Monday, 5:00pm
22 May 2023

Patriotic rubbish

Metaphors – even unintentional ones – can deliver a powerful critique. Nigel Ball inspects the flag-strewn waste in UK streets

There was a time when the Union Flag was not something most people often came across in their everyday lives – except for bunting-strewn royal events, or a visit to a stately home, writes Nigel Ball. In recent years though, the flag has become a popular marketing tool, on the side of items of packaging or on plastic bags, only later to become litter lying in the gutter or poking out of a rubbish bin. As a graphic device that carries a lot of symbolic weight, seeing the Union Jack, as it is more commonly known, used and discarded in this way, seems to stand counter to the ideological constructs of patriotism that it is supposed to embody.

The Union Jack is interesting to consider as an item of graphic design. A representation of the coming together of the different countries that make up the United Kingdom, it could just as easily be read as them being fractured apart, exploding out from the centre. That it can so easily be hung upside down, which take as an insult, even when done unintentionally, means it has hard-wired into its own structural credentials the ability to be an affront to itself.

Photographs by Nigel Ball, 2023.

If there is a measure of the visual power of any emblem, it is how its signifiers can be détourned so that their inherent meaning is turned against themselves. This was ably demonstrated in 1977 by Jamie Reid when he ripped the Union Jack apart and safety pinned it back together again for the Sex Pistols. In 2023, accidentally discarded litter that carries this symbol of national pride sends similar metaphorical anti-establishment messages as Reid’s deliberate shock tactics did 46 years ago.

The Flag Institute state that ‘When a flag becomes tattered or faded and is no longer in a suitable condition for use, it should be destroyed in a dignified way, for example by burning, tearing or cutting into strips that no longer resemble the original flag’. Tattered and faded flags laying in the gutter go against such suggestions, and with the recent increase in the Union Jack being shoehorned onto packaging as brands looked to cash-in on King Charles III’s coronation, this vision of distressed flags is only set to continue over the coming weeks as people throw out that same packaging as rubbish.

When the National Front waved the Union Jack as they marched through towns in the late 1970s, for some, they tainted the flag forever. It has been used many times by racist organisations since, and still appears at right-wing anti-immigration rallies, sending a chill through the bones, so entwined has it become (in some eyes) as an emblem of neo-Nazi ideology. Many wince when mainstream political parties use the flag to try to ‘out-patriotic’ each other. When Morrissey draped himself in the Union Jack at Madstock in 1992, the music press was quick to jump on him because of their view of the flag’s right-wing associations. His defence of just being proud to be British carried little weight given a run of racist comments in interviews by the performer.

Publicity images for unsuccessful candidates for the Conservative Party leadership contest won by Liz Truss in September 2022. On the left (sic) is Rishi Sunak, who became leader (and prime minister) after Truss’s resignation in October.

There have been genuine attempts to reclaim the Union Flag from such nationalist hijacking. Brit Pop bands and the Spice Girls in the 1990s tried valiantly to harness it and realign its symbolism to one of nostalgic pride, as did graphics associated with the 2012 Olympics. It can be argued that brands using the flag on packaging are, albeit for monetary reasons, attempting the same. However, when the red, white and blue of the Union Jack are seen staring up from the gutter, this particular flag seems determined to undermine itself as a symbol for the nation.

Photographs by Nigel Ball.

All flags are loaded with meaning and sentimentality, that is their point. The Flag Institute states: ‘The national flags of the United Kingdom … should be displayed only in a dignified manner befitting the national emblems.’ The sight of flag-adorned rubbish in the streets of our graphic commons can hardly be described as dignified. Whether used as a marketing device, or for political posturing, maybe the Union Jack lying in the gutter or poking out of a bin sums up the reality of how many people feel about the state of the nation. Metaphors, even unintentional ones, have the ability to provide a powerful commentary on society. As Johnny Rotten (née John Lydon), sang in Anarchy in the UK: ‘Your future dream is a shopping scheme.’

Nigel Ball, design educator, graphic designer, photographer, Ipswich

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