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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.