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