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.

2 thoughts on “Book Review: Worth Dying For – The Power and Politics of Flags

  1. I recommend Sheldon Cooper’s “Fun with Flags” (The Big Bang Theory). Sorry, facetious!
    I do, however, share your discomfort regarding the rise of flag waving etc with jingoism and right wing politics. I bet the book didn’t cover trade union flags either which, as well as a symbol of identity and “belonging” to TUs, also signifies collectivism.


    1. Indeed it didn’t, Sandie. I’m entirely comfortable with trade union banners because they’re shields, essentially, rather than flags. And, even when flown as rallying points on a march, they’re complementary not competing.

      I’m not sure I’d trust this particular author with a chapter on TU banners, too!


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