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The new Britishness: can the Union Jack ever be cool again?

Dua Lipa’s Brits appearance might suggest so, but it’s complicated, says Alexandra Jones, as she ponders the state of the union

Michelle Thompson
27 May 2021

Dua Lipa encapsulated so much about what it means to be Gen Z in Britain today with her 2021 Brits performance: the joy, the yearning, the dance routines.

The 25-year-old wore a chic, double-breasted blazer and matching skirt, both custom-made by Vivienne Westwood and hand-painted with the Union Jack. Over the years, the flag has become something of a uniform for young British artists with something to say; from The Who’s angry, guitar-smashing Pete Townshend in the 1960s in his Union Jack blazer to Liam Gallagher, who would take centre stage at 1990s Oasis gigs in a flag-emblazoned parka accessorised with a snarl.

Staying true to the legacy, an anti-establishment undercurrent pulsed beneath Lipa’s performance. Earlier in the evening she had got political while accepting the award for Best Female Solo Artist, calling on Boris Johnson to award NHS staff a fair pay rise. After the show, the patron saint of Union Jack dressing, Spice Girl Geri Halliwell, sent her blessing via Instagram: ‘Wow @dualipa you wore it well!’ she wrote, passing the mantle of provocative patriotism to a new generation.

Of course, like most things in the social media age, Lipa’s wearing of the Union Jack is a less straightforward statement to interpret than it would have been in the 1990s. When Halliwell strutted across the Brits’ stage in 1997 she may not have had Queen and country in mind but she did embody something bordering on patriotic: Cool Britannia, Girl Power, all that was good and hopeful about a UK on the cusp of an economic boom. New Labour and Britpop made the country and its politics sound fresh; McQueen, Westwood and Kate Moss made patriotism an easy brand to wear.

Punk Britain

/ Alamy Stock Photo

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In recent months, though, a political furore around the use of the Union Jack has been reignited. Tory politicians have insisted on standing in front of the flag during TV interviews. In March the Department for Digital, Culture, Media and Sport was accused of escalating an ‘ongoing flag-based culture war’ when it released new guidance stating that the flag should be flown on civic buildings every day (as opposed to the 20 days a year stipulated before). As Nick Groom, an academic and author of The Union Jack: The Story Of The British Flag, points out, this guidance isn’t dissimilar to that issued by Gordon Brown when he came to power in 2007. Back then, the idea that the flag should be flown on schools and council buildings was met with general approval. The current backlash belies the complicated space the Union Jack — and by extension Britishness itself — now occupies in the public consciousness.

British identity is probably the weakest it has been since the Second World War

Over the past quarter of a century everything from Brexit and Scottish independence to organisations such as The Black Curriculum — which advocates for the implementation of a less whitewashed programme in schools — has reshaped our understanding of ‘Britishness’. In 2019, during his lauded Glastonbury headline performance, Stormzy wore a stab vest emblazoned with the Union Jack. Designed by Bansky, according to The Guardian’s Jonathan Jones, the outfit was a ‘banner of a divided and frightened nation’.

As the journalist and author of the upcoming book, Who Are We Now? Stories Of Modern England, Jason Cowley points out, ‘British identity is probably the weakest it has been since the Second World War.’ But it still exists. As we enter a new decade, weary from the onslaughts of the pandemic and renegotiating our role on the global stage post-Brexit, there is a sense that a new generation is grappling with all that it means to be British. Politicians from across the spectrum seem to agree on the importance of this task. According to former prime minister Tony Blair, the left needs to develop its own progressive patriotism if Labour is to make any kind of credible comeback. As he wrote recently in the New Statesman: ’People do not like their country, their flag or their history being disrespected.’

Charles and Diana

/ Getty Images

Lipa’s message was anti-establishment, but the sentiment seemed to be one of pride. Was she presenting her audience — her fans are overwhelmingly Gen Z — with the possibility of a new Britishness? And if so, does Gen Z even want it?

‘It’s important to emphasise that the flag is not a stable symbol,’ says Groom. ‘It’s one that’s defined very much by its context.’ This partly explains why most of the Londoners I speak to separate the flag-as-fashion-statement from any official symbolism. Most identify a Union Jack in fashion with punk and subversion. ‘I thought Dua Lipa’s outfit was cool,’ says 21-year-old Bailey, a student. ‘It was a sort of homage to the 1990s. [Welsh designer] Adam Jones put out a collection last year which featured really bold Union Jack motifs. I think it’s all part of that Cool Britannia 1990s revival.’ He’s resistant to the idea of a new patriotism, though. ‘I’m not sure about patriotism as our parents would have understood it. I don’t really look back to the past to feel proud. But having said that, I think our cultural history and our designers are worth celebrating.’

As Groom points out, there are no regulations governing the exact colours and dimensions of the British flag (other than for military uses). And unlike America’s Stars and Stripes (which comes under a strict federal flag code), the Union Jack has no such protections. ‘This has meant that it has been reconfigured and reimagined by many designers over the years,’ says Groom. This, he argues, has made the Union Jack a resoundingly versatile symbol on to which we have projected all manner of meanings.

It is Britain’s colonial past, and the flag as a potent symbol of British imperial rule, which makes many young Londoners uncomfortable with it. Student Neve, 19, from Stoke Newington, says: ‘I’m getting really worked up about this. It feels like our history has been so whitewashed. Our role in the slave trade and the way we exploited other countries during empire isn’t taught properly at all, and so it’s hard to feel proud about the past that the flag represents.’

Kate Moss

/ Mark Large/Daily Mail/Shutterstock

It’s a sentiment with which 22-year-old east London freelancer Amy agrees: ‘I also think the idea of a “United” Kingdom has become quite strange. Scotland wants another independence vote; Wales has its own laws — a fact which was really driven home over the past year when it had its own lockdown rules. After Brexit even London doesn’t want to be part of the United Kingdom. So it’s hard to understand what the flag represents, other than a past that I don’t really want to claim as my own.’

Churchill, 23, grew up in Chiswick and is currently studying in Newcastle. For him, London’s multiculturalism is what makes it such a wonderful place. But it is also what makes the homogeneity of thought, ‘which is kind of what patriotism is’, difficult for him to understand in a London context. During his teenage years he spent some time in the United States. ‘They take the flag really seriously. In school, you’d have to take your hat off when the national anthem was playing,’ he says. ‘I don’t see how it could work here because we have a more global outlook.’

Cowley argues that while being global and outward-facing is important, so is connecting as a nation. ‘Outside of the major cities, people are often affronted by anti-national discourse because they find a sense of meaning and purpose through a love of their country. We are a nation of divides at the moment. And that does worry me.’

Neve is careful to point out that she loves her country: ‘The Britain I’m proud of, though, is the Britain that includes the Windrush generation, celebrates the diversity of the NHS and lifts up the people who have built the country.’ In his book, Empireland: How Imperialism Has Shaped Modern Britain, the journalist Sathnam Sanghera explores a similar sentiment, pointing out that Britain’s multiculturalism is in large part a by-product of empire. In the book he resists a simple reading of empire as either wholly good or irredeemably bad, but does stress the importance of the British reckoning with all that it meant.

Tourists in London

/ Alamy Stock Photo

In March Sanghera tweeted: ‘I have long had a (small) Union Jack in my bio because I tire of it being hijacked by fanatics.’ Groom points out that since the 1970s there has been a dereliction of duty on the part of the political left, which ‘abdicated responsibility for making the flag an inclusive symbol of diversity. They really allowed the extremist far right to set the agenda about what it meant.’

It is critical that this symbol is not hijacked by those who seek to work against values of tolerance and respect

In the late 1990s, New Labour had harnessed Britain’s cultural kudos and aligned the Union Jack with a positive, inclusive ‘brand Britain’ message. But by 2003 the BNP, operating under a red, white and blue banner, had gained council seats in Blackburn, Calderdale and Burnley. Gordon Brown’s 2007 edict that flags should be flown on civic buildings was a reaction to this: ‘It is critical that this symbol is not hijacked by those who seek to work against values of tolerance and respect,’ he said.

Hannah, 22, from Enfield doesn’t remember much about the political climate of the mid-2000s. She did watch the Brits, though. ‘What Dua did was really poignant. If you listen to what she says in her speech, and then she’s gone and put on the Union Jack, it’s like she’s reclaiming British pride. I don’t think it’s “patriotic”. She’s standing against the Government, the establishment, the monarchy and she’s speaking out for the workers. That was cool. That makes you proud to be British.’