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The Flag of Heritage

Flying a flag is a political act. It means something, even if we cannot always explain quite what it is or why it is important. It is more blood and guts than bloodless theorems, and it can imbue a place with an identity and dignity woven from the diverse and sometimes imperceptible threads of a shared heritage.

So, what does it say that flying above the buildings of some our greatest historical treasures is the banal logo of a government agency?

Now at this point, I might as well lay my cards on the table: contrary to received wisdom, I do not believe the flag of St. George requires detoxification. Nor do I believe that it is indelibly linked with an attitude of mind violently opposed to the tenets of contemporary society. Indeed for a great many, the flag is no more offensive or sinister than are jeans and trainers because thugs often wear them. To my mind, those who traduce the flag are often those whose principal experience of its flying is filtered through the sensationalised glare of a controversy obsessed media. In short, those who would make synonymous the flag and violent (often racialised) expressions of political activity are wide of the mark.

Yet it also worth rejecting the common slogan appearing from the opposite direction, that lazily claims the left is unpatriotic (usually whilst quoting some part of Orwell that the interlocutor never actually read), by pointing to the rather inconvenient fact that a great many on the left are not. After all, one is rather more likely to see the flag of St. George draped from the bedroom window of a council-house in a Labour stronghold than from the quads of an Oxford college or the sash windows of a thatched Cotswolds cottage.

And this is important, for it is here one most clearly glimpses the cleave in attitudes toward the flag of England. What the flag requires is not detoxification. What the flag requires is social and cultural extension. That it could for so long be maligned as a symbol of vulgarity and boorishness could only occur because it was for too long absent from association with the lived experience and valued institutions of those who would so willingly jump to such lazy conclusions (and who have often had a disproportionate role in public discourse with which to do it). There has been an element of social capture of the flag of St. George, unwarrantably narrowing its capacity to bestow identity and embody unity; quite simply, more people need to be able to share in it.

As such, we need once again to weave together the principal symbol of our national identity with those things that cut across social and class boundaries and point toward a history and identity in which we all share.

The English Heritage flag cleanses some of our most important sites of any emotional ties, erecting a sterile symbol of state bureaucracy more suited to road traffic signs and office stationery than marking the landscape of our shared history. Where an expression of our communal identity and possession ought to be, there is the logo of a government agency.

We ought to dismay at this riding roughshod over our collective heritage. We ought to reclaim our heritage for the flag of England, and have our heritage shared and secured for all by flying under this same flag. We ought, quite simply, to put the flag of England back into English Heritage.

Dear Christine Blower…

Dear Christine Blower,

I was very disappointed to read your letter to the Guardian, dated Sunday 29th April. Your decision to sign the letter in your capacity of General Secretary of the NUT is of particular concern.

To begin, the legislative basis upon which you base your objection to the actions of certain Roman Catholic schools lacks serious credibility. Indeed, that you should need to resort to the claim that Roman Catholic schools had breached ‘the spirit of the Equality Act’ really ought to have been enough to give you serious pause for thought. In short, no law has been broken. Further, no school is, by law, required to conform to the ‘spirit’ of the Equality Act, as opposed to its precise legislative demands, not least because that very notion is itself transient and shifting. That you should choose, therefore, to link the decision of some Roman Catholic schools to inform their students of the C4M petition with incidents of homophobic bullying is little more than unfounded slur intended to enforce conformity through semantic (emotional) blackmail; those NUT members who work within Roman Catholic schools, and who can recognise your intervention for the prejudice-riven ignorance that it is, have every right to be concerned.

Put simply, Roman Catholic schools are very often beacons of equality and diversity – it is in our DNA – and to suggest we neglect to teach human rights or an understanding of one another is deeply offensive. There are, naturally, areas of disagreement, though do not please assume that you have a monopoly on either ethics or morals, or that your own interjections carry with them the quality of moral infallibility – one can disagree with your political, social and moral pronouncements without thereby being cast off as either reactionary or unpleasant. Indeed, the intentions and tone of your letter does little to suggest that your own worldview is one of inclusivity and tolerance.

Clearly, you have chosen to present your personal views as synonymous with your professional role, no doubt with the intention of adding authority to your pronouncements. This is inappropriate. You may well, of course, think the settled law of the land is homophobic or fuels homophobia. You may, indeed, think that marriage as legally, culturally, socially and historically understood is homophobic and fuels homophobia. You may also, clearly, believe that anyone who wishes to preserve the existing legal situation, by espousing the perfectly mainstream view that marriage is between one man and one woman, is homophobic or fuelling homophobia, or indeed polygamyphobic and fuelling polygamyphobia. All that is fine, and should you wish to pursue these views further then you do of course have every right to do so. What you absolutely do not have the right to do is to use your position as head of a national union to add any sort of professional imprimatur to these views, especially when the attack (for that is what this is) falls on the heads of so many of your members, whose hard work and membership fees are vital for the continuing success of your union.

Should you wish to complain about the role of Roman Catholic schools in informing their students about the C4M petition, which contradicts absolutely no law, then please do so in your capacity as Christine Blower. To do so in the name of the union you lead is a gross distortion of your role as union leader, and a gross abandonment of those whom you are morally obliged to represent.

As things stand, I see no reason why Roman Catholic members of the NUT, nor indeed those who work in and are committed to Roman Catholic education, nor indeed anyone else of all faiths or none who happen to find the current law on marriage perfectly sufficient, should continue to support any union, the General Secretary of which can cease to represent them and their interests, and indeed should seek to attack them directly on the basis of little more than slur and ignorance.

As such, I shall be reconsidering my membership of your union. Should I choose to stay, it shall be due to my unending admiration for the hard work and commitment of those in the lower tiers of the NUT hierarchy, rather than for any support or loyalty for those currently sitting at the top.

Michael Merrick