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St. George Usurps Union Jack as Flag of Choice in a More English Britain

The World

August 04, 2002|ROBYN DIXON | TIMES STAFF WRITER

LONDON — For a son of Pakistani immigrants growing up here in the 1970s, the Union Jack inspired fear.

Aggy Akhtar would cross the street to avoid the kind of people who wore their love of the British flag as an aggressive accessory. It was the favored symbol of violent, racist thugs.

"If you saw someone with short hair and the usual uniform--which was a Union Jack vest--you'd cross the road," Akhtar said.

The East London businessman is now 36 and a millionaire whose latest venture is selling millions of flags to mark soccer's World Cup, Wimbledon, the summer cricket season and the approaching Commonwealth Games.

And the flag that people are buying is not the Union Jack, familiar to most Americans as the red-white-and-blue symbol of Britain. Instead, buyers prefer the banner of England, the St. George's flag, a simple red cross on a white background.

Akhtar has sold 2.8 million flags since October, 90% of them St. George's crosses. Many were sales associated with the World Cup--in which the St. George's flag is officially identified with England's soccer team because there is no unified British team. But even after England's defeat, the flag kept on flying.

The rise of the flag of St. George has prompted introspection, going beyond the question of whether the flag was a fad, popular because it was painted on many a soccer fan's face, to the bigger question of what being English is all about.

To optimists, it's a sign that the English are slowly resolving an identity crisis that sprang up a few years ago when Scotland and Wales got their own parliaments, which raised troubling questions such as, "Am I more British? Or am I more English?"

To pessimists, it's a harbinger of the breakup of Britain. Most analysts, however, don't see English nationalism as likely to shatter the union. They see it the other way around: English nationalism is a response to the patriotism, strong national identity and steps toward self-rule in Scotland and Wales.

Others see the red-and-white flag as a kind of antidote to racism, an embrace of English multiculturalism. Although soccer hooligans and racist thugs have grabbed the St. George's cross as a symbol too, the World Cup saw it flying from pubs, houses, vans and taxis. That it has continued flying since is a sign that the populace has taken it back.

"If the flag was something hijacked by the far right, now it's definitely in the hands of the right people," Akhtar said.

Columnists have attributed the flag-waving--even, surprisingly, by standard-bearers of the left--as a sign of resurgent patriotism in a land usually reticent about expressions of nationalist sentiment.

"The English have come slowly, shyly to their national identity," conservative columnist Tony Parsons wrote in the Mirror newspaper recently. "It looks as if the English are finally allowed to start loving themselves. The sting has been drawn out of the flag of St. George. All the old connotations, that a red cross on a white background meant a mind-set that was white, racist, boozy, xenophobic, exclusive, have gone out the window."

Parsons noted his initial surprise to see during a recent tour of the United States that "in that part of the world, they fly their flag, even outside the most modest homes. Once, that seemed ridiculous to me. But not now.

"Why shouldn't you love the country you live in? Why should you not be proud of it? That simple red-and-white flag stands for passion, dignity, humor, tolerance, stoicism, courage and more."

Billy Bragg, the English singer-songwriter with a leftist agenda, marked Queen Elizabeth II's jubilee this year with a single called "Take Down the Union Jack," which, though stolidly ignored by mainstream stations, made it to No. 22. (Sample lyric: "Britain isn't cool you know, it's really not that great.... It's just an economic union that's passed its sell-by date.")

His new album, "England, Half English," has a St. George's flag on the cover. Bragg, who recently published an essay on the BBC Web site on a new sense of English identity, said he was astonished by the number of St. George's flags flying at a summer rock concert at Glastonbury, not usually considered a bastion of patriotism.

"I've never seen anything like that before, never," Bragg said in an interview with The Times.

He argues that the popularity of the St. George's flag is "not just a 2002 phenomenon." Behind it, he says, is something more thoughtful, a reassessment of what it is to be English, a more inclusive multicultural identity, where national heroes are people such as soccer star Rio Ferdinand and England's cricket captain, Nasser Hussein.

"I think the Union Jack has connotations to do with Britain's past," Bragg said. "I think of British culture as being rather monocultural and that monoculture as centering around the monarchy, the flag and the British empire. The English flag doesn't really have those imperial connotations."

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