CULTURE AND THE FLAG

Reflections after the Scottish Referendum

In his fine and important book Who Are We? The Challenges to America’s National Identity, the late Samuel Huntington, a US political scientist of great rigour and high reputation, recalled the changing fortunes of patriotism in the second decade of the 21th century from the evidence of Charles Street in Boston. Prior to the 9/11 attack on the World Trade Center building in New York, one American flag flew in the street. It was in front of a liquor store. Within two weeks, of the 9/11 attack, seventeen American flags had been raised there. “With their country under attack”, Huntington commented, “Charles Street denizens rediscovered their nation and identified themselves with it.” This sentiment did not last, however. Within a few months, the flags on Charles Street were being hauled down. One year later, only four were still flying.1

The rise and fall of the Stars and Stripes on a Boston street was an accurate reflection of the rise and fall of strong patriotic sentiment in the American people following 9/11. As he implied, “flag-waving” was an activity that had fallen out of fashion among many Americans, especially in liberal Boston. Indeed, the very term “flag-waving” had become a dismissive one, indicating that the speaker preferred a more modest love of country and was critical of those whose patriotic expression was jauntier and jingoistic. But an outright attack on America revived a passionate patriotism for most Americans, symbolised by the widespread wearing of flag-pins in the lapel. That bolder patriotism gradually cooled in turn. Most of the post-9/11 flags were hauled down; news anchors gradually put aside their flag-pins (attacked by some as “fascist”); and the de-constructionist elements (multiculturalism, bilingualism, etc.), identified by Huntington as “challenges” to America’s national identity resumed their rise. Nonetheless, three more flags that had been present on 9/10 still fluttered on their flagpoles, and the latent power of patriotism had been demonstrated.

The flag is a symbol of sovereignty and allegiance – the sovereignty of the ruler and the allegiance of the citizen – but also a symbol of love of country. In democracies the ruler is the people under the law; citizens express allegiance to themselves and their own collective sovereignty when they salute the flag. That changes hardly at all when the ruler is a constitutional monarch since, as H. G. Wells among others pointed out, such polities might better be described as “crowned republics”. It becomes a little more complicated when the ruler is a legitimate but non- democratic one, a king or a foreign imperial power. If such a ruler provides good government, protecting liberties and rights, providing impartial justice, offering channels of influence and change to the people, citizens seeking a different ruler or system of rule are probably obliged to do so through peaceful methods such as civil disobedience. If he is an oppressive despot, they may enjoy a right of rebellion but they must exercise it prudently. In all cases citizens may well love their country and revere its flag even while despising its government. Indeed, that is a common combination of emotions in democracies. And even under cruel despotisms, the citizenry may well shrink from actions that would damage the despot because the same actions would damage the country as well.

Finally, states and political systems are all in process of constant flux even when they seem to be stable and eternal. In the last 100 years we have seen the collapse of European dynasties, the retreat of European world empires, the eruption of revolutionary states, the occupation of historical nation-states following wars, the creation of new nation-states on an unprecedented scale, the peaceful emergence of multinational states, and the establishment of global institutions with some features traditionally associated with statehood. All these changes have been accompanied by changes in flags. New flags have been designed, old ones discarded, shameful ones desecrated – red stars being torn from their ragged centre. These changes continue. Scotland almost became an independent state recently and will shortly be a statelet within a fresh federal British constitution. Croatia entered the European Community. Catalonia threatens to hold its own referendum on independence against the wishes of Spain. Hungary resists initiatives from Brussels and the IMF in pursuit of its economic freedom of action.

So what explains these changes in rules and flags – whether they are imperial, national, federal or local? Sentiment is, of course, the underlying reality. Allegiances, loyalties and ideologies change in response to great events and to large social movements. War is one such event; 1914–18 destroyed the Hohenzollern, Habsburg and Romanov dynasties, ushering in new nations and new political concepts. Among the large social movements with an equal or great impact, however, are trade and culture – which, when you add technology to them, become communications. To see how they operate, take first the changes in the imperial and post-imperial loyalties of the British Empire.

One common explanation of the expansion of the British Empire is “trade follows the flag”. This expression seems to have been kicking around since the mid-19th century as a justification for colonial expansion. The earliest actual quote I came across was from the historian J. A. Froude in 1870: “The removal of a million poor creatures to Canada and the establishment of them there would probably have turned out a profitable investment. Trade follows the flag.”

Almost all other citations of it, however, turned out to reject the argument. Here, for instance, is R. Hargreaves in 1945: “There is a glib saying that ‘trade follows the flag’; an apophthegm that succeeds in putting the cart before the horse with greater aplomb than almost any other cant phrase in common use.” Today the general view of imperial historians is that the flag follows trade.

Lord Palmerston got there before them, however, when he described the policy of the British government as “Trade without the flag where possible; trade with the flag where necessary”. That is also an accurate definition of liberal imperialism, Anglo-Saxon style. It describes a system with two large advantages: first, it keeps the administrative and military costs of governing colonies to a minimum; second, it is able to survive (and even prosper) when those colonies have gained independence. Contrary to the forecasts of Marxist and Left historians generally, the prosperity of Britain grew faster after the “loss” of its empire. It was those colonies that cut themselves off from trade with Britain (and other advanced countries) for political reasons that then fell behind economically.

But – and here’s the nub – if the flag follows trade, so does culture. Trade is an exchange of goods, and as Matt Ridley has documented very persuasively in his book, The Rational Optimist, this exchange introduces new ideas, new possibilities, new opportunities, new conceptions of the good life to previously somnolent societies along with the goods that are traded. Trade therefore has disruptive consequences for traditional societies. It undermines traditional hierarchies; it introduces new ambitions; it casts doubt on the customs and standards that have heretofore been unthinkingly accepted.

These are revolutionary cultural changes. They are resisted. Traditional leaderships frown on the trader – in complex societies such as India they frown on entire trading classes – and try to keep its influence to a minimum. If their opposition to the disruptive influence of the trader reaches the point of excluding him and his goods altogether – well, that is when Palmerston concludes that the flag is necessary. It was Palmerston who as Foreign Secretary initiated the Opium War to prevent the Chinese Emperor from removing the right of his subjects to smoke good British opium.

Opium aside, most Victorians regarded trade in goods and ideas with or without the flag as the march of progress. They recognised that it had some ill-effects, but they thought that its overall impact – notably, ending evils such as slavery and piracy – was beneficial. We are less certain because of the moral catastrophes that shamed Europe in the 20th century. We are more concerned with protecting indigenous peoples and preserving wild environments. But aside from a few extreme environmentalists, we don’t really feel that we can actually halt or reverse progress because we would have a guilty conscience if we were to deny the world its practical advantages from spectacles to artificial hearts, from low infant mortality to I-Pods and laptops.

So both the flag and culture continue to follow in trade’s wake.

As the heirs of Palmerston found, the flag and culture are trade’s quarrelsome siblings. A liberal empire eventually runs up against the fact that its subjects take these new ideas of liberalism and democracy, imported along with cheap cotton goods, so seriously that they want them for themselves. Macaulay famously gave India a modern education; the British appointed Indian judges and senior bureaucrats in the 19th century. At first the ambition of these gifted native students was to be English gentlemen of Indian background. To a remarkable degree, those ambitions have been realised (with the curious twist that the Indians are today far more gentlemanly than the British). If the empire had become permanent in the early 20th century, as Joseph Chamberlain proposed, however, the logical end result would have been India governing Britain. Numbers count.

That seems quite an attractive prospect today. In that age, it was simply not considered. Hence the more that the educated Indians became English gentlemen – and Nehru who shaped India far more than Gandhi was indisputably an English gentleman – the more they drifted inevitably into nationalism. The culture that the flag had planted turned against the flag. And culture won. The flag was eventually lowered on many a flagpole in capitals with Anglican cathedrals, English public schools, British road signs, gentlemen’s clubs with mixed racial membership but no ladies, and the Queen’s portrait still on the local currency.

After an interval of about two generations, needed to let post-imperial resentments cool, some remarkable things happened. One was that, as I have already mentioned, Britain’s economic ties with most of its colonies grew stronger after decolonisation. What was more remarkable, however, was that Britain’s cultural ties with its former colonies grew stronger too. As a result Britain, though greatly diminished in power terms, is a cultural superpower. That was so even before the internet. But the invention of the internet – because it increases the importance of culture in comparison to other factors in a nation’s life such as geographical proximity – has intensified the relationship between Britain, its former colonies, and other nations where the English language is a national one or one used by the nation’s political and cultural elites.

In short, ties of language and liberal culture have proved durable even when these nations have been divided by religion, politics and national independence. Where once the flag has liberated culture, culture today unites peoples now living under different flags.

A powerful example of this cultural influence is the Anglo-Irish relationship. If the First World War had not intervened, Ireland would have been granted Home Rule within the United Kingdom in 1914. But the withdrawal of Home Rule for the duration, the 1916 Easter rebellion, the execution of its leaders, the Troubles, the division of Ireland into two sectarian states – all these events ensured that the relationship between Britain and the Irish Republic was either hostile or painful for almost ninety years following the separation. That political awkwardness was aggravated by the fact that some of the 1916 leaders wanted to break with Britain not only politically but also socially, morally, culturally. In the language of the time, they wanted to destroy the “West British” aspects of Irish identity and social life.

To a great if temporary extent that was politically achieved by De Valera’s 1937 Constitution which shared state power with the Catholic Church – to the eventual disadvantage and discredit of both. Both then and after, however, southern Ireland became less diverse, more economically stagnant, and more repressive culturally than its next-door neighbour. The IRA drove out many Protestants by intimidation in the years immediately after independence. Until the early 1960s poorer Protestants faced discrimination in official jobs. The Catholic clergy had enormous social power even beyond their legally privileged position – bishops, for instance, banned Saturday night dances by fiat to ensure a healthy Mass attendance the next day. Irishmen who fought for Britain in the Second World War were subject to punishment and discrimination. And there was a heavy-handed moral censorship of books, plays and films. Though the scale of this cultural repression has been exaggerated – it was a relatively gentle repression by European standards and reflected rather than opposed the values of most Irish people – it was real enough; and it was intended to divide the Irish people from the British in moral and cultural matters in order to exaggerate their differences.

Yet the deep social and familial ties between Britain and Ireland, the common language (English)2, the common marketing of goods, including cultural goods such as magazines and newspapers, to both Irish and British markets, all prevented this essentially ideological project from succeeding. All through the years since 1922 there has been mass movement – for the purposes of emigration, education, tourism, and above all marriage – between England and Ireland. Irish workers of all classes – Irish doctors in particular – were found throughout England. Thousands of Irishmen left neutral Ireland in the Second World War to join the British Army or Merchant Marine – my father among them. Intermarriage between the English and the Irish is more common, I believe, than intermarriage between any other two of the four nations of Britain – again, my parents among them. Legally the Irish were able to come and go to Britain as if the Free State and later Republic still had been constitutionally part of the United Kingdom – and vice versa.

The eruption of terrorism from the late 1960s to the Good Friday Agreement strained the political relationship between London and Dublin, sometimes severely, but it had only small impact on the friendships of ordinary people or within “mixed” families. Sir Terry Wogan, a genial Irish broadcaster, remained the most popular man in England throughout this period. And as the late Conor Cruise O’Brien – who was a passionate opponent of the IRA – liked to observe, opinion polls showed that if you asked Irish people which nationality they would like their daughters to marry, a large plurality chose an English husband.

This extensive and continuing set of social relationships undermined the De Valera project of a culturally distinct Ireland. It was further damaged by the scandals in the Catholic Church, by the Celtic Tiger prosperity that brought Irish people home from liberal environments in Europe and America, by the Good Friday Agreement that removed its political justification, and by the Anglophone liberalism that people imbibed from the internet. For better or worse – and in fact for both – Britain and Ireland are now as culturally close as they were in 1914, maybe closer. That closeness was symbolised by the huge popular success of the Queen’s visit to Ireland in 2012. No one now uses the phrase “West Britain”, but it is the social reality of Anglo-Irish relations today.

Just recently I found a modest confirmation of this truth in the most famous song of one of the most famous West Britons, Percy French, whose light verse and music were popular throughout the Victorian and Edwardian worlds. His most famous song was “The Mountains of Mourne” which has a melancholy melody of great beauty but semi-comic lyrics. It is supposedly a letter from an Irish workman in London to his sweetheart at home in which he describes what he sees there but misunderstands what he sees: he thinks the traffic policeman is a man of great power, for instance. When I looked up the lyrics recently, I found a verse that I had never heard sung before. Irish friends, including writers, had never heard it sung either. That seems to be more than chance – maybe a sense that this particular verse was politically uncomfortable until 2012. But here it is:
 

I’ve seen England’s king from the top of a bus

And I’ve never known him, but he means to know us. And tho’ by the Saxon we once were oppressed,

Still I cheered, God forgive me, I cheered with the rest. And now that he’s visited Erin’s green shore

We’ll be much better friends than we’ve been heretofore When we’ve got all we want, we’re as quiet as can be Where the mountains of Mourne sweep down to the sea.

In other words the promise of Edward VII’s visit in 1903 was finally redeemed in 2012 by Elizabeth II. It is now permissible for Irish people to speak kindly of the English monarchy of which the symbol is the flag. With the removal of that final taboo, the two islands now enjoy a relationship that is quite different from that between two countries foreign to each other. They live under two flags but are united by a common culture.

If Scotland had chosen political independence in the September vote, the same paradox of political separation alongside social unity would probably have been achieved more quickly and more easily (since independence would have been realised by a free vote rather than through insurrection and civil war). As with Ireland, the Scots would probably have continued to enjoy free movement and residence in England (and vice versa). Maybe Scottish residents in England would have continued to enjoy voting rights in England too, as do the Irish.

At the same time, Scottish politics would have evolved away from English politics to reflect different national circumstances – as also happened between Ireland and Britain. Today’s friendly Anglo-Irish relations have not revived any projects of constitutional unity with Britain.

Has the referendum vote in Scotland settled its future as part of the United Kingdom with equal permanence? It probably has not. Indeed, the fact that a referendum on withdrawing Scotland from a stable and prosperous UK was held at all – let alone that the status quo got only 55 per cent of the vote – is an unacknowledged tribute to the continuing power of nationalism. Nonetheless it failed – and for two reasons:

First, the economic case for independence was incoherent and thus ultimately unpersuasive. If Scotland were to survive and prosper as an independent state without England’s subsidy to its public finances, it would need to turn itself into a low-tax, low-regulation, workfare economy on the free market model of, say, Singapore. But Alex Salmond, the leader of the independence cause, promised that an independent Scotland would be an even more egalitarian and generous welfare and regulatory state than the UK. If so, who would pay for it? The European Union, even if it were to admit Scotland, would not play the role of Sugar Daddy to Scottish socialism. So Salmond could never explain how he would pay the bills for a Scottish utopia. That failure ran up against the lingering thrift mentality of Scottish voters – and the No campaign hit hard, repeatedly, and successfully at this weakness.

Second, an opinion poll ten days before the vote suggested that the Scots would narrowly vote for independence and Scotland would depart the UK. That concentrated minds wonderfully. A competing nationalism suddenly emerged. A slumbering British nationalism awoke in the souls of ordinary Scots. Unionists of the street suddenly appeared and started talking the language of patriotism, history, fellowship in war and hard times, matching the SNP’s optimistic and idealist language with one of their own. It was that upsurge of British identity patriotism that turned the final tide.

All in all, a negative campaign on the practical difficulties of independence and a positive campaign on the historic achievements of Britain together defeated Scottish independence. But the defeat was not a decisive one. The referendum vote was a narrow victory; the turnout was much higher than that in recent general elections; many in the (growing) ranks of Scottish nationalism feel cheated and want revenge; and the main cultural currents in Scotland favour the lost cause. Almost all commentators noticed that the artists, bohemians and activists were on the side of independence. Though England and Scotland remain under one flag, they are moving towards a cultural separatism.

That is highly significant. National identity, loyalty to the Crown or a Republic, patriotism, national feeling, all that we mean by the flag – these are not solid unchanging properties like a rock. They are matters of the heart and the imagination. They can and do change. As we have already noticed, one hundred years ago ancient dynasties and long-established empires were swept away by a political cataclysm. They were replaced by new states and new loyalties, new anthems and new flags. That can happen – and it almost happened in Britain this year. An overarching British identity was seriously challenged because it had been devalued over such a long period that for many British people it ceased to have a strong appeal to the heart.

This overarching British identity did not die of old age or some sociological sickness. Indeed, as we saw in the final days of the campaign, it is not actually dead among ordinary British people. But among the country’s political elites patriotism had long become something to be ashamed of and avoided. In Scotland the establishment instinctively avoided a patriotic appeal until the very end of the campaign when it faced possible defeat. For several decades European elites have argued that the nation-state is dead, losing power upwards to supranational institutions and downwards to organised ethnic, gender and other minorities. They believe that nation-states are a declining factor in a world of international law and global organisation. Even conservatives in Europe seem to accept the argument that patriotism is a dark emotion too likely to shade into authoritarian and jingoistic doctrines to be respectable or accepted. In the mind of Davos Man nationalism is an emotional dogma quite contrary to the economic rationalism of globalisation.

In fact the two go hand in hand; each reinforces the other. Globalisation actually makes nationalism more possible by making smaller political units more viable. The earliest modern discoverer of this truth was C. Northcote Parkinson of Parkinson’s Law in the 1950s. In fact Parkinson discovered several useful laws – his third law runs as follows: “Expansion means complexity, and complexity means decay.” Small countries are likely to be richer, easier to manage, endowed with governments closer to the people, and thus likely to better governed than larger states.

Thus, as The Economist pointed out a few years ago:

Of the ten countries with populations of over 100m, only the United States and Japan are prosperous. Of the rest, India’s economy is dwarfed by that of the Netherlands (15.5m people); the economies of Nigeria and Bangladesh are much the same size as that of Puerto Rico (3.7m)… [O]f the ten countries whose GDP per head is highest when measured in terms of purchasing power, the most populous apart from the United States and Japan is Belgium.

How do we account for this? The answer is simple: if there ever was a link between prosperity and bigness, it was dissolved by globalisation (which is shorthand for the reduction of barriers to trade and capital movements). Globalisation ensures that the size of the nation need no longer coincide with the size of the market. An industry can expand to the size appropriate to its market in a world with declining barriers to trade. At the same time a government can shrink to the size that its citizens find most convenient to control.

America is the exception to that rule – it is both large and prosperous – because its federalism distributes power outwards and downwards to levels where it can be better controlled. Switzerland is another example. Europe might imitate America’s success if it were to model itself on Switzerland and adopt the principle of subsidiarity in distributing power downwards to regions and localities. In fact the opposite is happening on both continents.

Think of it this way: federalism in a country is the equivalent of free trade between countries. Each in its context provides what the lawyers call “jurisdictional competition”. If you don’t like the mix of tax and regulation in Alabama, you can move to Texas; and if you don’t like the mix of tax and regulation in France – and why would you? – you can move to Britain, as hundreds of thousands of French people have done in recent decades. Federalism and free trade both promote the freedom of businesses and citizens who can vote with their feet.

Not surprisingly, that doesn’t suit governments and the political classes when they want – as they all eventually do want – to tax and spend more than their subjects. So under federalism the central government continually seeks to expand its powers. The more successfully it does so, the more it spends, and the more political constituencies it recruits for its power games.

Governments have a similar incentive under free trade rules. They try to turn free trade treaties into vehicles of regulation so that they are able to prevent citizens from escaping somewhere else with lower taxes. The European Union began as a market of governments – citizens and businesses and trade move anywhere in it. But later treaties have transformed it into a cartel of governments which – by harmonising regulations and taxes – makes it easier for high-tax governments to remove competition from their smaller neighbours – smaller usually both geographically and in size of government too. The result is a gradual transfer of power over the lives of citizens from national parliaments accountable to the voters to remote bureaucracies. The further result is the growth of a transnational political class that seeks to increase the power of international bodies over governments in order to increase its own power over their citizens. They believe that they can create a new flag either on the basis of trade alone or on creating new official cultures through political power.

As a result ordinary existing nationalisms – whether large or small, new or long- standing – have rival patriotisms in the hearts of European, global and American elites. The main rivals are Europeanism in Europe and multiculturalism in the United States. Both these ideologies seek to weaken national patriotism in order to change the character of their societies. Multiculturalism is an ideology that seeks to deconstruct the national identity of an existing nation under the same flag; Europeanism is an ideology that seeks to create a new nation by uniting many existing ones under a new flag. They have their adherents. But neither has yet become more than a niche loyalty even though they enjoy lavish official support and the sympathy of those government officials, international agency bureaucrats, NGO executives, “denationalised” corporate managers, and academics ambitious to be the vanguard of the new or transformed nation. Those failures – the failure of “diversity” to become the patriotism of most Americans, the failure of Europeanism to generate a European “demos” loyal to the European Union ahead of particular member states – are reflected in flags. The Stars and Stripes still stands for traditional American ideals; the blue flag with its circle of stars still has a corporate rather than a patriotic meaning.

Old-fashioned patriotism therefore survives in humble hearts, perhaps weakened and lurking in the shadows, until it is tempted in to the open by a 9/11, or a threat to the nation such as that mounted in Scotland, or the anniversary of a D-Day or in Hungary a remembrance of 1956. It then emerges and speaks and changes things.

But it cannot safely be taken for granted. If a nation is a daily plebiscite, an imagined community, then patriotic nationalism needs to be respected and valued. Once it no longer appeals to the hearts of the people, it ceases to be a vital political support for the institutions and coherence of the state. When culture decays, the flag is eventually hauled down – in the metropolis as once in the imperial possessions. When God, King and Country no longer possess the heart, other beliefs and loyalties rush in to replace them. For like all other loves, love of country can be killed by neglect and indifference.

1 I am indebted to Roger Kimball for reminding me of this passage from the Huntington book which is full of profound reflections on the nature of both political sovereignty and national identity. My review of it is here: http://www.theamericanconservative.com/articles/who-are-we/

2  Successive governments in Ireland sought to replace English by Gaelic as the national language through education and official bilingualism in the public sector. This intended imposition had the predictable effect of making Gaelic unpopular. It is still protected officially but no longer enforced on reluctant people. It has therefore recovered in popularity among middle class Irish people with cultural interests and historical loyalties. At no point was the status of English as Ireland’s real national language seriously threatened

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