More flag, less substance

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Want to make something better? Stick a flag on it! At least, that’s how many Britons appear to think about their national tricolor. Whereas I used to see the Union Flag being used as a gimmick on certain products, it seems that the flag is more and more embraced (as well as rejected) as a political symbol.

I’ve visited the United States a couple of times and I was not at all surprised to see the Stars and Stripes just about anywhere I went. Outside every Perkins or Ihop where I consumed comically large breakfasts (although I think my hearts disagrees on the ‘comical’ element) stood a flagpole on which an American flag the size of the floorspace of an average Dutch terraced house was attached. It was no different at Walmart, the beach or many normal residential dwellings. No wonder American children have to pledge allegiance to the flag at school every morning.

The relationship of Britons with their Union Flag (or Union Jack) is not of this magnitude. When I moved the the UK, the flag seemed mostly like a fashionable object to me; it served as a nice print on t-shirts and it was used to decorate the roofs of Mini Coopers. Even I have an ‘edgy’ mug with a Union Flag print in my kitchen cupboard.

But those days are well and truly over. In recent years, and especially after the Brexit referendum, companies appear to have adopted the mindset that the reinvigorated nationalism of (part of the) British populace can be used for monetary gains. And the results of that can be witnessed anywhere. I’ve read some amusing stories on Reddit of supermarket employees who have received orders for home delivery with customer comments such as ‘British food only’. Apparently, these aren’t rare demands. By the way, I’d like to wish these people good fortune when it comes to finding British bananas and British tea. Even the oh-so-British HP Sauce is produced in the Netherlands nowadays…

The demand for British products means that if a product is indeed British, the customer should be in no doubt about it whatsoever. And how can this be achieved any better than by putting the flag prominently on packaging? The symbol for which so many soldiers gave their lives are now to be found on diced beef, bread, strawberries, crisps and bags of carrots. Maybe a flag enhances the flavour, who knows, but for a relative outsider like myself this charade comes across as rather forced. Even when the flag is not displayed on a product, then the companies selling a product still wish to entice their customers by using patriotic lingo. McDonald’s is trying to lure their British customers into ruining their cholesterol by emphasising they only use ‘British and Irish beef’, and Co-op took the ridiculous step to print ‘made with British water’ on their bags of ice cubes.

Being a flag salesman appears to be a good profession in Britain at the moment. No Conservative politician dares to show themselves in a Zoom call without showing a prominent Union Flag in their living rooms, often in combination with a portrait of Queen Elizabeth. When this display of flags appeared to do wonders for the Tories in the polls, Labour leader Keir Starmer started to encourage Labour politicians to do the same. More flags, less substance.

That does not mean that every Briton has been caught by the flag fever. Many people belonging to the political centre and political left do not hide their skepticism about the pandemic of flag waving that has seized the country. On Twitter, many voice their opinions about this flag hype: those who refuse to be seen without a Union Flag have been given the flattering nickname ‘flag shaggers’ and the number of jokes about these patriots who fornicate with flags is too high to count.

I don’t use my Union Jack mug anymore. If my morning cup of coffee only serves to remind me of Brexit, the only logical step is to leave this mug in the kitchen cupboard. Until then, I wait impatiently until the flag can just be a flag again.





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