“Britishness”

Tyne & Wear Archives & Museums has recently teamed up with researchers at Northumbria University to encourage new thinking and comment around important subjects, such as Britishness, migration, and culture in an industrial region. 

Each week, for four weeks, we’ll be blogging about a museum object and posing a question for you to respond to.  Please help us get the discussion going by adding your comments below, whatever comes to mind.  Later in the summer, your comments may be fed into a live debate where we hope you’ll have the opportunity to join academics and curators discussing the most popular topic.

So, the theme for this week is “Britishness”, which I’ve chosen to represent with this Union Flag from our collection:-

And the question I’d like to pose is…

What does the Union Flag mean to you?

Does it represent the political and administrative achievement of the Union of England, Scotland and Ireland…or enslavement, war and death as the British Empire grew to dominate the world?

Now that the Empire is no more, does the flag fill you with nostalgia and pride or does it merely represent racism and ill-considered nationalism?

How will you feel if Scotland leaves the Union and the flag loses its St Andrew’s Cross (the blue segments and broad white diagonal cross) leaving just the red crosses of England and (Northern) Ireland on a white background?

Are you proud to be British or does “flag waving” make you feel uncomfortable?

4 Responses to “Britishness”

  1. Amy Barker says:

    Excited to see this thread started, thanks Shona!
    Because I’m participating in the thread later I thought I MUST look at your questions and respond. So…
    I think the Union Jack represents both sides of your question; it does represent our nation and therefore SHOULD represent all that we believe in and are proud of, collectively. However the flip side of this is that it also, inescapably, represents our past including the dark side of our history. I don’t think you can have one, without the other. And of course this means anything we are not proud of now as well…

    I do feel quite sadly that the Union Jack has been very successfully appropriated for agressive nationalism and racist causes. I do however think that London 2012 helped ‘reclaim’ the flag for the nation. Unfortunately the English flag has gone very firmly in the same direction.

    I think that Scotland leaving the Union is such a huge debate that the flag is the least of it really. But if Scotland did leave, then many people would be sad to see the Union Jack change and in a funny way, that would prove its worth.

    I should add to this, I was brought up in Wales, and the Welsh flag doesn’t play a part in the Union Jack. I always thought this was very strange as a child. I have just tested my gut instincts when thinking of the UJ, the St George’s cross and the Welsh dragon. I think of UJ = sport and design and more representing England than elsewhere, St George = nationalism, racism, football, Welsh dragon = Rugby, singing, national pride. That probably sums it up.

    • Martin Routledge says:

      First of all it is the Union Flag, as referred to by Shona. A Union Jack is the Union Flag when flown by a Royal Navy warship (strictly speaking no other vessel is allowed to fly it). I think the reason why you associate the Union Flag with the most extreme forms of nationalism and racism is that it became fashionable to be ashamed of being British because of the worst excesses of the Empire and so it has really only ever been used with any sense of pride, of the British Government itself, in recent years by these vile right wing organisations. However, I think this is a great shame because there is a lot to be proud of in British History not least the part played in the overthrow of the fascist powers in World War Two.
      Secondly, the reason why there is no element of the Welsh flag in the Union Flag is that Wales is a Principality and part of England. Don’t pull faces at me, it’s a fact. However, I find it strange, if not a little offensive, that you should say the Welsh Dragon represents rugby, singing and national pride and the St George’s Flag nationalism, racism and, football. You speak of these things in the same breath as if they automatically go together. How is it that the English can not take national pride without it being considered some form of extreme nationalism? Actually the English invented rugby… and …they can sing. True the Welsh are rubbish at football but they are in the premiership league of being nationalistic and racist if the English can be so considered…. Nationalism is a big movement in Wales, or is it to be considered a nice form of nationalism that promotes singing and rugger and the reinvention of a once almost dead language. A number of people have found that you don’t always get a warm welcome in the valleys – unless they are burning their houses down….
      Personally I have always considered myself to be British before I am English. I don’t agree with everything that has been done in the name of Great Britain but there are many things that we can take pride in. I think the people of these islands are so interbred that we can do nothing else than consider ourselves to be British and that it is right that we are represented in the world by one government and one flag.

      • Amy Barker says:

        Thank you for explaining about the Principality that’s helpful! Yes I do take your point- both positive and negative forms of nationalism take place in every nation. I suppose what I was meaning was that when I think of those two flags (me, specifically) I think it’s a bit sad that the English flag has been so badly used by extreme nationalists – the recent trouble in Newcastle during the EDL march being one example of many. Whereas I don’t THINK the Welsh flag is viewed generally in such a way. Though am interested to hear the opposite view.

        Anyway, here rages the debate on a national identity- along with you I consider myself British first (and entirely really as was born in England and brought up in Wales and worked in England so it’s too complicated!). And I do have a great sense of pride and am quite sentimental and emotional when Olympians fly the Union Jack etc!

        Anyone else got any thoughts?!

  2. Matthew Potter says:

    Flags are perhaps one of the most common forms of an abstract symbol that people will come across in their everyday lives. The colours and shapes they contain are due to associations of cultural identity, for example, a religiously significant shape or colour, or heraldic connection through military service.

    Placed on top of flagpoles on civic buildings or waved during times of national celebration (for instance, the Queen’s Jubilee, or as Amy says the London Olympics) they still have a prominent place within the modern psyche. In their ‘natural habitat’ unfurled in a breeze they are bright and dynamic. Images are brought to mind of paintings by the Impressionists capturing the decorative effect of flags on hotel facades at the end of the nineteenth-century.

    What Amy says about the potential devolution of Scotland from the United Kingdom is interesting as is the lack of representation of Wales (or Ireland for that matter). Essentially the silence of these nations is telling – but then it is always important to think of the historical contexts: both Wales and Ireland were subjected to English (and I use that term specifically) imperialism in the medieval and early modern periods so that they had no national flag of their own to denote a national identity. The modern nation state was yet to be invented. We might be tempted to ask why there is no green in the Union Jack but in fact despite the ubiquitous ‘green’ worn by modern Irish Rugby and association football teams (seen in the Recent Six Nations and England-Ireland friendly international last night) their national colour was actually the blue of St Patrick’s blue.

    Others may argue that the Union Jack is itself to a certain extent outside the realms of modern politics, that it belongs to the people and their culture as much as the state and its army. The pride and positive attitude shown towards the British army today is an interest factor: it is often widely different to attitudes of the public to their government over the last decade or so. Historians have debated the ownership of the Union Jack – that it belonged to everyone in the British empire in the past – and to a very real extent even if the British government abandoned using it, the flag would live on historically fossilised in the national flags of other countries like Australia and New Zealand who incorporate what is known as a ‘defaced Union Jack’ in their designs.

    Ultimately the flag can also be seen as a kind of brand and when the brand is no longer identified with by its supporters the debate is less about what the outcry will be if we ‘remove the blue’ from the Union Jack – as should it be retired completely. Whilst Northern Ireland remains united to England and Wales there is one camp that would argue that the flag should remain the same and will outlive the loss of members until just England remains. Whatever its validity given the general lack of enthusiasm for the St George cross it might even be strategic to retain the Union Jack whatever future devolutions take place for after all it is an abstract symbol.

    Moving back into a more materialistic frame of mind, with Flags like these I am always interested to hear about the original purpose for which they were made. The good state of repair suggests a ceremonial or celebratory context – but equally of interest are those bullet-strewn reminders of the British army in various campaigns of past imperial war.

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