From David Maughan Brown in York: Of flames and ashes

Belfast in flames again

April 15th

It took 30 years of violence during the euphemistically termed ‘troubles’ in Northern Ireland, at the cost of more than 3,500 lives, before the 1998 Good Friday Agreement enabled the more than twenty years of peace that followed.   It took all of three months from the end of the one-year Brexit transition period on December 31st for the petrol bombs to start being hurled again, and buses and cars in Northern Ireland to start being torched.  It is reported that more than ninety policemen in Belfast and elsewhere have been injured in the riots over the past couple of weeks.   A quaintly deferential pause has been called by the ‘loyalists’ to the escalation of what is rapidly becoming a deeply worrying conflict between the Protestant and Catholic sides of the great divide in recognition of the week of mourning following the death of the Duke of Edinburgh, but this ‘truce’ has no more chance of lasting than the unofficial truce that broke out on the Western Front at Christmas in 1914. Boris Johnson can’t pretend he wasn’t warned.

Northern Ireland was always going to be the single intractable and ultimately irresolvable problem with Brexit.   As the legacy of slavery hangs over the United States, and to a somewhat lesser extent over us, so the legacy still endures of the ‘planting’ of Protestants in the north of Catholic Ireland that began some three hundred years ago.  As long as Northern Ireland remained one of the four component parts of the United Kingdom, and Ireland remained part of the European Union, the former’s departure from the EU was going to have to result in a border of some description between the two if the EU was going to be able to maintain the integrity of its trading standards.   It was abundantly clear that a land border of any description would inevitably, and very quickly, put the fragile peace accord of the Good Friday Agreement in serious jeopardy.   So Boris Johnson, very late in the Brexit negotiations with the EU, adopted what seemed to be the lesser of two evils and agreed to a border between Northern Ireland and Great Britain down the Irish Sea.

One minor problem with this solution was that Johnson had visited Northern Ireland the previous August and assured the political and business communities, hand on heart, that access to the markets the other side of the Irish Sea would remain entirely unfettered:  ‘There will be no border down the Irish Sea, that will happen over my dead body.’   Whether this was a deliberate, bare-faced lie, like some many of his others – his conscience and any ethical sense he might ever have had were dead and buried long ago, even if his body hasn’t yet followed their example – or whether he simply hadn’t bothered to look at, or think through, the detail, is immaterial.   Trade in both directions is fettered; many businesses in Great Britain have decided it isn’t worth the hassle to continue to deliver to Northern Ireland; the supermarket shelves there are depleted; and unionists, in particular, understandably feel betrayed.

Even as the petrol bombs exploded and the police were trying to quell the rioting last week there was little indication that Downing Street gave much of a damn about what was going on.  Brandon Lewis, the Secretary of State for Northern Ireland, went to the verbal extreme of declaring that the injuries to the ninety-odd policemen were ‘unacceptable’. But I suspect that for all his protestations of devotion to the United Kingdom Boris Johnson himself, ensconced as King of his Little England castle, just doesn’t care about what happens to those he probably thinks of as the ‘Paddies’ and ‘Micks’ of Ireland, precious few of whom ever got to Eton.   Ireland, like France, is the other side of a stretch of water and full of people who, because they aren’t part of England, are all essentially foreigners, even if the ‘loyalists’ don’t agree,  and even if they all speak a version of the Queen’s English.   But Johnson would do well to remember that, with Biden now President of the United States, if the Good Friday Agreement goes up in flames, which seems pretty well inevitable if Johnson keeps on down the path he is taking at present, any hopes of a trade deal with the United States, supposedly the one big, fat prize of Brexit (however deluded that ambition was in the first place) will be consumed to ashes by those very same flames.

From David Maughan Brown in York: Wrapped in the Union Jack

Prime Minister grimaces as flags close in, threatening to crush him.

April 7th

One of the stranger and thus far insufficiently analysed – although frequently observed  – symptoms of the changes the Covid-19 epidemic has brought about in England is a rash of red, white and blue flags that can be seen to have broken out in the offices of cabinet ministers.  It is widely suspected that this may somehow be linked to the UK’s departure from the European Union.   While it isn’t considered likely to be fatal in itself, there would appear to be a possibility that, like other prolonged side-effects of long-Covid, this could be seriously damaging and debilitating for England in the longer term.   It is worth noting that the same side-effect is not being observed in the other three countries of the currently United Kingdom, and is not thought likely to prove dangerous for them.   Indeed, it is even possible that it could in the long run result in their separation from England, and thereby protect them from this peculiarly English variant.

The rash of flags has in recent months been largely confined to the stage sets for ministerial press conferences and interviews, and the offices of generally male, and generally somewhat adolescent, cabinet ministers who appear to have been vying with one another to see who has the biggest one.  But the rash will soon be breaking out over all government buildings.  ‘New rules surrounding flying of the Union Flag’ were published by the Government on March 24th, although, as with so much else, our government of all the talentless couldn’t make up its collective mind and so concluded the announcement by saying:  ‘This update is guidance only and will apply from the summer.’ *  So not ‘rules’, then, just ‘guidance’.  But, unsurprisingly, it will be a rule, not just guidance, that planning permission will be required before anyone can fly the flag of the European Union.

Currently, Union jacks are only required to be flown on all UK Government buildings on some 20 designated days every year – the quirkily British designation often having to do with the birthdays of members of the royal family – but the expectation is that in future they will be flown every day.   And it isn’t just the government’s expectation; it is apparently also the expectation of ‘the people’, whose minds our psychic government is always confident it can read.   As Culture [Wars] Secretary Oliver Dowden put it: ‘The Union flag unites us as a nation and people rightly expect it to be flown above UK Government buildings. This guidance will ensure that happens every day … as a proud reminder of our history and the ties that bind us.’  The ‘rightly expect’ bit was obviously one of the key phrases the children were required to learn before they were allowed out to play, as the announcement also quotes Local Government Secretary Rt Hon Robert Jenrick MP saying:  ‘Our nation’s flag is a symbol of liberty, unity and freedom that creates a shared sense of civic pride. People rightly expect to see the Union Flag flying high on civic and Government buildings up and down the country, as a sign of our local and national identity.’  Lord Nelson missed a trick when he forgot to include the ‘rightly’ in ‘England rightly expects every man to do his duty.’  The honesty of Jenrick’s recognition that the nation’s flag might at best be creating ‘civic’ rather than national pride was probably inadvertent: it certainly won’t have been in the script.  

If the rash of flags really is intended as a proud reminder of the totality of our history, it would suggest that selective amnesia needs to be factored into the equation as one of the more worrying side-effects of whatever it was that brought on the rash.   It is difficult to believe, even of our current cabinet of the clueless, that the likes of Dowden and Jenrick could really be proud, by way of example, of the deaths of the women and children in the Anglo-Boer war concentration camps in 1901-2, the Amritsar Massacre in 1919, the Hola detention camp massacre in 1959, and Bloody Sunday in 1972, to mention just four of the many moments of our relatively recent history that vanishingly few people can feel proud of.

Flags are a serious business, under no circumstances to be laughed about, particularly not by our revered national broadcaster.  The BBC recently shame-facedly reported that BBC Breakfast presenters Charlie Stayt and Naga Munchetty had to be ‘spoken to’ following complaints after the former had gently mocked Robert Jenrick’s flag at the end of an interview: ‘I think your flag is not up to standard size, government interview measurements.  I think it’s just a little bit small, but that’s your department really.’**  Another BBC presenter, Huw Edwards, was apparently made to remove a tweet of the Welsh flag that poked fun at the row over the union jack.  And Tim Davie, the Director-General of the BBC, who will probably have done the talking to Stayt and been responsible for the pressuring of Edwards, was himself recently castigated by a Tory MP, James Wild, who is reported to have told Davie that his constituents would “expect to see more than one flag” in the BBC’s 268-page Annual Report. *****  It has not as yet, however, been made mandatory to hug the Union jack in the way the immediately past President of the USA was sometimes wont to hug the Star Spangled Banner.

Anyone who reacts with a measure of cynicism to the outbreak of a rash of flags will find him or herself in extensive, and often very good, company.   Given Jenrick’s own history of dodgy dealing with Richard Desmond (see my entry on 28th June), and the corruption around the PPE and Test and Trace contracts, Bill Moyer’s cautionary note is salutary: ‘They’re counting on your patriotism to distract you from their plunder. They’re counting on you to be standing at attention with your hand over your heart, pledging allegiance to the flag, while they pick your pocket!’   David Lloyd George’s comment, ‘The man who tries to make the flag an object of a single party is a greater traitor to that flag than any man who fires at it,’ would serve as a suitable put-down of the Tories’ transparent attempts to outdo Labour where the size of their respective patriotisms is concerned.  As for being proud of the totality of our history, particularly such darker corners of our history as those listed earlier, Howard Zinn put it very well when he said: ‘There is no flag large enough to cover the shame of killing innocent people.’  Johnson and company might also do well to think both about Laurence Peter’s aphorism, ‘The man who is always waving the flag usually waives what it stands for,’ and Arundhati Roy’s, ‘Flags are bits of colored cloth that governments use first to shrink-wrap people’s minds and then as ceremonial shrouds to bury the dead.’   But perhaps the most pertinent comment of all in view of the Police, Crime, Sentencing and Courts Bill I wrote about on April 5th is the warning about America attributed to Sinclair Lewis, adapted for our own country: ‘When fascism comes to the United Kingdom, it will come wrapped in the Union Jack.’


* https://www.gov.uk/government/news/union-flag-to-be-flown-on-uk-government-buildings-every-day

** https://www.independent.co.uk/news/uk/politics/union-jack-flag-eu-buildings-b1822026.html

*** https://www.theguardian.com/media/2021/mar/22/bbc-chief-told-to-use-more-than-one-union-jack-in-annual-report