1828 DEBATE: Should we fly flags on public buildings?

James Price and Rebecca Lowe

March 26, 2021

James Price, senior account director at Hanover communications and former government special adviser, argues YES

“Flagshagger!” So type multiple figures on Twitter, without apparently sensing the irony that they invariably have the EU’s starred flag or the Scottish saltire (often alongside the tell-tale blue tick) in their bios. In more enlightened times, that the principal critics of waving flags come from the worst denizens of the internet’s worst website should be enough to win this debate for me alone.

Indeed, in a time where ‘the discourse’ moves seamlessly from one confected outrage to another, the best barometer of what side to be on is to back whatever annoys the right people. If Owen Jones is upset by something, that’s usually enough of a litmus test to prove that you should support it.
Of course, most people don’t worry about what Owen Jones thinks, and are content to live quietly patriotic lives. People are smart enough to realise that no country is perfect, no past blemish-free, and no figure a complete hero. Yes, even Churchill.

But the reason flags have become a topic for debate is that BBC breakfast hosts mocked it. The Neo Gramsci-ites’ culture war spilled out onto a show for non-combatants, aka real people. And in the past years, this conflict has been exported into other areas where quiet patriotism shines. The scenes of protest at the Cenotaph last year. The butchering of songs in the Last Night of the Proms.

So we should fly flags atop Government buildings as a rejection of this shrill little clique that wants to politicise the personal as well as the patriotic and to expunge those nasty little lefties who sneer at ordinary people who hate our wonderful received inheritance.

After all, as Mrs T said, “A man may climb Everest for himself, but at the summit he plants his country’s flag”. And that will continue to upset all the right people.

Rebecca Lowe, former director of FREER, argues NO

My opposition doesn’t stem from aesthetic concern about flags as the things they superficially appear to be: shapes and colours on fabric or paper. Flags are much more than that. They tell us stuff beyond the patterns they bear; they aren’t celebrations of blue or green. The Jolly Roger isn’t prep for anatomy class, and the Soviet flag wasn’t just red cloth stamped with yellow tools. The message of some is at least partly obvious; the message of others, opaque. But they’re all symbolic.

And flying a flag is a choice — a political act. It’s something you should be free to do, as an individual: raise whatever banners you want, in the form of flags, words, or actions. But it’s no business of the state to do so — in our name! — in the public square, or on the buildings we share as equal members of this place. (And neither should businesses pressure employees into wearing whatever charity lanyards their CEOs deem worthy.)

This seems obvious regarding overtly political symbols. Clearly, it’d be wrong for Oxfordshire County Library to sport the Green Party flag, on locals’ behalf. Or Durham Town Hall to raise the flag of the Confederate. But it goes further.

I’m a begrudging believer in the nation state, on practical grounds, regarding the operation of democracy. And I get the need for demarcations like borders, and descriptors. But flags aren’t just labels. And the permanent nature of any flag’s particular qualities grates against democratic values. Who chose those colours? And the principles the design represents? Even if they were chosen by vote, and remain up for debate, it’s the showy rigidity of insignia’s nature. The anti-pluralistic over-particularisation that shouts, ‘This is us, for good!’.

So, even national flags shouldn’t be flown on public buildings. It’s not the business of the state.


Written by James Price and Rebecca Lowe

James Price is a senior account director at Hannover and a former Government Special Advisor and Rebecca Lowe was the former Director of FREER.

One comment

  1. I think the answer is that there really are much more things to worry about. Obsessively putting flags everywhere is weird (and not very British). Obsessively denigrating flags and those who choose to display them is also weird (and all too British).

    If the UK Government wants to show a flag on their buildings then I don’t have a problem with that. After all you will find a maple leaf on a Canadian Government building or the ring of gold stars on an EU building.

    If that offends people then that is their problem. But likewise, those who seek to be offended by the absence of a flag are equally in need of therapy.

    The Union flag is supposed to represent the country as a whole. The extreme lefties who reject it have the unfortunately effect of leaving it the sole property of the extreme right who seem to worry about it more than is healthy.

    Let’s just all be a bit more relaxed about it.

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