Opinion

Why slapping a 100 foot Union Jack on the side of a building is unlikely to help save the Union

30 Jun 2021 4 minutes Read
Queen Elizabeth House in Edinburgh is already bedecked in an enormous Union Jack

Ifan Morgan Jones

In his book Banal Nationalism, Michael Billig discusses two types of nationalism – one is ‘hot’ nationalism, and the other the ‘banal’ nationalism of the title.

He argues that ‘banal’ nationalism is a ubiquitous part of the lives of every citizen of every nation-state.

This type of nationalism is the nationalism of the status quo: The nationalism of countries like the US, Germany, and Japan – most people accept they are citizens of these countries and don’t really give it a second thought.

This ‘banal’ nationalism is mainly communicated through words and symbols, which are the little daily reminders of citizens’ national place in a world of nations.

These words and symbols are so powerful because we don’t notice them – this constant reminding of what nation we belong to happens unconsciously.

And the most obvious symbol of ‘banal’ nationalism is the national flag.

Billig says: “The metonymic image of banal nationalism is not a flag which is being consciously waved with fervent passion; it is the flag hanging unnoticed on the public building.”

My italics. Unnoticed.

Tug o’ war

Now, nationalism has become completely central to electoral politics in Wales. In this week’s Barn magazine, Professor Richard Wyn Jones of Cardiff University expands on his thesis (backed up by polling data) that the main thing separating Plaid Cymru, Labour and the Conservatives’ vote were not their policies but how voters felt about their national identity.

Plaid Cymru voters tend to strongly consider themselves Welsh not British, the Conservatives consider themselves British not Welsh, while Labour voters occupy the ‘Goldilocks zone’ of people who feel roughly equally Welsh and British.

It could be argued therefore that the tug o’ war over national identity is at the heart of Welsh politics – perhaps more important even than what the parties’ policies are, what they say or do, or whether they’re competent or incompetent.

To win, Plaid Cymru need to convince more voters that they’re Welsh not British, the Conservatives the opposite, and Labour need to walk the tightrope on both.

It’s unsurprising therefore that a Conservative UK Government would want the Union Jack to be as visible a symbol as possible in Wales if it, as Billing says, so central to the development of national identity.

And yet!

As Billig argues, the entire idea of ‘banal’ nationalism is that these are supposed to be unconscious reminders.

And it’s difficult to remind people of something unconsciously if you’re acting with all the subtlety of a bull in a china shop.

Hot

First of all, the UK Government are broadcasting to everyone what they’re doing – decreeing by press release that the Union Jack must be flown on all government buildings and must be flown in a “superior position” to others.

If you want to unconsciously remind people of their identity as part of the UK, telling them that you’re actively doing it is a bad strategy.

If that wasn’t bad enough, they are now plastering buildings in 100 foot tall Union Jacks.

An unconscious reminder, it ain’t.

According to Michael Billig, the opposite to ‘banal’ nationalism is ‘hot’ nationalism. This is the nationalism, usually of the challenger to the status quo, that makes a point of drawing attention to itself because it wants to challenge the present order of things.

The Welsh Dragon used to be a ‘hot’ nationalist symbol and probably is under some circumstances, but less so as Wales has consolidated its place as a nation.

The danger for the UK Government is that it now turns the Union Jack into a ‘hot’ nationalist symbol – a politically fraught one that forces people to take sides.

Meanwhile, the now less politically charged Welsh Dragon, hanging unnoticed on a nearby public building, becomes the ‘banal’ symbol of the new status quo – and new nation-state.

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Peter Gabriel
Peter Gabriel
29 days ago

Ironically the Welsh are descendants of the original British. The UK having hijacked the term for political reasons to placate rioting Scots in the 1700s

Without the Welsh language there is no word Briton, British, or Britain (from Prydain / Pretain)

Funny old world

Chris
Chris
28 days ago
Reply to  Peter Gabriel

Strictly speaking there is enough evidence now to state confidently that the English are also as British as we are. The invasion of Rome and the Normans and the minor immigration of Saxons added very little to the gene pool. No evidence of population displacement or mass slaughter. In all likelihood, small bands of Saxon adventurers replace some tribal leaders by marriage or by coup, then convinced the British tribes of Lloegr over years that they were Saxons. So…. The Cymry are descended from Britons. The Saesneg are descended from suggestible Britons who thought they were Saxons. Not making this… Read more »

Last edited 28 days ago by Chris
CapM
CapM
26 days ago
Reply to  Chris

The genetic composition of people in Britain may provide ‘verifiable fact’ however the findings of each additional research (and interpretation of archaeological discovery) provokes further questions and has not to date provided a definitive answer especially to the how and why of the genetic composition. Certainly the ‘ small bands of Saxon adventurers replace some tribal leaders by marriage or by coup, then convinced the British tribes of Lloegr over years that they were Saxons. So…. The Cymry are descended from Britons. The Saesneg are descended from suggestible Britons who thought they were Saxons.’ Is not a ‘verifiable fact’ but… Read more »

stuart stanton
stuart stanton
29 days ago

Billig’s work was a mainspring for the Aberystwyth Uni. studies of the road signs campaign in the late 60’s/early 70’s. I have taken its themes into my Bangor Uni study of Welsh Language War Memorials. Conclusion is that ‘banal nationalism’ is more around us than ever, Trump is/was perhaps the greatest propagator of the ‘hot’ version, closely followed by the current Tory ‘government’

j humphrys
j humphrys
28 days ago
Reply to  stuart stanton

Trump is more of a “cheerleader” for the US, and if we recall, was more willing to “jaw jaw” than other recent presidents, who bizzarely have reputations as reasonable people, despite Libya, Iraq, Syria, etc. The latest, a fragile Potus, seems to be drifting back into bombing, as the neocons assert themselves yet again, to America’s loss.

Dai Rob
Dai Rob
29 days ago

I must leave a reminder to buy some Paintballs, tomorrow!!

Rob
Rob
29 days ago

Fighting Welsh nationalism with British nationalism is like fighting fire with fire!

Shan Morgain
29 days ago
Reply to  Rob

Nope. It’s burning up the yucky rubbish with the dear Draig’s tongue fire.

Chris
Chris
29 days ago
Reply to  Rob

UK nationalism, not British. It is the toxic union which traps us all

Steve Duggan
Steve Duggan
29 days ago

This ‘hot’ nationalism is a godsend for Yes Cymru and the whole Welsh independence movement and the fools don’t even realise they are creating the rift they’re trying to plug!

Shan Morgain
29 days ago
Reply to  Steve Duggan

That’s what Drakeford has been saying – that unless Westninster cooperates with Home Rule – complete control within Wales for the Welsh – they will drive the desire for independence to its conclusion. Wise man.

hdavies15
hdavies15
28 days ago
Reply to  Steve Duggan

Yes Cymru not even looking at independence now. Too busy addressing ishoos which mystify 99.99% of our communities. They need to sort themselves out sharpish or they will be left a hollowed out shell.

j humphrys
j humphrys
28 days ago
Reply to  hdavies15

Yes, that’s what the commies did to Plaid, and at it again.

Last edited 28 days ago by j humphrys
Shan Morgain
29 days ago

This particular piece of UK aggression costs £15,000. How many hospital beds or children’s meals would that pay for?

Bruce
Bruce
28 days ago
Reply to  Shan Morgain

My son’s school meals cost £2.25 a day so £15,000.00 divided by £2.25 = 6,667 school meals (I’ve rounded it up). If we assume 39 weeks a year in school and 5 days a week (no inset days) then that’s 195 days in school. 6,667 meals divided by 195 days = 34. So £15,000.00 provides a school meal for 34 children for a year. Nice to see that Bojo the Clown has got his priorities right.

Nick Randall-Smith
Nick Randall-Smith
29 days ago

Red rag to a bull or red, white and blue rag to a dragon? Still note that Dewi Sant is not depicted on the Union Flag.

Chris
Chris
29 days ago

Either way it’s a rag

Dewi Davies
Dewi Davies
28 days ago

I for one am glad our flag is not depicted on the union rag. The Union Jack is despised the world over and people laugh when they see it. Rather not have anything at all to do with it.

Mab Meirion
Mab Meirion
28 days ago

Pitiful really…

Cai Wogan Jones
Cai Wogan Jones
28 days ago

We still live in the shadow of Edward Hirgoes.

j humphrys
j humphrys
28 days ago

Imo, there are more than two nationalisms. Cuba, Swedish, English? Elephant in the room remains the Nazis, always at the back of our minds. Patriotism the better word?

Stephen Owen
Stephen Owen
28 days ago

Very interesting.

Wrexhamian
Wrexhamian
28 days ago

Good analysis by Ifan; gluing a huge Union Flag on public buildings in Scotland and Wales is so overtly political a gesture that its purpose is more than just “identifying” those buildings. Johnson is engaged in a culture war while at the same time trying to impose his will on the Scottish Parliament and the Senedd. It’s not about winning the hears and minds of the citizens, it’s about trying to make devolution look unimportant and/or irrelevant.

Russell
Russell
27 days ago

over-compensating for something…

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