebel artist veers towards Tory terrain. Hence Gilbert and George’s recent comment about the Occupy Movement: ‘We’d rather side with the bankers than with some vegan protester twit on benefits.’
The aesthetics are ‘wrong from the start’ as the Flag is, in and of itself, superlatively ugly. But in the eyes of peoples who’ve been colonised, it’s uglier.
The Irish have always referred to the Union Jack as ‘The Butcher’s Apron.’
Even today it’s a symbol of Empire, albeit a botched one. It is supposed to represent the Union of England, Scotland, Wales and Ireland, but doesn’t. The St George’s Cross of England, the St Andrew’s Cross of Scotland and the so-called St Patrick’s Cross of Ireland are combined. In all the excitement that surrounded its design, Wales was forgotten. (The English welshed on the deal because it had subjugated Wales so entirely. Wales was not ‘equal’ enough to be heraldically acknowledged).
When the Republic of Ireland won its independence, Britain refused to remove the ‘St Patrick’s Cross’ from the Flag as it would be a ‘vastly expensive’ operation. Today the Flag is more an emblem of English skinflintery than of the four nations who comprise the so-called British Isles.
Unionism – an ideological factory of good excuses – provided another good excuse. Because Northern Ireland was retained, so was the red X. Sir James Craig, the Prime Minister of Northern Ireland remarked in December 1921 that he and his government were “glad to think that our decision [to opt back into the United Kingdom] will obviate the necessity of mutilating the Union Jack.“
One shudders to think of the mutilations carried out under the standard of the Union Jack, from the reign of James I onwards. Massacres in Ireland, India, and elsewhere – not to mention hundreds of years of oppression, slavery, and extortion the known world over – make the Union Jack a symbol almost as loathsome as the swastika. (The Nazis, remember, had a much shorter innings).
However the crucial thing to realise is that there was no British Empire. There was an English Empire, of which Scotland, Ireland and Wales were internal colonies. And still are.
As devolution becomes reality, the Jack becomes increasingly redundant. And why shouldn’t it? Independence will eventually follow, though the pace of change is jurassically slow. When the symbol of oppression goes, the oppression is lessened.
Campaigns to include a dragon or a leek on the Union Jack, to make the Welsh feel included, have been resisted and mocked. So has a campaign for a ‘Black Jack’ to reflect modern Britain’s cultural diversity.
There is also the question of Cornwall and its beautiful flag of St Piran, a black flag with a white cross.
The Union Jack has served best as boxer shorts and knickers, because it is best out of the public eye.
‘Cool Britannia’ was aesthetic Blairism. A forward thinking artist – one who knows what’s at stake – might choose to pose in a St George’s Flag, and celebrate a post-colonial England. A Black Flag would be even cooler.
Charlie Gilmour waved a red flag on his notorious day of anarchy. Incarcerated by the establishment, branded as a ‘prat’ by the Guardian, he was actually making real progress.
He then went on to puckishly mock the Union Jack and the military-industrial complex for which it stands, to whom so many British and foreign lives are sacrificed.
He was not insulting the dead but those who’d sacrificed them. Yes he was showing off, but he was also sending out a different, subversive message
For this act of righteous irreverence, he was scapegoated and disgraced. After serving four months of a ridiculous 16 month sentence, he is still under curfew. What he did, however, was rebellious, a far cry from the cliches of crowdpleasing artists.
The most oppressed of the English colonies is England and it is the English who more than anyone should rebel against the Union Jack.