Brexit Schmexit

This is a piece I wrote for The Independent in 2006 in support of the flag of St George, which has become associated with racism, and will no doubt be hoist aloft across the land post-Brexit. It’s important in the run up to the big day, that we reclaim all the markers of Englishness as markers of Britishness, of unity rather than separatism. What do you think?

How I Have Come To Love the Flag

I grew up in the west London suburb of Paddington where the positive icons of Englishness made assimilation a pleasure – bully beef, bowler hats, and the Salvation Army band marching down Lancaster Gate every Sunday, collecting for good works.

It wasn’t until I was older and the kids around me were sporting the tonic suits and oxblood loafers of the up-market skinhead that I encountered racism: the taunting lads on our estate; the butcher in Church Street Market who stopped serving Asians; and my mum, small, frightened and immobile in a sari, face down on a station platform, pushed off a Tube train by a skinhead while city “gents” turned their faces.

As a trainee reporter, I found myself working in the East End at a time when the Anti Nazi League and East London Workers Against Racism had their campaigning cut out for them. Under the flag of St George, the National Front organised the ritual terrorisation of immigrants across the area. I still recall Mr Uddin in Canning Town, who lived in darkness because he’d boarded his windows to keep his family safe from the National Front’s nightly brick-throwing.

The flag was the NF’s call to arms. If you saw it outside a pub, you didn’t enter. When I disobeyed and went in with an English boyfriend, his family was threatened with reprisals. I should hate the St George’s flag and everything it represents. I should be telling my children who are genetically half-Sri Lankan, half-Jewish, that it is a totem of all that isbad about nationalism. But that’s not true.

Our cultural artefacts and mores are not set in stone. They are mutable. Consider those icons fashioned from and through diversity: chicken tikka masala, the Notting Hill Carnival, Goodness Gracious Me, and a premier football league top-heavy with foreign players …

Far from making the St George’s flag redundant, this change in emphasis provides it with a key role. It is the awning under which the old and the new can be celebrated equally. It is both parent and social worker to the people – a pulling together of nature, nurture and state.

The racist connotations attached to the flag belong to the last century. While racism remains an everyday issue, the unrelenting cruelty of organised racial attacks is not. To wrest back the flag is to undermine the rhetoric of the right and to celebrate the changed demographic of England, because nationalism is about common culture, common purpose and common experience. It is not necessarily about racial homogeny. Diversity is a function of English culture, not separate from it.

My heart lifts when I see the St George’s flag draped around the shoulders of young Asians and members of social minorities whose ethnic root is visibly not indigenous. In troubled political times where every non-white Brit is a potential terrorist, it’s an empowering image of unity. As they mingle with their paler peers, united on the terraces to cheer their team, they are rehabilitating St George from the shape-shifting shadows of fascist polemic.

And the timing is perfect. Not only have we an England team that really could get to the World Cup final, but the British National Party, which had won moral rights over the flag as the NF foundered, is being forced to operate within recognised political frameworks on the back of its local elections success.

No room here then, for pulling on 32-hole Dr Martens and kicking apart some black bloke’s head in the name of our patron saint. Like the prodigal son, he can return home from past disgraces to a family celebration. The flag of St George symbolises fearlessness, fortitude, fraternity; hope, amity, energy; confidence, challenge and change. Above all, unity. These are all worthwhile qualities. Those young men and women who sport the flag are redefining patriotism as national celebration within a global context – a context represented in the many-coloured faces of English people. It is a beautiful sight.

Like them, my children are going through the process of self-discovery and definition. Badges that signify membership are important to them. The St George’s flag is fun, it’s funky and it’s multi-purpose.

It’s the equivalent of the umbrella held aloft by tour guides the world over: confirmation that we’re all a part of the same posse; that there’s a central meeting point; that moving away does not lead to abandonment; that whatever our personal instincts, there is a common purpose. In two generations’ time, people will have forgotten the localised unrest that causes us to be anxious around issues of English patriotism. It’s time to look ahead. I certainly do.