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It's Only a Flag

Last week I took a short drive to a friend’s house a mile or so from mine. On the way I turned into a familiar road and saw a repair van, partially blocking my path, parked next to a car with a flat tyre and damage on its near side. There was enough of a gap for me to drive through safely with a yard to spare, so I did. I took it slowly enough to get a good look at the face of the man standing by the car. It was red and twisted with anger. As I passed he screamed a four letter word at me.

That seemed harsh. It’s a word people have used about me before, but it usually takes at least ten minutes in my company for them to say it out loud. He followed up with something about me driving like a maniac when there wasn’t a safe gap, and how sick and tired he was of people like me smashing up his car. I got the feeling I wasn’t the first person he’d shouted at that night, and wouldn’t be the last.


It isn't always easy to process our anger. There’s a rational voice inside, whispering that if the person in front of us didn’t cause our problem and isn’t making it any worse, there’s really no point in blaming them for it. For many people, though, it is only a whisper. When there are other, less rational voices pinballing noisily around between our ears, that voice of reason can easily be drowned out.

It’s happened to me. It’s happened to most people. Sometimes it happens on a larger canvas than a local car journey, and with more lasting consequences.


In 2024 there’ll be a general election in the United Kingdom and a presidential election in the United States. We’ve already seen national elections in Taiwan, Russia, Pakistan and Bangladesh and there are dozens more in the calendar, covering and affecting every corner of the world.


The People’s Library isn’t a political organisation and we have no interest in telling anyone which party to vote for. We do take an interest in what motivates people to vote, though, and what motivates them to speak out on one issue or another.


We’re particularly interested in what happens when people who struggle to process their anger lash out at random, whether verbally, in social media posts or at the ballot box.


This month we’ve seen controversy erupt over a small change to a logo on a football shirt. Nike, a long-standing commercial partner of the Football Association and the England men’s football team, have made what they described as a “playful” update to the flag of St George logo on the team shirt. The new logo, which appears in miniature on the back of the shirt collar, includes purple and blue stripes. Judging by the reaction, you could be forgiven for thinking Nike had burned Buckingham Palace to the ground and projected a photo of the ashes onto the Wembley pitch.


Why have people made so much noise about this? Football supporters aren’t known for their sense of perspective. I have a Scottish friend who quit a promising snooker career because, as a Rangers fan, he couldn’t bear to put his hand on a green table, green being the colour of his team’s hated rivals, Celtic. The anger over Nike’s harmless tweak quickly spilled over into the mainstream, though, with political party leaders demanding that they “leave our flag alone”.

When people get angry about flags, they often talk what can be objectively described as nonsense. How many social media posts or media comments have you seen over the past week that refer to Nike “desecrating the flag of St George”? I’ve seen plenty. One of the problems with that particular point of view is that it’s not possible to desecrate something that was never consecrated in the first place. Flags aren’t sacred. They’re pieces of cloth with patterns and colours. They’re useful tools for identifying nationality and testing schoolchildren on basic geography. And they’re also quite useful tools for stirring up unprocessed anger.


This week we’ve seen reports indicating that 4.3 million children in the UK are growing up in poverty. That’s the highest number since records began. In cities that have long been part of the industrial heartbeat of the country, shocking numbers of children are trapped in a cycle of under-privilege and restricted opportunity. In Birmingham, Leicester and Nottingham, over 40 per cent of children under the age of 16 are part of low-income families. In Manchester, the figure is a whisker below that threshold at 39.4%. How many of the football fans whose anger has been stoked over a small, coloured cross are struggling to give their children the start in life they deserve? How many of them are struggling to put food on the table? How many have just endured a winter when they were unable to adequately heat their homes? No matter how hard they worked. No matter how hard they tried.


These people have good reasons to be angry with their predicament. But, just like the man I drove past last week, if they’re unable to process their anger they may find themselves screaming abuse at the wrong targets.


When their sense of identity as parents, husbands, wives and community members is threatened by economic hardship, it may seem comforting to be offered a sense of identity as patriots, even when they’re being manoeuvred into wrapping themselves in a false flag.  

When people allow their unprocessed anger to be manipulated in this way, they make fools of themselves and accomplish nothing. When they allow that anger to be manipulated at elections, they risk electing fools and accomplishing something very dangerous.


This year, political leaders in more than one country will attempt to channel the unprocessed anger of tens of millions of voters into election victory. They will appeal to the disenchantment of people whose lives aren’t turning out the way they’d hoped or expected, and point the finger at those they consider suitable scapegoats. When it comes to solutions, to improving the lives of working-class voters, these leaders are usually fuzzy on the detail, and their policies when in power rarely clear the picture. Perhaps they’ll win anyway. Perhaps whipping up unprocessed anger, distracting people from issues and actions that actually affect their lives, will be the defining tactic of 2024’s many elections.


At the People’s Library, we hope not. We hope enough people will inform themselves, seek out facts and engage with issues that impact on them and their families. When people do that, when they cast their votes from a position of knowledge instead of letting unprocessed anger drive their decisions, we respect their choices no matter who they vote for.


When England lost to Brazil at Wembley last Saturday, it wasn’t the new logo that cost them the game. When they snatched a draw with a last-gasp equalizer against Belgium last night, it wasn’t public outrage that saved them. Maybe we’d all be better off keeping our eyes on the ball? For all the anger generated over Nike’s new logo, it is only a flag.


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