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Artillery Row

The power of flags

Even in a material age, symbols matter

In July, following a two year absence due to Covid restrictions, the seaside town of Southport will once again play host to the bowler hatted patriarchs of the minority Orange Order. The group will take to the streets in a splash of festival sashes, accompanied by bands of squeezed accordions and whistled flutes. King Neptune, a Liver Bird, and a very much on-point bearded mermaid will fly on a banner that declares the slogan of the march, Civil and religious liberty for all. One imagines that this would be right up the street of Merseyside Constabulary given how regularly it marches to the beat of another minority cause. 

There will be no such overt display of affection for the Orange Order, despite its members being a minority group protected by The Equality Act, however. In fact, officers assigned to the event will be advised to avoid accidentally marching in time to the music or accessorising a trousered leg with orange socks, lest it give the impression of political bias. Never mind that this is a Protestant parade in a Protestant country; the police understand that not everyone is a Protestant and will not, therefore, express solidarity with this odd looking order of religious folk. Police headquarters will not be lit up with orange floodlights and officers will not be dressing up like Tango Man. 

Flags are emblazoned on the psyche

By contrast, the police will turn a blind eye to inflammatory multi-coloured sock wear during the Pride carnival that also takes place in July. In fact, entire ranks of regulation boots will be stripped of their cis-brown laces and replaced with ideologically colourful ones. Police will be active attendees at the parade, painting faces, blowing whistles, stretching balloons and dancing with strangers to a pansexual cover band belting out hits from S Club 7. The sun will be eclipsed by the rainbow. On rooftops, up poles, stitched into epaulettes and braiding, the flag will be master of all. As Emile Durkheim noted, it is easy to gain mastery and control from such an elevated position.

Gary Lineker’s dismissal of flags as pieces of coloured cloth flapping from a stick, entirely detracts from their importance as totemic emblems of struggle and their visible assertion of dominance and subjugation. Since the 1648 Peace of Westphalia, nation states have been the basic unit in the international system, and flags have served as a fundamental instrument in fostering the shared politics of a community. Flags are emblazoned on the psyche. Where would the revolution of Les Miserables or the conservatism of the recent jubilee be without a flag? We need only consider the soldier who picks up the fallen standard in the heat of a battle, knowing full well that this greatly increases the odds of having his head blown off. A retired millionaire football pundit is unlikely to understand. 

Anyone with a serious acquaintance with history knows that flags are effective messengers. Following Picket’s charge at Gettysburg, the Union Brigadier paraded his flags along Cemetery Ridge whilst the captured Confederate colours were trailed in the dirt behind them. The message to General Lee was clear: defeat for the rebels was simply a matter of time. 

After 9/11, defiance against the foreign invader resulted in a dramatic upsurge in the display of the Stars and Stripes. It is easy to imagine that when the police raise their rainbow flags, they do so as belligerents in a similar act of defiance and against a similarly dangerous foe. Except, the enemy is not holed up in the distant caves of Afghanistan plotting devastation against Western infrastructure; rather they are women who connive against the introduction of drag queens into children’s story time in between school-runs. We know that the police are suffering from a bout of rainbow induced insanity when they denounce Bev Jackson, the kindly old socialist who runs the LGB Alliance, as a terrorist. 

The police threatened an autistic child with two years in jail

When the massed ranks of the police define resistance, antagonism and anything less than enthusiastic compliance, as hate, then the populace is coerced into picking a side. No quarter is given, even in schools. Last month, at the behest of a cowardly headteacher, the police visited a 14 year old autistic child for the crime of playground misgendering. Turning up at his home, they read Section 4 of The Public Order Act and threatened the young boy with two years in jail. Subsequent to the shake down, the parents were summoned to a meeting where the school crowed and hectored both child and parent. “Where are you getting these extremist views from?” they demanded to know, as if a gender critical understanding of the world was akin to being a Jihadi. The school was relentless, at one point suggesting to the child that any repeat of such views could render him subject to being glassed in the face. This is not hyperbole. That is what they said. 

Where the police go, the public sector follows. When Leicestershire Police display symbols of the LGBTQ revolution on riot shields, the public is schooled in the futility of resistance and the willingness of state apparatus to deploy violence in the cause of the great leap forward. Comparisons to the cultural revolution of Chairman Mao are entirely justified. 

When Essex Police posted a picture of its Pride Flag being hoisted on social media, it anticipated resistance by issuing a warning that its Twitter feed was being monitored and that all expressions of hate would be investigated. The country’s most miserable looking Chief Constable stands by, like a Stalinist Commissar on the look out for raised bourgeois eyebrows. The combination of happy flapping rainbow flag and high-ranking rozzer is deeply unsettling for anyone who doesn’t have a public law expert on speed dial. Fortunately, we do. Which is why we stick two middle fingers up to this demand for uncritical servitude. The launch of The Bad Law Project will allow you to stick two fingers up, too.

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