The Tragic Decline of the Union Jack

After watching their flag take on darker post-colonial overtones, Brits may have an opportunity to reinvent their iconic flag.

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British Olympian Mo Farah celebrates after winning the 5000m race. (Reuters)

Last August, hundreds of kids in London rioted and burned in a carnival of violence. Almost exactly a year later, the same city hosted the Olympic opening ceremony and this time the flames blazed in a cauldron formed by 204 metallic petals. The ceremony was a triumph of the British spirit: creative, quirky, and self-deprecating. It even showed the destruction of the green and pleasant British countryside by industrialization (I don't recall the Beijing Olympics featuring the human cost of the Great Leap Forward). As the British tally of gold medals soared to record levels, the national mood became exultant. Brits started behaving like Americans and actually talked to strangers. But what's the legacy?

The Olympics could have a hugely positive effect by inspiring ordinary British people to reclaim the flag. The Union Jack, which dates back to the 1600s, combines the red cross of England, the white diagonal cross of Scotland, and the red diagonal cross of Saint Patrick, patron saint of Ireland. It can be seen around the world, incorporated into the flags of Australia, New Zealand, and most incongruously, Hawaii.

Britain has a deeply dysfunctional relationship with its flag. In the United States, the flag is a sacred object. There's a detailed code to proscribe how it should be displayed, cared for, and removed. The fabric of the Stars and Stripes is woven into national customs and daily life. But when I grew up in England, I don't think I ever touched the Union Jack. It wasn't a hallowed symbol of the nation. We didn't salute it. It never flew in schools. There were no careful rules for its care.

For many ordinary British people, the Union Jack was almost toxic. At best, it felt like the flag of the monarch, not the people. At worst, it was the symbol of fascism. If you hung the Union Jack from your house it was assumed you were a far right-wing racist. "There ain't no black in the Union Jack," was the chant of jackbooted thugs.

The retreat from the flag reflected British decline and a growing distrust of jingoism and nationalism. Many in the British left sympathized with John Lennon's dream: "Imagine there's no countries."

But a nation without a flag is not a nation at ease with itself. You can celebrate Britain's significant contribution to the progress of human freedom, its culture and creativity, without whitewashing its history, or succumbing to narrow-minded chauvinism.

What Britain needs is a shock to the system -- an event of such symbolic power that it could transform the nation's view of this national icon. The Olympics could be that event. For the last two weeks, the Union Jack has been everywhere. At the opening ceremony, the queen (or, rather, an actor playing the queen) descended in a Union Jack parachute. London Mayor Boris Johnson zip-wired to an Olympic event while carrying the flag -- before getting stuck and dangling above the crowd.

What would the fascists make of the Union Jack wrapped around the shoulders of double gold medal winner, and all-around legend, Mo Farah, a devout Muslim who came to Britain from Somalia? Asked by a journalist if he'd rather be wearing the colors of his land of birth, Farah said, "Not at all mate, this is my country." The flag has been embraced by tens of thousands of volunteers and millions of spectators. For the closing ceremony, Damien Hirst designed a massive Union Jack installation that filled the whole stadium.

The wonderful thing about symbols is that you can reinvent what they mean. The British people have a golden opportunity to tear the Union Jack from the hands of stiff-necked officials and racist thugs. For a new take on Lennon's dream, imagine proudly waving the Union Jack. It's easy if you try.