The following is extracted from Alwyn Turner’s e-book Things Can Only Get Bitter: The Lost Generation of 1992.
I like the flag. I think it is very attractive.
Like his hero Oscar Wilde, the singer Morrissey was partial to a bit of rough. ‘I always liked,’ he explained in 1993, ‘quite laddish groups. I loathe the wimp image and the fact that I’m supposed to be some cross-legged, flowery Carry On extra.’ Even so, there were those who felt that his fascination with the more violent, disreputable end of English youth culture was getting a little out-of-hand. His 1992 album, Your Arsenal, was acclaimed as his best ever and was, for once, in tune with the spirit of the times, with David Bowie’s ex-guitarist Mick Ronson giving the music a glam polish. But songs like ‘We’ll Let You Know’ and ‘The National Front Disco’ struck some critics as overly sympathetic, even dewy-eyed, in their treatment of football hooligans and skinheads. ‘We are the last truly British people you will ever know,’ he sang on the former.
The concern came to a head in August 1992, when Morrissey was appearing as a support act at a Madness gig in Finsbury Park, North London. Madness had split up at the end of 1986, three years on from their last top ten single, but were still fondly remembered by a generation as the last of a British tradition stretching back to the Kinks and the Small Faces: a good-time band who wrote pop classics about real life. Their two-night reunion – branded as Madstock – attracted 75,000 fans, but was overshadowed by Morrissey’s performance. Singing in front of a backdrop picture of skinheads, he produced a Union Flag and waved it around, to the evident excitement of some of the skins in the crowd.
The following edition of the New Musical Express devoted its front cover to a photograph of the singer with the flag and allotted more than 6,000 words to addressing the question: ‘Has Morrissey gone too far this time?’ The answer was, not unexpectedly, in the affirmative; stopping just short of calling him a racist, the paper denounced the way that the singer had ‘continued to pick away at the scab of race relations in this country’.
Morrissey was later to point out that he was far from the first pop musician to employ the imagery of the Union Flag. Indeed precedents could be found for much of the NME’s charge sheet, which included a collection of remarks from previous interviews. ‘When I see reports on the television about football hooliganism,’ Morrissey was quoted as saying, ‘I’m actually amused.’ It was supposed to be damning, but actually it sat fairly happily with, say, Joe Strummer’s response to the behaviour of England fans during the 1990 World Cup: ‘I get a strange swell of pride when I hear of our football hooligans causing trouble abroad.’ (It was a sentiment echoed in October 1997 by Conservative MP Alan Clark: ‘There is practically nothing left of the Nation State except the bravery of the football fans who stood up to the armed and armoured Italian police in Rome.’)
Beyond the obvious, if seldom learned, lesson of not taking the pronouncements of pop stars too seriously, the incident – and the music press’s response to it – illustrated one of the key tenets of faith in the anti-Thatcher generation. Ever since Rock Against Racism had been formed in response to comments by Eric Clapton and David Bowie in 1976, the music world had been justly proud of the part it had played in making discrimination unfashionable and unacceptable. It was largely through the endeavours of popular culture that racist language and behaviour had become the great taboo in Britain. But in the process, racism had somehow been conflated with patriotism, so that any expression of Britishness was itself suspect. One of the babies that appeared to have been discarded with the bathwater was the country’s flag, which had for some become a deeply controversial symbol, associated with days of empire and with a British nationalism that was felt to be at the heart of continuing colonial attitudes. This feeling was not unrelated to the fact that the flag was employed so ostentatiously by the National Front and by their successor groups on the Far Right.
It was possible to detect in this attitude an inverted British arrogance: if the country was no longer the most powerful nation on earth, it could still be held responsible for many of the world’s ills, sufficiently wicked to demand a period of self-denigration and abasement. It was a mind-set that was particularly in evidence in a paper like the NME but was far from confined to that publication. When Tony Blair’s speech to the Labour Party conference in 1996 ended with a back-projection of the Union Flag, it was too much for Tony Benn to bear: ‘It was the National Front, it was everything I feared, and it made me absolutely sick.’
Tied to this concern about the flag was an ambivalence about British history, even in relation to the stand taken by the Empire and its former colonies against fascism in the 1940s. It was simple enough to object to the tabloid press’s coverage of any football match involving England and Germany, as in the Sun’s typically thoughtful analysis of a World Cup semi-final: ‘We beat them in 1945. Now the battle of 1990. Herr we go again.’ But something like the celebration of the fiftieth anniversary of VE Day in May 1995 posed difficult ethical questions. ‘Is it possible to have kitsch ironic VE Day party – like for the Royal Wedding?’ worried the heroine of Bridget Jones’s Diary. ‘No, you see, you can’t be ironic about dead people. And then there’s the problem of flags. Half of Tom’s friends used to be in the Anti-Nazi League and would think the presence of Union Jacks meant we were expecting skinheads.’
Such sensibilities, however, were already passing out of fashion. The sleeve of the first Oasis demo tape in 1993 had an image of the red, white and blue colours swirling inwards as though disappearing down a plughole. Liam Gallagher explained the significance of the symbolism: ‘It’s the greatest flag in the world and it’s going down the shitter. We’re here to do something about it.’ When the group played two gigs at the Maine Road stadium in 1996, their biggest concerts thus far, Noel Gallagher’s guitar was emblazoned with the flag, and at the Brit Awards the following year Geri Halliwell of the Spice Girls captured the front pages by wearing a Gucci mini dress with a Union Flag tea-towel sewn onto it. In 1997 too David Bowie was pictured on his new album, Earthling, wearing a distressed Union Jack frock-coat, and – somewhat tardily – Annie Lennox also wore a jacket made of the flag when she performed at the Brits two years later.
This was now the era of Cool Britannia, a self-conscious echo of the Swinging Sixties. Then the Union Flag had also been much in evidence, most famously in a jacket worn by John Entwistle of the Who. That, of course, had been part of the pop art of the time, when artists like Jasper Johns and Billy Apple were using national emblems as source material, and, as the British Empire stumbled into the sunset, there was an unmistakeable element of parodying patriotism, of tweaking the nose of the establishment. The majority of the population had personal memories of the Second World War, so pop art pieces like Peter Blake’s target paintings, redolent of the RAF roundel, had a cultural immediacy. That was no longer true in the 1990s. The associations now were simply with the 1960s, seeking nothing more than resonance with the days when Time magazine anointed London as the city of the decade. And the media duly obliged; thirty years on from that story in Time, Newsweek gave over its front cover to London, ‘the world’s coolest city’.
For a brief moment, the comparisons were genuine enough: the Beatles had commissioned album covers from Peter Blake and Richard Hamilton, now Blur had a video directed by Damien Hirst; the heroin chic of waif-model Kate Moss was self-evidently a continuation of Twiggy by other means; there was a new wave of filmmakers in Danny Boyle, Michael Winterbottom and Shane Meadows. And many of the old names returned in commercial triumph. Blake designed his first album cover since Sgt Pepper for Paul Weller’s Stanley Road, the must-have toy for Christmas 1992 was Tracy Island, after BBC2 began screening old episodes of Thunderbirds, and the James Bond franchise was successfully relaunched with Pierce Brosnan in GoldenEye. Lulu had a #1 single, in collaboration with Take That, and by the end of 1995 even the Beatles were back in the charts with ‘Free as a Bird’, their first new single in twenty-five years. (Indeed the Beatles turned out to be the best-selling British act in America in the 1990s, with all three Anthology albums reaching #1 in the States.)
Meanwhile Euro 96 was the first international football tournament staged in England since the 1966 World Cup, and saw the unexpected emergence of the St George’s Cross as a symbol of specifically English pride. That flag had never previously been considered of great significance by any but the Far Right; now it began to enjoy widespread usage at the same time that the imminent devolution of other countries in the United Kingdom made the nature of Englishness a subject of concerned enquiry.
Unsurprisingly, it didn’t take long for politicians to attach themselves to Cool Britannia. In a 1996 speech John Major bragged: ‘Our theatres give the lead to Broadway. Our pop culture rules the airwaves. Our country has taken over the fashion catwalks of Paris.’ But he didn’t sound as sure of his footing as he had been when celebrating Britain as ‘the country of long shadows on county grounds, warm beer, invincible green suburbs, dog lovers’.
Instead it was Tony Blair, who had become leader of the Labour Party in 1994, just as the bandwagon started rolling, who really capitalised on the movement; if Cool Britannia was supposed to be a reboot of the Swinging Sixties, then clearly there was a vacancy for the role of a new Harold Wilson, especially after the original obligingly died in 1995. Blair seized the opportunity with great gusto, and for a while in the mid 1990s there was scarcely a showbiz awards ceremony at which he didn’t turn up, flaunting his (comparative) youth and proclaiming the good news. ‘British music is back once again on top of the world,’ he enthused at the Brits, though he gave no indication of understanding why this might be so.
But Blair’s use of the Union Flag at that 1996 Labour Party conference was not merely a cash-in on the Cool Britannia theme. In the wake of the Maastricht Treaty, which had bestowed citizenship of the European Union upon British subjects, there was a premium placed on patriotism, with both political parties eager to lay claim to the symbols of the nation. The Tories launched a poster showing a lion with a tear dropping from its eye, over the slogan ‘New Labour, Euro Danger’, while the Labour Party used ‘Land of Hope and Glory’ on an election broadcast in 1997.
Even more adventurously, Labour appropriated the British bulldog for another broadcast, a specimen of the breed being shown pricking up his ears as a speech by Blair approached its peroration: ‘I am a British patriot and I want the best out of Europe for Britain.’ The effect was only slightly undermined when it was revealed that the animal in question had been rather too well-endowed for media exposure, and had therefore had his testicles airbrushed out, prompting a slew of jokes about Blair not really being the dog’s bollocks after all.
All of which was a deliberate attempt, largely orchestrated by Peter Mandelson, to remove the stigma of the Left being unpatriotic. In 1982 the veteran humorist Paul Jennings had proposed the introduction of a new word into the language, ‘Britic’, defined as: ‘A person of British birth who thinks that everything Britain does is wrong and talks about “the British” as though he were of some other nationality.’ Forty years earlier, George Orwell had identified the same phenomenon. ‘In left-wing circles it is always felt that there is something slightly disgraceful in being an Englishman,’ he wrote in The Lion and the Unicorn, pointing out that in the 1930s: ‘If you were an intellectual you sniggered at the Union Jack.’
It was no coincidence that both the 1930s and the 1980s had seen the Labour Party at a low electoral ebb. Condescending criticism of one’s own country is seldom a vote-winning tactic in politics, and the Left had allowed itself to be portrayed far too easily as anti-British by the Tories and by a hostile media. Similarly, the anti-racist campaigns of the 1980s had seemed simply accusatory to many white Britons, as though they were being held personally responsible for the crimes of the Empire, stained with original imperialist sin. For those who felt dissatisfied with a society that had educated them and then found no further need for their talents, the excoriation of Britain was understandable, but there should have been little surprise that the rest of the country didn’t really take to it.
It was this disloyal image that Neil Kinnock, Peter Mandelson and Tony Blair spent a decade trying to jettison. For once, New Labour’s adherence to symbolism rather than policy made sense; wrapping the party in the national flag did send a signal that, in Orwell’s words, ‘patriotism and intelligence will have to come together again’. And if, in the event, it turned out that there was to be little intelligence on offer beyond the slogans and gimmicks, it did offer an opportunity for the Left to participate in the continuing post-Maastricht debate over national identity. And the endeavour was successful not merely in terms of public perception, but even perhaps on a personal level.
Shortly after becoming prime minister, in yet another echo of the 1960s, Tony Blair attended the handover of Hong Kong to China, one of the last great acts of decolonisation. As Prince Charles finished his farewell speech on behalf of the Queen, and the trumpeters of the Scots Guards struck up a final fanfare of ‘God Bless the Prince of Wales’ before the sounding of the Last Post, it was a moment charged with such emotion that not even the most thoroughly modern of prime ministers could remain unmoved. ‘I still felt a tug,’ Blair wrote in his memoirs, ‘not of regret but of nostalgia for the old British Empire.’ It was a sentiment with which the NME’s version of Morrissey might have sympathised.