I have to admit to feeling a bit disappointed about the Department of (English) Culture, Media and Sport’s (DCMS) July consultation paper about flag flying on government buildings, which appeared on the new Governance of Britain website last week. I hadn’t really followed the detail of the government’s previous pronouncements on the issue, and I thought there might be some recommendations about flying flags other than the Union Flag, such as the Flag of St. George in England.
In fact, the consultation paper deals only with flying the Union Flag on UK government buildings in England, Scotland and Wales. What this effectively means is mostly government buildings in England, as the document “does not extend to Scottish Executive, Welsh Assembly buildings. The Scottish Parliament and Welsh Assembly government are responsible for policy on flag flying from their own buildings”.
What I want to know is, who’s responsible for plain, grammatical English (language, that is) in the DCMS? First of all, they omit the word ‘or’ from the first sentence, without which it is strictly speaking nonsensical. Secondly, do they mean that the Scottish Parliament is responsible for policy on flying the flag from the Scottish Parliament building only; or does this responsibility of the Scottish Parliament extend to other buildings of the Scottish Government (not Executive)? And if so, which flag or flags are we talking about (the Union Flag only or the Saltire or both, or others)? And what constitutes ‘their’ buildings anyway, as – technically – all Scottish Government buildings are UK government buildings (devolved not independent)? Unless ‘their’ has the legal sense of property ownership, in which case one might assume that at least the Scottish Parliament actually owns the premises where it convenes – but whether ownership of their accommodation extends to the Scottish Government and its various departments, I don’t know.
And ditto for Wales.
I suppose the consultation paper’s inability to address the English aspect of the flag issue (whether more frequent flying of the Flag of St. George on UK government buildings in England might help to foster a greater sense of national pride and engender a feeling that the UK government was at least trying to engage with the priorities of the English people) was only to be expected of the DCMS. As was its failure to communicate exactly which responsibilities in this matter are devolved to the Scottish and Welsh governments, and which are retained. This is because the DCMS is actually, in most but not all matters, the English Department of Culture, Media and Sport; as most but not all of the UK government’s responsibilities for these matters in Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland have been devolved to those countries’ own governments. Therefore, you would think that the DCMS would see it as a major part of its remit to promote, affirm, celebrate and defend English culture and sport; though not the English media, as Media is a retained UK-wide function. But that’s not how they appear to see it, or at least how they communicate what their role is. When you visit the Department’s website, you are met with what is a now familiar difficulty of disentangling which of its responsibilities are UK-wide, which of them relate to England only, and which of them relate to both England and Wales. Indeed, on the home page, there isn’t a single reference to England, even though the Department’s competency in some of the areas mentioned on the home page (i.e. culture, sport and tourism & leisure) is limited to England.
So here’s another example of the same old deception of presenting a government department’s activities as if they covered the whole of the UK when in reality they involve England only. In fact, the DCMS is a veritable patchwork of retained and devolved responsibilities that illustrates the complexity and asymmetry of the current devolution settlement. Or which would illustrate it if it wasn’t such hard work to find out which bits are UK-wide and which bits England- (or England and Wales-) only. For example, go to the misnamed ‘What we do’ page, and you get a listing of no fewer than 20 topics for which the department is responsible. But you have to click through to each one to find out how nationwide its responsibilities in each domain are. And even then, it’s not always obvious.
Take the case of architecture. I clicked the link to ‘architecture and design’, where it said: “We are responsible for the quality of architectural design in this country”. Which country is that?, I asked. It’s not clear, as neither ‘England’, ‘Scotland’, ‘Wales’, ‘UK’, ‘United Kingdom’ nor ‘Britain’ appear on the page. It took a visit to the Scottish Government website for me to work out that the DCMS’s responsibilities for architecture do not extend to Scotland; although they encompass Wales (I think). Therefore, in this instance, ‘this country’ means England and Wales, apparently. Another grammatical howler and logical non-sequitur.
I did eventually come across a list indicating which of the Department’s responsibilities have been devolved to Scotland (but not Wales) and which have been retained. There it says, “DCMS will be responsible for sponsoring the Commission for Architecture and the Built Environment, which will act in England as a Champion for Architecture”. Does this mean that the Commission will similarly act as a champion for architecture (why the capital letters?) in Wales? And is ‘acting in England as a Champion for Architecture’ the same thing as ‘acting as a champion for English architecture’? I think not; and I imagine that the same Commission (assuming it does have responsibility for Wales) wouldn’t be coy about saying that it was championing Welsh architecture. Note this preference for the phrase ‘in England’ over ‘English’. It means government departments, where they mention England at all, can talk about UK government responsibilities that are exercised ‘in England’ rather than about specifically English functions of government. The same applies to media reports about government policy or activities, where they say ‘in England’ as if to imply that those same departments had equivalent responsibilities in Scotland and Wales, which they don’t.
In the case of DCMS, what we have is not a department that proudly promotes the great culture of England (just as the corresponding devolved departments in Scotland and Wales so proudly affirm Scottish and Welsh culture) but a UK department looking after (UK) culture in England. So, to return to my point of departure, it’s not surprising that in the area of flag flying, they’re not an English government department making policy about flying the English flag on UK government buildings in England (unlike their devolved Scottish and Welsh counterparts, if I’ve understood the incoherent language of the consultation correctly); but rather, they’re a UK department making policy about flying the UK flag in England. Clearly, it’s not a department that’s interested in flying the flag for England.
By contrast, GB [Gordon Brown] was flying the flag for Britain in China last week. Or rather, he was promoting not British culture or values but British business, pure and simple. Note the ease with which any awkward questions about his hosts’ abysmal human rights record and their suppression of the Chinese people’s aspirations to a true democracy (such a pivotal British value, as Brown has frequently reiterated elsewhere) were not just brushed aside but swept right off the agenda and under the red carpet. Such a venal pursuit of privileged trading terms to me seemed a defeat of the much vaunted British values and a surrender of them to the mighty yuan. It was fitting, then, that the image of the Union Flag behind GB in a joint press conference with the Chinese Premier Wen was actually incorrect: it showed all four arms of the diagonal red Cross of St. Patrick closer to the horizontal centre of the flag than its outside. (See the video of the press conference; you’ll have to wait till almost the end for the flag to be flashed up.) When I first saw the image on the TV news, I thought the flag was actually flying upside down: the traditional military distress signal, indicating that a British position may have been captured.
Now where have I seen an inverted Union Jack recently?, I asked myself. I was reminded of the answer to that question when I visited the said new Governance of Britain website: they’ve adopted an upside-down Union Flag as their logo! What more telling symbol could there be that the government’s drive to create and reinforce a British-national culture and set of values is destined to defeat! Just as those values were defeated and in retreat in GB’s single-minded pursuit of Chinese consumers’ cash and Chinese investors’ funds last week. Perhaps the DCMS should produce some guidelines about the correct way to fly the Union Flag. Except they’d be so garbled that no one would be able to understand them. Certainly not the Mandarins organising the PM’s trip, it would appear!
If they want people to respect the flag, perhaps they could begin by respecting the values it’s meant to symbolise. Better still, replace it with the English flag, symbolising English people’s refusal to sell ourselves short and, indeed, auction our values to the highest bidder.