When Oasis signed to Creation Records in 1993, Liam Gallagher was asked why the sleeve of the band’s demo tape had featured a striking image of the Union Jack looking as though it was being sucked down a plughole. The junior Gallagher sibling replied with characteristic bluntness. ‘It’s the greatest flag in the world,’ he growled, ‘and it’s going down the shitter. We’re here to do something about it.’ The previous year, Morrissey had provoked the last lingering vestiges of the British music press’ right-on rhetoric when he’d wrapped himself in the same flag during a gig at London’s Finsbury Park – yet within two or three years, the Union Jack was as pervasive a symbol of ‘cool’ as it had been in the mid-60s, climaxing with the unveiling of Geri Halliwell’s memorable mini-dress at the 1997 Brit Awards.
For years, the Union Jack had been claimed as the national flag of Britain’s least appealing cottage industry, the far-right; after being associated with the ugly and the unedifying – football hooligans, racist agitators, blinkered skinheads – Morrissey’s theatrical and provocative posturing with it in 1992, when allied to some of his most contentious lyrics, had been condemned by even those still prone to forgiving his increasingly lacklustre material because they remained in love with The Smiths. That the Britpop scene then took it on board initially appeared equally provocative to some, yet by the time Noel Gallagher’s trademark guitar bearing the image had become representative of a new era, the connotations that had plagued the Union Jack for decades had gone and it was now merely another fashion accessory.
As a child, I had an old clock from the 60s beside my bed, one whose face bore the Union Jack – a rather kitsch product of Swinging London that I nevertheless warmed to; it was an early introduction to the national flag and I was made aware this was mine. Whenever a major sporting tournament such as the Olympics or the World Cup came around, I noticed each country had its own equivalent, whether the Stars & Stripes, the Tricolour or the Hammer & Sickle. When I was nine, Marvel Comics introduced their first British superhero, Captain Britain, whose costume incorporated the Union Jack. Despite the fact that the American artists who drew the comic portrayed London as a bizarre architectural hybrid of Oxford’s dreaming spires and whatever they’d seen in old Sherlock Holmes movies, one story actually featured then-Prime Minister Jim Callaghan. After years of following the exploits of US superheroes, to have one of our own laying claim to my pocket-money was a novel sensation and reinforced the curious pride in my flag I’d had subtly drilled into me.
Around the same time, a similar expression of pride was being displayed across the pond by a rock band, and their pride was represented by a flag whose history was even more controversial than the Union Jack. When sons of the Deep South Lynyrd Skynyrd appeared on ‘The Old Grey Whistle Test’ performing ‘Sweet Home Alabama’, their barbed response to Neil Young’s ‘Southern Man’, the Confederate Flag was unfurled behind them as they hit the chorus of a song that celebrated their corner of the USA. To the cosmopolitan rock aristocracy of LA and New York, Lynyrd Skynyrd were little more than hicks, emanating from a part of the country they only knew via ‘Gone with the Wind’ and the Civil Rights battles of the 60s – oddly neglecting the fact that Skynyrd were from the same geographical region that had given birth to rock ‘n’ roll in the first place. If the band had been British, the LA and New York response would have been mirrored by London if a successful act suddenly emerged from the wilds of Cornwall. Yes, there was snobbery involved, but also an unease that this band didn’t apologise for being Southerners and instead revelled in the fact.
The Confederate Flag has a complicated history, but originally arose from the bloodshed of the American Civil War and is linked to everything associated with that conflict; regarded by some as more of a national flag in the South than the Stars & Stripes, it went through several designs during the war, but the version we all today think of as the Confederate Flag was a variation on the second design of 1863-65 and had been used as the Army of Northern Virginia’s battle flag. Also known as the Dixie Flag, it has come to symbolise the obstinate independence of the South from the rest of America and when Lynyrd Skynyrd decided to perform with it as a backdrop, it was still viewed by most of the US as a negative icon of certain cultural traits they’d rather remain in the past. The Confederate Flag would probably have been largely condemned to the museums of America had not the South continued to cling to it long after the Civil War ended in the same way that Yorkshiremen here insist their county is somehow a separate entity to the Britain beyond its borders. In the wake of DW Griffith’s 1915 silent epic, ‘The Birth of a Nation’, the revived Ku Klux Klan adopted the Confederate Flag as their own, further enhancing its unenviable reputation.
In recent years, the high visibility of the Confederate Flag throughout the Southern states – something that even extended to its prominent display on the car star of cheesy late 70s/early 80s US TV series, ‘The Dukes of Hazzard’ – has received vociferous opposition from the African-American community, something that has arisen anew in the wake of the horrific slaughter at Charleston this week. South Carolina still flies the flag above its statehouse, but there is increasing pressure to remove it that seems reminiscent of the controversy over the Union Jack flying above Belfast City Hall a couple of years ago.
At the moment, only Mississippi retains the so-called ‘Rebel Flag’ as part of its official state flag, squashed into a corner in the same way that Australia’s and New Zealand’s include the Union Jack. The Confederate Flag featured in a corner of Georgia’s state flag until 2001, having being adopted as a protest against attempts by Washington to end segregation in the Deep South in the 1950s. After the massacre at the church carried out by alleged White Supremacist Dylan Roof, pressure to eradicate the Confederate Flag has intensified, with Democrat contender for the Presidency, Hillary Clinton, adding her voice to those demanding what some see as akin to America’s very own Swastika to be dropped from any official state building.
However, some Southern states such as Kentucky, Louisiana and Tennessee continue to mark the birthday of Jefferson Davis, who was America’s ‘Alternative President’ during the Civil War, recognised as President of the Confederate States for three years. That the Confederate Flag remains potent symbolic shorthand for one of the few strains of pride America actually discourages, and continues to invoke a deep-rooted offence in its black population, is testament to the eternally emotional and divisive power of flags. At the moment, the Union Jack is in a kind of cultural limbo, temporarily threatened by the prospect of Scottish independence, and not really belonging to any specific group within British society, either far-right or fashionista. Regardless of whoever chooses to claim it next, I still think it’s one of the best graphic designs out there; and perhaps it’s time to appreciate flags in purely aesthetic terms rather than seeing them as the property of groups who co-opt them for their own dubious ends.