Flying the flag for Britain

Posted on 19 August 2012 - No Comments
London Olympics and British identity

We don’t do flags in my family. Despite living for a while in a small American town where every house had a flagpole on the front lawn, and flags came out regularly for every Memorial Day or July 4th, it never seemed very British to do the flag thing, says Rachael Jolley.

So it came as a bit of a surprise to find myself at a flag stall in Covent Garden during the Olympics, lining up to buy a Union Jack. But the Olympics made the flag much more friendly. Suddenly they were everywhere in the stadium, being worn as capes and flying from the back of backpacks and being draped over the side of spectators.

It seemed sort of churlish not to wear one too as we set off for the stadium to enjoy a day of athletics among the throngs of happy people.

Across the Stratford landscape there were flags everywhere and it didn’t feel odd or like we were trying to ape another country, but just like this was how we were. It felt like a 2012 British way of enjoying ourselves.

Having the flag flying created a bond between the British supporters that I’ve never seen before. It broke the ice, so we could start talking to each other – and somehow that was a new British thing too.

Suddenly all those stereotypes about British calm, stiff upper lips, and not chatting to strangers flew out of the stadium, and it was more natural to just start asking the bloke in the queue next to me, what event he had seen, and what had he thought of the swimming, as if I had known him all my life.

The flag thing was working for all the British supporters, not just English ones, who previously had a rather more positive relationship than the Welsh or Scots with the Union flag. Back in April when British Future asked YouGov to poll for us on attitudes to the Union Jack, we found that, far more than the Welsh or the Scots, the English connected it with pride and patriotism. Back then 80% of English respondents associated the Union Jack with pride and patriotism, along with 68% of Welsh respondents and just over half of Scots (56%).

But the Olympics changed that: Scots’ pride has now gone up to 64% and Welsh rocketed to 83%. Perhaps it is the Jade Jones effect. It was a moment when the whole country could join together, and those are rare. Usually it is something to do with the English football team, or the Welsh rugby team, or some other sports moment that feels more owned by one part of Britain than another. What was great about the Olympics was that it felt fairly shared by all.  We all wanted a part of it, whether we were sitting at home watching the television, watching a big screen or out at the Olympic park. There were sports heroes from all corners of the country, from Chris Hoy to Jade Jones to Jessica Ennis. And we could all share them, and flying that flag seemed to fit right in.

How many people associate the Union Jack with pride and patriotism, Team GB, the monarchy or the Armed Forces? And since our poll in April, how has that changed?

  Pride and patriotism Team GB Monarchy Armed Forces
England 80 (-) 85 (+10) 84 (-) 79 (-1)
Scotland 64 (+8) 80 (+15) 94 (+14) 78 (+8)
Wales 83 (+15) 91 (+20) 90 (+8) 90 (+13)
White 80 (+1) 84 (+10) 86 (+2) 81 (+1)
Non-white 72 (+4) 85 (+19) 74  (+3) 70 (+4)
GB total 79 (+1) 84 (+10) 85 (+2) 80 (+1)

Rachael Jolley is editorial director of British Future

Check out this piece by the Telegraph or download our report, This Sceptred Isle, to read more.

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