In Depth

Why is the St George’s flag controversial?

The English have a complicated relationship with their patron saint and his flag

The English have always had a complicated relationship with their patron saint.

Unlike St Andrew’s Day in Scotland and St Patrick’s Day in Ireland, St George’s Day is not a bank holiday in England.

Believed to be the day the Turkish-born knight martyred himself, in 1415 the 23 April became a national feast day in England, “but after the union with Scotland in the 18th century it ceased to become a national holiday”, says the Nottingham Post.

While the saint’s day flags of other UK nations are a source of great national pride, for the English the red and white cross remains hugely divisive.

Since the 1970s it has been closely associated with the far-right and only really appears en masse in public at times of major sporting occasions. In fact, until fairly recently, it was illegal to fly a national flag without permission from a local council.

So why is the St George’s Cross so controversial and what does the law say now?

Why St George?

Chosen as England’s patron saint in 1350 by King Edward III, St George never actually set foot on British shores.

Popular among European Knights for his bravery, the Daily Mirror says “some have even suggested that not being English actually gave George an advantage over other saints, as it meant that he wasn't associated with any particular region of the country. There would be no regional rivalry, and so everyone in England could unite behind St George.”

St George is also the patron Saint of Catalonia, Georgia, Lithuania, Palestine, Portugal, Germany, Greece, Moscow, Istanbul and Genoa, although not all have adopted his red and white banner.

What is the law?

Changes made to regulations in 2012 widened the range of flags you may fly in Britain, reports The Sun.

UK residents are now permitted to fly any national flag or any international organisation’s flag, as well as many different regional flags.

Before the changes, it was illegal to fly a national flag without permission from a local council, unless flown from a vertical flagpole.

A Peterborough family “fell foul of the regulations during the last World Cup, when they were threatened with prosecution for flying the cross of St George outside their home”, according to DevonLive.

“A compromise was reached when the city council said the flags could be flown but only on special occasions,” the regional news site adds.

What are the rules about flying the St George’s Cross?

According to the Department for Communications and Local Government, all flags must be kept in a safe condition; have the permission of the owner of the site on which they are displayed; not obscure, or hinder the interpretation of official road, rail, waterway or aircraft signs; and be removed carefully if asked by the planning authority.

Although there is not a specific offence related to flying the St George’s Cross on your car, you could commit an offence if it is obstructing your view or if there is risk that the flag could fall off and damage you or the car.

Why is it so controversial to fly the St George’s Cross?

The Union Flag and the St George’s Cross “have been tainted by association with the far-right”, says The Independent’s David Barnett. “Nobody seems surprised any more to see some bull-headed idiot draped in the flag and performing a Nazi salute,” he adds.

In 2012 a survey carried out by the think tank British Future as part of a report into how people around the UK viewed their national identity, revealed almost a quarter (24%) of the English said they considered their flag to be racist, compared to just 10% of Scots and 7% of Welsh.

The report blamed the “extreme street hooligans of the English Defence League” for “toxifying” the St George’s Cross, although it says politicians should also take responsibility for failing to “speak up for the inclusive patriotism of the English majority”.

In the run-up to the 2015 election, Labour MP Emily Thornberry was forced to resign as shadow attorney general after being attacked for posting a picture of a house in Rochester draped with three England flags on social media.

Her tweet was deemed to be snobby and disrespectful, especially to the working class that Labour was desperately trying to court.

Since then, the cross of St George and the Union Jack have assumed even greater significance in the national debate around Brexit and Britain's place in the world.

“There will always be those who think that the red of England on the St George flag and the Union Jack makes for a blood-stained cloth too ingrained by history to ever be a positive thing, and that flying either standard makes you complicit in everything that has ever been bad about England and Britain,” writes Barnett.

On the other hand, “there will always be people for whom the British flag is a symbol of the greatness of this country and that to not display it with pride suggests a failing of patriotism that is unforgivable”, he says.


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