The recent use of the Union Jack by Conservative politicians is bad for democracy. As an incredibly powerful form of political symbolism, flags have the potential to promote unity and solidarity in the fight for democracy, as I’m sure the Ukrainian flag will continue to in the coming weeks. However, they can also be used to undermine individual freedom and democracy by promoting conformity to, and the dominance of, an ideology.
The behaviour of Conservative politicians over the past year falls very much under the latter. Not only have they sought to appropriate the Union Jack as a symbol for their very own form of post-Brexit British nationalism, but they have also attempted to make this symbol a more pervasive presence in everyday British life.
But why should we be concerned when Conservative MP’s and ministers call for all schools to be required to fly the Union Jack, or compete to see whose flag is bigger? To appreciate the danger that this use of political symbolism presents, I believe we must look to the work of Václav Havel – a man whose dissent against the socialist Czechoslovakian regime of the 1970s saw him go from playwright, to prisoner, to the first elected president of a free and democratic Czech Republic.
In 1978 Havel wrote “The Power of the Powerless”, a publication which earnt him three years in prison. Part of this essay tells the hypothetical story of a greengrocer hanging a sign in his shop window reading “Workers of the World Unite”. But why, asks Havel, does the greengrocer choose to display such an abstract slogan? Surely it is less to do with a belief in the ideological surface message of the sign than an expression of conformity with the prevailing ideology of society and the state. A plea to be left to live his life in peace. But then why does he not simply hang a sign reading ‘I’m conforming, leave me alone’? To do so would force him to acknowledge the uncomfortable truth of his unquestioning conformity and degradation at the hands of a political system that strips him of his freedom and individuality.
If you were to look beyond the greengrocer’s shop, the shop next door and the houses across the street would be displaying similar signs, their occupants all finding comfort in conformity. If you were to look at the local government buildings or schools, you would again see symbols of ideology on display as the local administrator seeks to signal his obedience to his superiors. And for those towards the top of the system, ideology allows them to cloak their desire to stay in power. For Havel this is “social auto-totality” at play. The system is created and maintained not by some external force but by a vicious cycle of mutual complicity and conformity throughout society. And the oil that keeps the cogs turning is ideology, be that in the form of signs, slogans or flags.
Of course, the liberal democracy of Britain in 2022 is a far cry from what Havel termed the “post-totalitarian” system of the USSR. However, the beginnings of a kind of ‘social auto-totality’ can clearly be seen in the behaviour of conservative politicians as they seek to maintain power beyond Brexit. Johnson’s government no longer has the mandate of ‘getting Brexit done’ upon which it successfully fought the 2019 general election. And with recent by-election results suggesting a weakening of the Conservative party’s ‘blue wall’, they’ve been left with the challenge of finding a new mandate by which they can maintain the Northern Brexit voting seats they won from Labour in 2019. Beyond England, the Conservative party also faces threats of Scottish independence as well as DUP rebellions over the imposition of a customs border in the Irish Sea. What better way to address these various challenges than by employing a post-Brexit form of British Nationalism, one that both appeals to the frustration that led many English voters to vote Brexit while also drawing in segments of society in Wales, Scotland and Northern Ireland. The obvious tool for exercising this politically expedient ideology is the Union Jack. Not only does this ideological symbol work for Johnson to win national appeal, but it also offers him the opportunity to maintain control over his party. Conservative politicians may use the flag to signal their conformity with the Boris Johnson power project, and those who don’t risk being shunned and labelled as unpatriotic.
It’s therefore no surprise that over the past couple of years we’ve seen Boris Johnson splurge £900,000 of taxpayer’s money on smothering his plane with a Union Jack paintjob. Or the ridiculous situation of a Conservative MP challenging the BBC on why they had not included a Union Jack in their Annual report, only to be reminded that the Conservative Party’s 2019 election manifesto itself included no Union Jacks.
Before anyone tries to argue that the Conservative party has not attempted to appropriate the Union Jack as a tool for their own political success, I’d encourage them to consider the attitude of Conservative politicians towards the use of the flag by opposition politicians. For example, Nadine Dorries’ critique of Christian Wakefield for daring to wear a Union Jack face mask as he defected to Labour.
While these instances may seem harmless, we should be aware of attempts to make the Union Jack a more pervasive presence in everyday life right down to calling for all new cars in the UK to feature the flag. If we are to learn anything from Václav Havel, it is that we should not simply dismiss the fetishisation of the Union Jack by Conservative politicians, and their attempts to force it down our throats, as a Tory quirk. We should recognise it for what it is – an attempt to normalise the ideology of British Nationalism which the modern Conservative party is depending on to survive. And the more the Tories succeed in maintaining control through the use of ideological symbolism, the more they will depend upon it. The more they depend on ideology for power, the more they will attempt to normalise it. If a society is to avoid the vicious circle of social auto-totality, as Havel described, it must approach the use of political symbolism critically, and challenge whenever it seems it is being used to normalise ideology.