words Justin McGuirk
illustration Peter Saville and Paul Barnes
Since its resurgence as a national symbol in a devolving United Kingdom, something has happened to the cross of St George. National symbolism thrives on its association with stereotypes, and the problem with our own is that we associate it with white-van men and (dated though this now is) shirtless thugs hurling garden furniture at police. The only time the red cross on a white field appears on the international stage, it’s in sport – and that’s part of the problem.
The England football team’s emphatic loss to Germany in the World Cup last month seemed to mean something. Something more than a football score. It suggested a deeper flaw in Brand England, or indeed brand UK. By every measure of success that we have in this country – namely wealth and celebrity – we ought to have won that match. We had the most expensive team in the tournament, the most expensive coach and some of the most globally recognised players. Their hopelessness on the pitch could only mean that the way we measure success is wrong. If our investment in the star system failed us on the football pitch, perhaps we should admit that it is failing us elsewhere too.
At times of high sporting drama, we expect to see the St George’s cross hanging from windowsills and splashed across garden bunting. It’s the rest of the time that we are surprised to see it, fluttering from car bonnets, frayed by constant use. In the absence of any positive, non-sporting associations with the flag, only the ultra right wing is investing any meaning or passion into it. It is left to the likes of the English Defence League – an outgrowth of football hooliganism, which stirs up street fights against minorities.
Is there a way to reinterpret the symbol to better represent the inclusive multi-culturalism of modern England, with its diverse ethnicities and religions? Our covers offer two possible solutions: a spectrum and a field (see page 015).
It’s ironic that we feel the need to invest the cross of St George with multiculturalism, because in theory it is perfectly multicultural. The symbol of a half-Turkish, half-Palestinian soldier in the Roman army, its ancient heritage already contains the message of mixed blood subsumed under a higher, supra-national banner. But symbols are as malleable as languages over time.
The other challenge facing a prospective redesigner is that the flag is not just a symbol, it’s a product. The St George’s cross no longer exists in a world of medieval heraldry. It is not the preserve of grassy forecourts or the last night of the Proms. It is just another logo in a landscape of brand-centric merchandising – an endless shelf of three lions chocolate bars and red-and-white vuvezelas channelling you towards the till at Tesco, “the official supermarket of the world cup”. The commodification of nationalism is a simple fact of life.
Yet it is in our interests to endow the flag with a new political sophistication, one befitting the complexity of modern England. A new symbol doesn’t have to be the solution, it could just be a matter of finding new meanings and uses for the one that we have. It’s either that, or watch it continue to devalue as supermarket kitsch.