Wednesday, January 19, 2005

Musing on flags

Flags are important symbols of group identity, whether we speak of the flag flown by a particular organization, those embroidered standards carried by trade unions that symbolize their history and development from small associations, flags of a particular area such as the Isle of Man or national flags.

As it happens, the national flag has not been of great significance to the British. Whether it is because they have had no uncertainty about their national identity, have not had to fight for it or because, as the song has it, “… every war we’ve fought we’ve won”, is hard to tell.

Ostentatious display of the Union Flag, except on official buildings at certain clearly defined times, has been frowned upon. There is a telling episode in Kipling’s Stalky and Co, in which an unctuous politician (are there any others in Kipling’s works?) comes to the school, based on the writer’s own Dartmouth College, that aims to produce empire builders and administrators, and embarrasses the boys by a tacky, trite talk about patriotism. The most embarrassing moment comes when the politician to his audience’s horror, produces and flourishes a Union Flag. The boys feel as if their souls have been besmirched.

Noticeably, Saki (H. H. Munro), one of the best of the Edwardian writers and journalists, takes a very different attitude in his little known 1913 novel When William came. An attempt to alert his countrymen both to the external dangers of German aggressiveness and the internal decay of the society, the novel describes England under a German occupation and the behaviour of various individuals in those circumstances. It is a short work that is well worth reading.

One scene takes place in an outpost of the former British Empire, somewhere in Africa, where a few families have taken refuge and live in difficult conditions, because, as one of them explains, they can run up the Union Flag every morning and that is enough for them. There is a solemn description of a solitary young rider, who stops and bares his head as the flag rises above the harsh African terrain.

Saki’s point is clear. When the nation and its identity are in danger, the flag becomes an important symbol to be cherished and venerated.

Indeed so, I hear our readers mutter, musing is one thing, total waffle is something else. What is she going on about? Apart from keeping the high level of literariness of this blog, that is?

Flags have always been more important on the Continent and in countries where nationality was forged out of disparate units, such as the United States. The Stars and Stripes flies everywhere, the states are jealous of their own flags, when they can be. The ever-recurring row about the flags of the Confederate states shows that the issue is still alive.

The EU knows very well the importance of flags. It grew out of the Continental tradition, where nations cling to their symbols, one of which is the national flag. So, goes the argument, if the Union creates its own national symbol, the national reality will follow. This has not proved to be correct so far, but there is much to play for.

Hungary, the country I have just visited, in case anybody missed that, has always taken its tricolour very seriously. The red, white and green led soldiers into battle in 1848-9, it flew again after the Agreement that created the Austro-Hungarian Monarchy in 1867, it flew in the First World War and during the collapse of that Monarchy. It did not fly briefly (133 days) during the Soviet Republic of 1919 but was raised again proudly afterwards.

Once the Nazis invaded in March 1944, the flag with the swastika became the emblem of Hungary’s subservient position. Briefly, after its liberation, the tricolour was restored but then, after the Communist take-over there was an addition: into the centre of the flag was inserted the socialist emblem.

During the revolution of 1956 that emblem was cut out or burnt out by the people who had risen spontaneously to overthrow the foreign and totalitarian regime. Many of our readers would have seen the pictures of the Hungarian flags with the hole in the centre flying on buildings, on burnt-out Soviet tanks, in the hands of youngsters.

The socialist emblem was not restored but neither was the old Hungarian emblem. The national flag remained and flew more proudly in 1991 after what the Hungarians refer to as their regime change.

On my first visit since the country’s accession to the blessed European Union (erroneously perceived by some of the political class as a return to Europe) I was expecting to see some blue flags with the ring of gold stars on various official buildings, and so there were: dual flag use is, of course, de rigeur in some, though not all EU member states. (Not France, for instance, outside of Strasbourg.)

The ring of stars did fly over ministries and other suchlike unimportant establishments, though only in the very centre of the city. But, to my astonishment I noted dual flag use on three very fine buildings that are the very epitome of Hungarian nationhood.

Two blue and gold flags flew beside the tricolour over the Hungarian Parliament, a fine end of the nineteenth century building; the Opera House, designed by the finest Hungarian architect, Miklós Ybl, where many a patriotic opera has been performed; and, above all, the Hungarian Academy, a splendid neo-Renaissance building, opened in 1865, two years before the great Agreement but housing an institution that had been founded in 1825 by the “greatest Hungarian” Count István Széchenyi and other patriotic noblemen (magnates, as they were known) for the promotion of the study of Hungarian language, literature and history, as well as other subjects.

This ostentatious and unnecessary display of European righteousness raises interesting questions. Just what are the Hungarian authorities playing at? They must know that this is not required and may well antagonize the population as soon as the money dries up and it is perceived that promised benefits have not materialized.

Tentatively, I can advance two explanations, culled from historical parallels. One is that those authorities are doing what Hungary has been accused of doing in the past: being the most faithful follower, showing subservience beyond any call of requirement.

The other is that this may be a subtle message to the populace through a method, well-rehearsed in the past. Look, they are saying, we are not allowed to tell you what we really think, we are supposed to rejoice at our return to our European heritage, but, actually, we have once again surrendered our independence and our national symbol is in submission.

As they say, you pays your money and you takes your choice. There may be other explanations (no doubt some will be advanced by our readers). But if either of the above is anywhere near the truth, the long-term consequences are likely to be difficult.

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