Colour drained from the union flag

27th March 2021

Flying the flag – Communities Secretary, Robert Jenrick

In 1987 Paul Gilroy published his now widely acknowledged classic assessment of race in Britain There Ain’t No Black in the Union Jack.  The book was not so well received at the time, coming hard on the heels of the 1981 rebellions in Brixton against racial oppression and poverty, the wave of late seventies opposition to the rise of the National Front and the jingoism and flag waving encouraged by the Falklands War.  The title of the book is taken from a racist football chant of the 1970’s and 80’s, ‘There ain’t no black in the Union Jack, send the bastards back.’

Quite where the ’bastards’ were to go ‘back’ to was not the point.  Tribal chanting is part of a mob mentality which does not stand up to scrutiny but simply reinforces the mob’s feeling of righteousness in not being ‘other’.  Over thirty years since the publication of Gilroy’s book many of the black, Asian and minority ethnic populations in Britain are third generation residents, born and bred in Britain. Citizens with equal rights and an equal claim to shape the culture of the country in which they were born.

Except the reality is different in so many ways.  The recent Windrush scandal exposed the latent racism at the heart of the British establishment in the threat to send ‘home’ citizens who have lived in Britain for over 50 years and know no other ‘home’.  The impact of the COVID-19 virus in the present pandemic has had a disproportionate impact upon black, Asian and ethnic minority communities across Britain.  It does not take much research to reveal that the NHS, the care sector and the poorest parts of most of the UK’s cities are staffed and populated by people of colour.

Race has always been a key weapon in the hands of the British establishment to divide the working class.  The progress made in legislative terms, culminating in the Equality Act 2010, which enshrines legal rights and outlaws overt discrimination, do not tackle the underlying attitudes which the British establishment will always use to its advantage when the opportunity arises.

The attempted hijacking of the Brexit debate by racists and xenophobes was a classic example.  A rational discussion about the failings of the European Union, in terms of protecting jobs and worker’s rights, was never on the cards, once the Make Britain Great Again lobby seized the debate, encouraged by the cheerleaders in the right wing media and the usually supine BBC, foregoing any real journalistic challenge in the interests of ‘balance.’

Immigration is, as ever in the hands of the right wing politicians and media, a trope for people of colour, however many generations their families may have been resident in Britain.  So, tackling immigration simply translates into difference of skin colour, religion or cultural practice being an issue and the working classes become divided on the issue of race, when they should be united on the issue of class.

Endemic racism operates in more subtle ways too.  The outpouring of outrage at the recent murder of Sarah Everard, the accusations against the Metropolitan Police and the upsurge in support for the White Ribbon movement opposing violence against women is fully justified.  However, the recent interviews with Mina Smallman, whose two daughters were murdered last June and then suffered the indignity of police officers taking selfies with their bodies, cannot help but raise questions of race.  The response of the media, the police and public figures to the deaths of women of colour did not, and does not, generate the same levels of public outrage.

The recent guidance from the government that the Union Jack should be flown from all government buildings, in the words of culture secretary Oliver Dowden, as “a proud reminder of our history and the ties that bind us” further raises the question of which history and how tightly the ties are bound.

BBC Breakfast presenters Naga Munchetty and Charlie Stayt have already received a dressing down for mildly teasing communities secretary, Robert Jenrick, for the positioning of a Union Jack as a backdrop in a TV interview.   Jenrick has called upon local authorities to fly the flag suggesting that people would “rightly expect” to see it on top of all civic buildings.  Labour leader Kier Starmer has already taken to wrapping himself in the union flag to demonstrate his patriotism.

For Irish nationalists the Union Jack has long been regarded as “the butcher’s apron”, for people of colour across the former Empire it has been a symbol of the Empire upon which “the sun never set and the blood never dried”.  The union flag does not represent those protesting as part of the Black Lives Matter movement.

The history of which the Union Jack is a symbol is a ruling class history of exploitation, racism and oppression.  It is the history of white supremacy which is still the basis of the school curriculum, it is the history which airbrushes out working class struggle, makes passing reference to the fight for women’s rights and excludes almost entirely the histories of people of colour.

The Union Jack is being deployed in a desperate attempt to reinforce an image of Britain moulded in the image of the Conservative Party, which is white, middle class, supportive of the Monarchy, suspicious of ‘foreigners’ and rooted in the fictional glory days of empire.

Those days are gone, they must not be allowed to return.  Working class unity across age, gender and race is the only guaranteed means of resistance.  In the so-called culture wars which are increasingly becoming part of the armoury of the establishment, the unified homogeneity of conservatism cannot win.  Multi cultural action rooted in working class unity must once again be on the agenda, across the nations of the so-called United Kingdom.

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