Debating the Union Jack

James Chiriyankandath and Tariq Modood have a conversation about patriotism

JC:

I find Sunder Katwala’s op ed piece “The problem is not the flag but the left’s needless anxiety over patriotism” (The Observer, 7th February) thin and glib. I certainly don’t share Katwala’s comfy relationship with flag-waving patriotism. What about the association of the flag with the legacy of colonialism and empire, a lot of it bad? This is also linked with its use by a long list of race supremacist organisations and parties. Countries with very considerable histories of oppressing, exploiting and exterminating people in colonies they ruled over need to face up to their history. Without such a reckoning, there is a problem with wrapping up in the flag.

TM:

Yes, we have to revisit the past and acknowledge how, for example, India was looted by the British but also that the history has created us as a people – I would not be British without the Empire. The most important thing is for our country and its symbols like the flag not to be ‘owned’ by the nationalist right. That’s what they want to do. I for one am not going to take that lying down. An important point the piece makes is that contrary to expert expectations in the 1970s and 1980s, ethnic minorities identify with being British, want to be British, and want to be part of the rethinking and remaking of what it means to be British.

JC:

There is a world of difference between flags that began as symbols of revolution and popular struggle, as with the US, French or Indian ones, however they may have been misused since, and the Union Jack, a product of monarchical design and imperialist use. The same goes for the hero worship of Churchill and his ilk that is being enjoined us not just by Tory but Labour politicians. The Britain that struggled against Churchill and his like, for instance, in the General Strike of 1926, and against what was done in the colonies and Ireland in the name of the flag is what I can identify with. The Britain of the flag is no country of mine.

TM:

Beware of the genetic fallacy. How a thing started is not a good account of how it is today. If all someone knew about the Church of England was that it was created when Henry VIII could not get a marriage annulled, they would have a pretty poor idea of what the Church has meant to people and what it means to people today. As for the substantive point, people are what they are today because of past empires: without the Arab empires I would be unlikely to be a Muslim today; I owe my Indian heritage to the Mughal Empire. This means opportunities to aspire to be something, to make the future as well as see ‘where we are coming from’. But perhaps you are doing that in what you say. What worries me about it is that it is an embrace of indefinite division instead of making a shared country together.

JC:

There is nothing in the promoted embrace of the flag that is about really creating the something new necessary for a genuinely shared country. It is merely joining in shining nationalist gloss on a state project tarnished by its past but left uncleaned. Just like polished dirty shoes, a patina of nostalgic patriotism won’t do the trick. Unlike Katwala I’m not second generation British, having arrived here 45 years ago as a student., What he says about refugees and black and brown British people’s attitudes is telling about their understandable desire to be secure in being accepted in a society where they still feel marginal, especially with increasing nationalism in the wake of Brexit. Despite that, many of the generation of my adult children have no time for the flag and are not taken in by politicians courting votes through pandering to maintain illusions about an imagined British past. The task is to uncover the real. It is the essential foundation to building something new and lasting.

TM:

I think that the leaked Labour Party commissioned document about patriotism and the Union Jack to the Labour Party was merely about electoral strategy. You can’t say that about Sunder Katwala’s article or his work in general. And I still think that we should respond to the Labour document by sketching out and arguing for a progressive patriotism, not creating a divide with patriotic sentiment and allowing the Right to own patriotism and the patriots.

James Chiriyankandath is Senior Research Fellow at the Institute of Commonwealth Studies, School of Advanced Study, University of London, and a former editor of the journal Commonwealth & Comparative Politics. He is a Labour councillor in the London borough of Haringey.

Tariq Modood is Professor of Sociology, Politics and Public Policy at the University of Bristol, Director of the Centre for the Study of Ethnicity and Citizenship, and founding editor of the journal Ethnicities.

Image: The Union Flag. Source: The Union Flag ‘Union Jack’ UK Flag 326. Author: Rian (Ree) Saunders, licensed under the Creative Commons Attribution 2.0 Generic license.

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