We are to have a ‘stay in your front garden’ street party to celebrate the 75th anniversary of VE Day on Friday, weather permitting of course. A nice idea given current circumstances and I am strangely enthused. Something different, but also an opportunity to escape from NHS fetish worship and celebrate instead two far greater ideals: (1) England, and (2) The British Empire. Seventy years ago, the terms England, Britain and the British empire were used interchangeably. Not because the English ‘marginalised’ others (why marginalise when you have already conquered) but because the imperial project was vivified by English civilization and the English spirit. Historians can argue the pros and cons of empire, but without the empire, without Britain’s civilising mission, there would have been no victory and no freedom in 1945.
So, to the burning question of which flags to display. Whereas the cross of St George symbolises all we hold most dear, our home and hearth, and flies majestically from our church towers, the Union flag better captures the spirit of England projected across the seas, of Britain and the empire. Probably best to fly both. Yet, sad to say, both flags have been devalued in recent times, the English flag through its association with football yobs and tattooed oiks, and the British flag through its rebranding as a symbol of multi-culture, inclusivity and diversity.
However, I think I have the answer. I have ordered a White Ensign and a Red Ensign, full size. Both combine the Cross of St George and Union flag (top left), thereby dispelling any unsavoury associations that the individual flags might evoke, and at the same time emphasising the historical and military significance of the occasion. The White Ensign only superseded the Red Ensign as the flag of the Royal Navy mid-nineteenth century, but Nelson, we are reassured to learn, flew the vice admiral’s White Ensign at Trafalgar. The Red Ensign is now the flag of the Merchant Navy, but is arguably the more eye-catching, and wholly admirable for its preponderance of red.
Extraordinary to think that only a couple of generations ago, four or five in the more demographically active parts of the country, Britain was still an imperial power. Now, ‘Global Britain’ signifies soft power, the export of conceptual art and rock music, and the provision of postmodern social science courses to tens of thousands of Chinese students who feel they are at home here being politically indoctrinated.
At least on Friday we can remind ourselves, our neighbours, and others, of what we once were. We might even recapture some of that old spirit.