Object of the Year 2007

 

THE ST GEORGE’S FLAG

 

 

 

 

 

It was estimated that by the end of World Cup 2006 well over 1½ million St George’s flags had been bought: sold mainly by petrol stations and supermarkets, adorned mainly on cars and vans, and made mainly in China and Eastern Europe.

 

The use of the flag of St George by English sports fans is relatively novel. When England won the World Cup in 1966, streets and stadia were awash with the red, white, and blue of the Union Jack. The adoption of the flag of St George seems to have come about during Euro ’96, when England played Scotland in the shadow of likely devolution. From then on, the English flag has increasingly been flown for English teams in a range of sports.

 

Inevitably, the profusion of St George’s flags in 2006 prompted a flurry of news items: Tyne & Wear Fire Brigade suggested flags in pubs might be hazardous; the Chief Inspector of Prisons banned St George’s tie-pins; the Deputy Chief Constable of N. Wales warned that ‘incessant’ flag waving might cause violence; Nike courted controversy with an advert that showed a bare-chested Rooney ‘crucified’ with red paint; and a host of companies tried to prevent their staff from flying the flag. Outraged by such ‘madness’, the Sun went ‘into battle to defend the right of all English men and women to fly our national flag’.

 

Little is known about St George (?C3–4th), the patron saint of soldiers (and syphilitics). It seems likely that the red cross of St George was first adopted for English soldiers by Richard I, and was further popularised by Edward III, who made St George the Patron of the Knights of the Garter in 1348, and later proclaimed him to be Patron Saint of England.

 

In recent years, the flag of St George has been associated with racial violence, football hooliganism, and the darker side of right-wing English nationalism. Prior to the World Cup, concerns about the flag were heightened by the relative success of the British National Party (BNP) in the 2006 local elections. (Actually, the BNP worries that the flag of St George is part of a plan to divide the nation. Instead, the BNP advocates the flying of the ‘White Dragon of Wessex’ as the flag of the ‘ethnic-English community within England’.)

 

World Cup 2006 helped to rehabilitate the flag of St George politically. Tony Blair ordered it to be flown above No. 10 for England games, the Minister for Culture attached it to her car, and Tory leader David Cameron flew it from his bike. Such political gestures were reinforced by a barrage of St George-related advertising by Official England sponsors.

 

Interestingly, the World Cup had a similar effect on the national flag of Germany, where ‘das Car Flag’ proved almost as popular as in England. The black, red, and gold of Germany’s Bundesflagge had been associated with democracy since its adoption in 1848, and for that reason was never used by the Nazis. Yet a post-War reticence towards patriotism meant that the Bundesflagge was flown only modestly at sporting encounters.

 

Its popularity in 2006 signalled for Germany a confident step away from its past. Echoing what some said about the flag of St George, German President Horst Köhler called the revival of the Bundesflagge ‘a sign that the country is increasingly returning to normal, that one can show uninhibited pride in your national flag and drape yourself in it’.