Book Review: Worth Dying For – The Power and Politics of Flags

I’m not much of a flag-waver myself, tending to run away from all such expressions of jingoism, and typically seeing flags in line with Eddie Izzard‘s famous routine. Consequently, I was pulled into Tim Marshall‘s 2016 work by the title and hoping to benefit from a sociological examination of why it is that people choose to wave flags to the point of seeing them as worth dying for (or, of course, under). Perhaps, extending from there, a consideration of the varying impacts of the concomitant rise in nationalism and consciousness of identity of the sort that makes Eriskay for example (pop: 143; ‘If you’re born on Eriskay, you play for Eriskay’), feel that it needs its own flag, along with North Uist and Benbecula (a process which seems to be still underway) and those already in place for South Uist and Barra.* In a globalised world so dominated by a few billionaires, the proliferation of flags serves only one purpose.

These hopes were, in my case, raised rather by the excellent copywriting job on the back cover and the judicious use of review quotes on the inside front pages, and rather less by how the actual content turned out.

What we have is a fairly short work reviewing, at the outset and in separate chapters, ‘Old Glory’ and the Union Flag before a succession of chapters considers a total of more than one hundred flags in a succession of countries and across continents (and of institutions and affiliations). We have a decent stab at the history of why the chosen flags look as they do, as regards the colour choices, emblems and the symbolisms of what is being depicted; and we have fairly lengthy sections in the first two chapters on the reverence of flag etiquette for ‘Old Glory’, in particular how it should be folded and disposed of, and where and how the Union Flag can be flown. The remaining chapters, dealing substantially with flags sharing certain symbolisms, slog in a fairly routine, but exhausting, fashion through the history detail of each one, little of which is likely as a result to stick for very long. Less here would definitely be more.

This is a shame, as some of the content – for instance, a specially-conducted interview with Fred Brownell, the designer of South Africa’s post-apartheid flag (pp. 214-218) – is interesting and thought-provoking. (And there’s also a cracking anecdote about the design being faxed to Nelson Mandela.) There is also a worthwhile linking of sport, particularly football, and national consciousness with the rise of the waving of the cross of St. George at England games in Euro ’96 and in the waving of the German black, red and gold at the 2006 World Cup, which Germany hosted, although British Sea Power hit absolutely the right flag-waving notes here. Oh, welcome in!

Marshall is of course a journalist and it’s clear that my hopes for what I had wanted to read had raised the bar far too high for the author’s level of engagement with his subject matter (if any of my readers know the book I’m looking for, recommendations by way of comment underneath this review are absolutely welcome!). He retains a journalist style throughout, and while there are certain issues with that in an academic context, these can often be disregarded outside academia as long as the work retains a scholarly approach. Here, however, the writing style descends frequently into attempts at comedic flippancy which mean that much of it is impossible to take seriously. Or, thereafter any of it. Late on, for example, after pointing out that Mexican revolutionary Emiliano Zapata is better known outside Mexico for a style of moustache than for changing history, Marshall goes on further to conclude that:

This is only marginally better than the fate which befell the Italian revolutionary Garibaldi, who went on to become a biscuit. (p. 228 of my paperback copy)

Factually, it may well be true that ‘squashed flies’ are named after Giuseppe Garibaldi – and no less a source than A Nice Cup of Tea and a Sit Down confirms it – but this sort of knockabout humour has no role in serious debate. It is not an isolated example – the book is littered with similar instances of this apparently offhand, casual treatment. Journalists – especially war correspondents (and Marshall covered the break-up of Yugoslavia, and was also in Syria) – often adopt a black humour as a thick skin against the horrors of what they see and report, but the skill of the war correspondent is in knowing when that skin must be shed. Apart from the (non-) suitability of such an approach to the subject matter at hand here – remember, this was set up as a serious piece of work – this also means that Marshall is unable to make best use of the material he has – and quite painstakingly – gathered.

Secondly, there is little attempt at any synthesis. There are insights throughout, but a book that purports to discuss the ‘power and politics’ of flags simply needs to have a chapter in conclusion, bringing together the themes of colonisation and revolution, independence, internationalism and the rise of the nation state and the challenges to it which inevitably underpin the content. And which, given his coverage of the death and dismemberment of Yugoslavia, Marshall might be well-placed to comment on. Had there been one, my view of the book might have been lifted a notch. However, after a discussion of the value of the International Flag of Planet Earth – dismissed on the grounds that ‘As a planet, we are not united’ (as if people are united by and under any flag adopted on their behalf) – Marshall concludes just two paragraphs later by pointing out that the flags which run the length of the UN headquarters complex are:

A visually clear and bold affirmation of our diversity in colour, language and culture, political and otherwise, and simultaneously a reminder that we can come together – and that, for all our flaws, and all our flags, we are one family. (p. 281)

This is a substantially idealistic comment (and a useful echo of the British Sea Power approach to the waving of flags) – but it stands in stark contrast to much of the history of flags. European – and world – history is bloodthirsty, cruel and exploitative, stemming substantially from the desire to plant one’s own country’s flag on the territory of another. A history as steeped in hatred as that of flags which concludes with such optimistic idealism needs a pretty substantial consideration of how we have come now to view flags if that conclusion could in any way be supported and justified.

* Largely an innocent way of marketing (or branding) a place rather than a statement of identity; Eriskay is not about to declare independence from the Western Isles (which also has its own flag). But if your answer to marketing Eriskay is a flag, rather than something that involves ponies or, more obviously, whisky, I think you’re asking the wrong consultants.

The Brexit withdrawal bill and ‘healing’

The conclusion of the Commons stages of the Brexit withdrawal agreement in just three days last week, with a majority of 99, gives the impression of a government in a hurry to deliver. Which it clearly is, in the sense of its self-imposed deadline of 31 January – though it seems in a little less of a hurry to deliver the ‘healing’, which cause Johnson espoused immediately post-election and then repeated in his New Year message. Though his wouldn’t, of course, be the first government to preach reconciliation and practise division – Thatcher did something similar in, and then following, 1979.

While the election has settled the principle of Brexit for, er, a generation, there remains a number of problems about what Brexit looks like which will continue beyond 31 January and as the future trade relationship is settled. Chief among these is that, while the 2016 referendum was, as Chris Grey has continued to argue, a vote against something, there has, opinion polls and politicians’ assertions apart, been no attempt to define what it might have been a vote for. Labour’s stance of seeking a fresh deal and then putting that to the electorate remains, in this context, the right stance to have taken in principle, however much it turned out to be electorally unpopular – though that is a battle now lost. In seeking that definition, there is a number of battlegrounds set out in last week’s passage of the Bill through the Commons which indicates the government’s general direction compared to the previous version (full list here):

– workers’ rights being removed from the Bill and re-located to a suggested new Employment Bill. The concern remains that this will be used to drive workers’ rights downwards in a race to the bottom

– a clause giving ministers the power to direct the courts on the interpretation of EU law and to allow lower courts the power to overturn rulings by the European Court of Justice, something of particular concern to those of us worried about workers’ rights

– a removal of the right of unaccompanied child refugees in the UK to be reunited with their families

– a rejection of a series of clauses to improve citizens’ rights and a potential withdrawal of teeth from the ‘independent’ monitoring authority, which has already attracted the attention of the European Parliament, whose role in approving the final withdrawal agreement remains critical

– a rejection of the attempt to impose in the Bill a requirement to seek continued participation in Erasmus, the EU programme facilitating study abroad

– a refusal to consider mitigating the impact on firms in Northern Ireland of the volte face over the presence of a border down the Irish Sea and checks on goods crossing that border east-west, together with the inclusion of ‘Henry VIII’ powers on the parts of the withdrawal agreement focusing on Northern Ireland

Рa refusal to countenance a block on the negotiation of future trade deals until parliament had approved an overall mandate. Taking back control did not, it seems, encompass much of a vision for the role of parliament vis-à-vis the government.

The Lords are, given the outcome of the election and the super-majority that the Johnson government now possesses, unlikely to mess around with any of this too much, although Lord Dubs certainly isn’t giving up and the Lords Constitution Committee is sounding the alarm on lower courts being able to overturn ECJ decisions.

On any one of these issues, a government in possession of a desire to effect some actual reconciliation, and even ‘healing’, could have made some moves towards meeting the demands of the MPs sponsoring amendments and to limit the extent to which people not only working but building their lives in this country could be viewed as people rather than as an economic resource with all the division and rancour that entails – but, no.

The response to some of these is that further legislation will be brought forward – but there are no guarantees on that and the content is inevitably currently unknown. The response to others is that meeting such demands would have ‘weakened the hands’ of negotiators and that progress may still be made on them, presumably via trade-offs. That highlights that such issues as workers’ rights continue to be seen as potential bargaining chips – a matter of disgrace. In others, we need to remember that meaningful negotiations, outside the area of a free trade agreement, have all but finished. Furthermore, in terms of understanding, it represents a failure to understand that modern negotiations is based on conversing about the achievement of mutual gains in which your strategy remains hidden but in which your aims are very much disclosed – and, frequently, strengthened by demonstrations of extensive popular support.

There was a potential win – or even series of wins – for the government here which it has simply chosen to ignore.

Instead, we have the spectacle of Brexit ultras in parliament, whose numbers have increased as a result of the election and the deliberate selection of Tory candidates committed to Johnson’s approach, and who are little more now than lobby fodder, seeking to grind its victory humiliatingly into the faces of opponents. Furthermore, we have the ludicrous, time-wasting spectacle of a public debate over whether Big Ben should strike at 11pm on 31 January, with at least the early crowdfunding of the requisite ‘bungs’, i.e. ahead of Mark Francois’s donation appearing to fall somewhat flat (‘bob a job’ has got expensive these days, although it’s probably marginally more cost effective than Francois climbing up there to do the job himself). Not only that, but there is the approval (from the Mayor of London) for a ‘Leave Means Leave’ event in Parliament Square on 31 January, whose triumphalist tone and nature can only be imagined at this stage but which also just chances to coincide in the same place with a gathering of far-right street thugs being planned by the English Defence League. Likely to be a joyous occasion, I’m sure. But, if they want to celebrate it, then they can own what happens in its wake.

Healing it’s not. But then, healing is far from the minds of the ultras and, by definition, this government. Offering anything to the 48% of us who voted ‘in’ in 2016, or to the majority of the electorate which voted for remain parties in the 2019 general election, or to the probable majority of people who would now vote ‘in’ (currently the same as the general election outcome, incidentally) – such as dynamic alignment of rights, the Norway model, Canada+++ or, heaven forfend, single market membership – would be seen as a betrayal of the one true Brexit. Thus, the call for reconciliation is entirely superficial. The ‘People’s Government’ is just for Leavers – or, at least, that section of Leavers which also voted Tory, given that the Tories’ electoral base has become predominantly Eurosceptic.

Oh – and #ReleaseTheRussiaReport. We all know at this stage of Brexit that it’s more embarrassing (probably most of all for Johnson himself) than revelatory. Even were it the latter, it won’t now stop Brexit; as Brittany Kaiser’s (otherwise extremely useful) whistle-blowing revelations that Robert Mercer funded both Leave.EU and Vote Leave campaigns will also not do. Unfortunately. Nevertheless, people being defrauded and then having the wool pulled over their eyes is never an edifying spectacle – and prolonging the period in which the report is not released is just compounding it.

Brendan: a photographic footnote

A couple of photos taken this morning – at about 1025 – from the garden steps into respectively the north-east and south-east corners of the garden. These show, firstly, that either yesterday evening’s high tide (c. 2120) or this morning’s (c. 0930) brought some seaweed debris into the furthermost corner of the garden, either as a result of overlapping sea water or as a result of being ejected from the sea by strong waves driven by the wind to crash on the shore; and, secondly, showing that there is also a small amount of seaweed debris washed right across the shore road.


The winds were gusting above 60mph right through the night until 0700, and high 50s thereafter, but they were coming from the south-west so ought not to have been responsible for bringing seaweed debris this far; it’s more likely therefore to have been the high tide. We can see that there is still plenty of debris floating around in what is a sluggish and heavy-moving sea; and, yes, that is one of our gang of starlings standing centre left perusing the potential future lunch opportunities arising from the new situation.

IMG_4997-800x600The water level is very high, given that the rock in the sea left of centre is virtually submerged. Normally the shore line here follows the line of the rocks at centre right, and curving into roughly the lower horizontal third of the photo (and above the fence line); currently it’s blurred by the amount of debris. Seaweed debris on the shore is common, especially when the sea has been churned up by strong winds; above the shore, much less so and usually only after the sorts of extremes we had yesterday. And pretty rarely as much as this.

We still have plenty of height to the house above this level, but any sign of encroachment by the sea above the shoreline is clearly a serious matter.

Brendan makes a repeat visit

Around 1,500 years after St. Brendan the Navigator made his visit to these islands, commemorated particularly on Barra with no less than a church and cemetery, a hospital and a care home, and even an MP, Met √Čireann’s Storm Brendan – also coming from the south – brought this week a somewhat different sense of pastoral attention.

Here on South Uist yesterday the winds were officially higher than anywhere else in the country, while 87 mph was something of a record in our brief time here, being a little stronger than Storm Conor three years ago. Indeed, the Met Office’s station on South Uist – on the Range, adjacent to where we live, so a pretty good indicator of what we experienced locally – and from where this measure was taken, recorded gusts of over 80 mph for four hours in a row from noon yesterday, returning to that level on one more occasion during the evening. Unofficially, the winds a little further south both on South Uist and indeed also on Barra seem to have been higher, perhaps topping a ton in both places. It’s been a tough start to the year, with a succession of storms and rain and high winds characterising these first two weeks of 2020.

Not just high winds but a collapsing air pressure, on top of a spring tide, brings its own tragic recollections on Uist around January.

This time, that the winds came from the south kept the water off most of the local roads, although the coastal road on Benbecula was closed further up the coast and the causeway at the North Ford was shut for a while at high tide yesterday evening. At the house, our windproof netting is looking a little ragged, having been ripped at the bottom from the nails holding it to a whole line of fence posts, a few 4.8m lengths of 6″ x 1″ timber destined to constitute a new fence one day have been shifted around a bit, the house name sign was torn from the wall and dropped, insultingly face down, on to the ground and the meter cupboard lost its door (again), as did the wheelie bins lose their moorings (though that’s a pretty usual occurrence when the wind gets above 40mph). The storm has churned up the sea so much that the foreshore is a mass of brown algae, at least until calmer waters can gradually move it back out to sea (or, on the dryer and less rocky sands on the far side of the bay, until the crofters can gather it to spread as fertiliser). We also had the rare event (on these islands) of two shots of thunder and lightning, one of which appeared to be responsible for the last, and most significant (i.e. we had to get candles out), of the three power cuts during the day.

Today is relatively calmer, although winds gusting above 50 and into the 60s are the case pretty much until dawn on Thursday and ‘wintry showers’ are currently adding to the mix. Ferries out of Lochboisdale remain cancelled and the Eriskay causeway remains shut at the time of writing. At home, visibly moving window panes, creaking timbers and rattling roof tiles, as the house resettles after resisting yet another wind slam, will be the case for a while yet, alongside a few more nights of sleep that is too light and too short.

These small inconveniences apart, Brendan has let us off lightly; and we have been lucky.

Firefox, when I opened up this morning to write these words, quoted me rather appositely John Steinbeck from his Travels with Charley: In Search of America road trip:

What good is the warmth of summer, without the cold of winter to give it sweetness.

This seems to be clearly true, but I can’t help commenting that, if it is indeed so, then so must be the reverse.

In the meantime, and if it’s not too late, Bliadhn’ Ur Mhath.