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  • Writer's pictureMadeleina Kay

Worth Dying For? The Power and Politics of Flags

Reflections on 'Worth Dying For? The Power and Politics of Flags' by Tim Marshall

Marshall begins the book by laying out the emotional and political significance of flags, as he sees it: ‘You may have overtly positive, or indeed negative, opinions as to what you think your flag stands for, but the fact remains: that simple piece of cloth is the embodiment of the nation. A country’s history, geography, people and values – all are symbolised in the cloth, its shape and the colours in which it is printed. It is invested with meaning, even if the meaning is different for different people.’ (page 2) Marshall emphasises the “soft power” of these national symbols and their emotional ideological appeal, ‘What is clear is that these symbols can still wield a great deal of power, communicating ideas quickly and drawing strongly on emotions.’ (page 7) In the book he also discusses flags of organisations and communities, which have capitalised on this powerful symbol of nation states to raise their own visibility through this visual identifier, ‘Flags are powerful symbols, and there are plenty of other organisations that have used them to great effect – they may embody messages of fear, peace or solidarity, for example, becoming internationally recognisable in the shifting landscapes of identity and meaning.’ (page 9) In the central pages of the book, there are 90 images of flags (of nations, terrorist groups, liberation movements, organisations and communities) printed in full colour, the history of which he discusses in the book – what is clear is that flags are the tools of propagandists, but that they can also be used to galvanise community and represent collective identity in a way that few other symbols can. Marshall quotes Graham Bartram, ‘A flag is the one object which represents your entire national identity. If I asked a hundred people how they would express Britain in one object, or to bring along a single object which represents the UK, ninety-nine would bring the Union Flag and on might bring a teapot’ (pages 60-61). This anecdote whilst entertaining, is a reminder to me to consider other symbols of nationhood and identity through my research project, especially for those individuals who don’t feel well represented by flags.


In his introduction, Marshall asks, ‘What does it mean to try to encapsulate a nation in a flag? It means trying to unite a population behind a homogenous set of ideals, aims, history and beliefs – an almost impossible task… Flags have much to do with our traditional tribal tendencies and notions of identity – the idea of ‘us versus them’… But in a modern world striving to reduce conflict and promote a greater sense of unity, peace and equality, where population movements have blurred those lines between ‘us and them’, what role do flags play now?’ (page 6). I found this point particularly interesting because it directly contradicted another point he made earlier, ‘we are seeing a resurgence of nationalism, and with it a resurgence of national symbols (page 2), which collates more with my experience of contemporary society. Across Europe and the Americas, we have witnessed a rise in far-right parties and a shifting of the political axis towards the right in response to mass migration and economic disasters. Ideologically, this shift has reinforced the idea of the nation state and national identity and manifests in greater border controls and harsher treatment of migrants. I’ve always found flags an interesting visual symbol to justify poor treatment of “outsiders” and to reinforce the idea of ‘us versus them’ which Marshall describes as ‘traditional tribal tendencies’ which have become commonplace in contemporary politicking. Personally, I identify with the idea of promoting ‘unity, peace and equality’ – one of my favourite songs is ‘Imagine’ by John Lennon for the lines; ‘Imagine there’s no countries/ It isn’t hard to do/ nothing to kill or die for/ And no religion too/ Imagine all the people living life in peace’. Nonetheless, I am fascinated by the idea of flags, their power of representation and curious to explore how they can be used as a force for good as well as division in society. Marshall makes the point that terrorist attacks can evoke widespread display of flags as an act of solidarity with the affected nation, ‘according to the US Census Bureau, quoted by the Associate Press, on 12 September 2000 the Walmart chain sold 6,400 Stars and Stripes. One year later, the day after the Twin Towers attacks, they sold 88,000’ (page 37). This is something we also witness on social media, with users attaching a flag emoji to their profile name in solidarity with a nation’s people.


Marshall emphasises multiple times the subjective nature of the meaning embodied by flags, ‘The meaning is in the eye of the beholder.’ (page 7) ‘Flags can have ‘multiple meanings’. This subjective meaning is something which I am keen to explore through my research project, examining how representations of collective identity can erase and undermine the individual, as well as create these conflicts of meaning. Marshall continues, ‘You may mean one thing by flying one, but someone else may think you mean something entirely different. Proving intent, unless the symbol is overt, is difficult’ (page 26), this debate around intent versus perception is another topic which fascinates me, and something I want to explore as an artist who believes in ‘Audience Response Theory’. It is something I am holding at the forefront of my mind in my project exploring intersectional identities, because it is important to me to be sensitive to my participant’s personal data and to ensure that they are satisfied with how they are being represented – in which sense, I am putting much greater emphasis on how the participants perceive my work than my intention behind creative choices.


Marshall gives a brief overview of the history of flags describing them as ‘a relatively recent phenomenon in mankind’s history’ (page 5), explaining how it was the invention of material which was light enough to be air-born, which predicated their wide-spread use. ‘It was the invention of silk by the Chinese which allowed flags as we know them today to flourish and spread. Traditional cloth was too heavy to be held aloft, unfurled and fluttering in the wind, especially if painted; silk was much lighter and meant that banners could, for example, accompany armies into battlefields’ (page 5). This original usage of flags in battle emphasises how they have always been associated with conflict and conquest and used as a visual tool to represent power and dominance.


The Flag of the United States of America


Marshall explores several national flags in depth, starting with the flag of the United States of America. I found his research about this flag the most fascinating because of the almost absurd rules and procedures which Americans have regarding the treatment of their flag – bringing new meaning to the popular social media slur of “flag shaggers”. Marshall writes,

‘From gazing at the flag in their front yard the children would have gone to school and recited: ‘I pledge allegiance to the flag of the United States of America and to the Republic for which it stands, one nation under God, indivisible, with liberty and justice for all’ … The flag was used to promote loyalty and unity in a fractured and diverse country; generations of Americans have since stood to attention, hand on heart, to acknowledge this symbol of the nation each morning’ (page 17). The ceremony around the US flag seems bizarre to outsiders, especially this notion of forcing children to pledge allegiance daily, feels like indoctrination and clear use of the flag as a propaganda tool to influence nationalist ideology. Marshall further details the procedures relating to the US flag, ‘at night, often with great ceremony and attention to strict guidelines, if ‘Old Glory’ is to be taken down it is done slowly, ensuring that no part of it touches the ground and that it is received ‘by waiting hands and arms’. The Flag Code tells us: ‘It is the universal custom to display the flag only from sunrise to sunset on buildings and on stationary flagstaffs in the open. However, when a patriotic effect is desired, the flag may be displayed twenty-four hours a day if properly illuminated during hours of darkness’.’ (page 18). Marshall also details the strict protocol of how the flag should be folded; ‘Straighten out the flag to full length and fold lengthwise once. Fold it lengthwise a second time to meet the open edge, making sure that the union of star o the blue field remains outward in full view. A triangular fold is then started by bringing the striped corner of the folded edge to the open edge.’ (page 30) Furthermore, ‘when the national anthem is played and the flag displayed, Americans not in uniform are supposed to stand to attention facing the flag with their right hand over their heart. Those in uniform should begin saluting the flag at the first note if the music and hold the salute until the last note is played.’ (page 29) I am extremely interested by this pomp and ceremony and the notion of a ‘Flag Code’ which dictates the performative way in which the flag should be handled, especially in relation to music (I have always hated “anthems” because of the associated nationalism) – which I think could be explored through performance art.


Marshall also discusses how artists, including Jasper Johns and Andy Warhol have responded to the power of the symbolism of their national flag, ‘Americans revere their flag in a way few other people do… The artist Jasper Johns has devoted much of his career to depicting it on canvas, in pencil, with bronze, and superimposing it on many other surfaces. For him it is not an icon to promote or denigrate, but the sheer power it projects and the emotion it arouses fascinates him as an artist’ (page 16). It seems that artists have always been fascinated by these visual symbols of nationhood, regardless of how they may personally feel about the values and history they represent – it is their visual power in and of itself which are a source of fascination.


Marshall explores the symbolism of the colours of the US flag, a topic which is of particular interest to me given my research focusing on the symbolic importance of colours and colour schemes in representing individual’s identity. Marshall quotes Charles Thomson, Continental Congress secretary, who said ‘White signifies purity and innocence. Red, hardiness & valour, and Blue… signifies vigilance, perseverance & justice’ (page 20). Adding, ‘every American is free to interpret the colours as they wish. Some say the red is for the blood of the patriots who died in the War of Independence, some say it is for all those who have died fighting for the country. It is of course possible that red, white and blue came to mind in 1776 as they are the colours of the British flag, but that interpretation might not go down so well in the land of the now free.’ (page 21) This exploration of the symbolism of the three colours of the US flag, is particularly interesting in comparison to the values assigned to this colour scheme by the many other countries whose flag shares the same colours. To the French, these colours symbolise the following, ‘the famous blue, white and red – the colours which came to stand for liberty, equality and fraternity’ (page 81)


Flag Desecration


Marshall writes, ‘it is poignant but fundamental that the flag protects those who hold it in contempt’ (page 35), but goes on to detail the laws and potential punishment for those who desecrate flags – suggesting that there are limits to the contempt in which you can hold a flag. ‘Laws concerning flag desecration vary in different countries around the world, and the list of those where it is illegal is far from confined to repressive states. There does not appear to be a pattern or grouping for this, although in the modern democracies what laws remain on the books are rarely taken as seriously as dictatorships. The UK, Australia, Belgium, Canada and Japan, for example, do not have laws prohibiting it. Whereas Germany, Italy, Austria, Croatia, France, Mexico and New Zealand do’ (page 36).


The Union Jack or The Union Flag


I’ve often been criticised on social media for calling the UK’s flag the ‘Union Jack’ by flag purists who insist it is called the ‘Union Flag’, Marshall goes into this debate in depth and concludes it can be called either.

Edinburgh for Europe Demonstration, photographer unknown


In my book ‘The Future is Europe’, I referred to the UK as the ‘dis-United Kingdom’ in acknowledgment of Scotland and Northern-Ireland’s vote in the EU referendum (overwhelmingly voting to Remain) and I have supported the Scots’ right to independence ever since. So, I found Marshall’s take on this issue very interesting, ‘the words ‘Britain’ and ‘England’ are not interchangeable. For England, the dominant partner in a union of four, this has not been an issue. For others, particularly Scotland and Wales, it always has been. The shock of Brexit in the summer of 2016 has concentrated minds and many both within and without England no longer seem the realm as so blessed. If this union is no longer part of the EU, some are prepared to unravel the Union Jack and instead merge their own flag with the twelve stars of Europe’ (page 46). This is something I have witnessed on the streets f Edinburgh, when attending pro-EU marches on Hollyrood, the Golden Mile is a sea of Scottish Saltaires and EU flags – there is not a Union Jack anywhere to be seen. This has prompted me to speculate as to what a flag would look like if Scotland and Northern-Ireland left the United Kingdom, leaving only Wales and England remaining – or “Wangland” as I prefer to call it (I intend to create this fictional flag using my new found sewing skills).


Marshall presents the history and origin of the Union Jack, ‘James VI of Scotland and I of England… commissioned a new flag to depict his regal union on board ships, but it was not used as a national flag, the result was a mixture of the Scottish Saltire and the English flag. There were two problems with this. The red cross was imposed on top of the white saltaire, so if you were so disposed, or Scottish, you might think that one flag was deemed more important. The other issue was that after Henry VIII had united England and Wales in the Laws in Wales Acts 1535-42, Wales was deemed a principality, not a state, and thus was not depicted on the flag whatsoever – not so much as a small fire-breathing dragon anywhere’ (page 47). In my flag design for ‘Wangland’, I intend to restore Wales’ authority in this hypothetical union of two countries, by making the red dragon prominent on the flag of st. George.


Marshall discusses the interpretation of the colour scheme of the UK flag and how it is perceived globally, ‘The red, white and blue of the Union Jack might signify the glorious past of a still-powerful country, but then again it might give rise to the bitter nickname, as in parts of Ireland, for example, of the ‘Butcher’s Apron’, symbolising colonial oppression and a flag being covered in blood. Perhaps it can stand for all these things simultaneously and much more besides: the 51st state? Cool Britannia?’ (page 45) Marshall also delves into the UK’s colonial past and how the Commonwealth countries have decided to deal with their independence, ‘just four of the 53 members (Fiji, Tuvalu, Australia and New Zealand) still retain the Union Jack in their flags’ (page 54), which I believe is an indictment of the esteem with which the UK is now held. Marshall also relays a mortifying incident of flag-induced racism which he witnessed, ‘the bus packed with Leeds supporters, passed a group of young black men in their late teens. From the top deck came the chant ‘There’s no black in the Union Jack! Send the bastards back!’ It was routine, albeit to be reviled. It was shocking but it wasn’t surprising. Had there been black in the Union flag, they would simply have come up with something else equally moronic and offensive, but it was interesting how they had seized upon the flag as a weapon of division’ (page 65).


Marshall gives a final amusing anecdote about Brexit and the current state of the UK, ‘in 2016, as Britain plunged into the EU negotiations ahead of its In/Out referendum, the flag could be seen hanging upside down outside the EU headquarters in Brussels. It’s not known if this was accidental, the French having a laugh or the Brits signifying distress’ (page 58)


European Flag

Photo: Richard Medic


I was interested to learn that my favourite flag (the flag of the European union) – one which I have emblazoned upon many an item of blue apparel by ironing or sewing on gold stars – is fittingly, not a flag at all. ‘When is a flag not a flag? In the early days of what became the EU, member states, especially the UK, feared that it might replace their nation-state flags and so officially it is ‘an emblem that is eligible to be reproduced on rectangular pieces of fabric’. It is a sort of half-flag, a Schrödinger’s flag… The flag/emblem does not supersede national flags. It is rather symbolic to demonstrate adherence to the wider community of the European countries and identification with common values and principles’ (page 71). Marshall adds, ‘the people of the nations of Europe have stubbornly resisted becoming one, not because they don’t like each other but because they like themselves. There appears to be a yearning for authenticity. This is in part reflected in the continuing power of the national flag in each country’ (page 75). This point is especially interesting to me since a lot of my creative work, specifically my landscape artworks, have centred around the mission of debunking the myth of Brexit supporters that the EU “erodes national identity and creates a cultural monolith”. The fact that the EU flag is technically not a flag at all, because they are at pains not to erode the identity of the nation state emphasises the fallacy of this argument.


Other Flags


Marshall details the colours of several national European flags including the Irish flag. ‘The Irish tricolour came into popular use in 1848… Its use spread after it was unfurled by the nationalist Thomas Francis Meagher… in a speech he expressed the hope that ‘The white in the centre signifies a lasting truce between the “Orange” and the “Green”, and I trust that beneath its folds the hands of the Irish Protestant and the Irish Catholic may be clasped in generous and heroic brotherhood’ (page 63). This emphasis on the potential religious nature of colour schemes and symbols is something I also need to consider in my research project. ‘According to the Pew Research Centre, a third of the 193 members states of the United Nations have national flags which include religious symbols. Of these sixty-four states about half have a Christian symbol, and twenty-one of them a sign associated with Islam. Unsurprisingly, Israel is the only country to use symbols of Judaism’ (page 134). As a non-religious person myself, I was not aware of the prevalence of religious symbolism in flags and it is something I need to remember to consider in my project. Marshall gives the example of the Iraqi flag, which ‘has been politicised over the last few decades. Adding Allahu Akbar was part of Saddam’s attempt to make the 1991 was about ‘defending Islam’… This made many Iraqis unhappy, as they see their identity based on a nation state, not a religion.’ (page 133)


What I thought was my second favourite flag design (the flag of Bosnia and Herzegovina), turns out to be my favourite flag, since the flag of the EU technically isn’t a flag. ‘It has a mostly blue background with a central yellow triangle which represents the shape of the country and whose points are a reminder of the three main population groups. The blue and yellow consciously echo the flag of the EU. To the hoist side of the triangle are nine white stars, the colour of peace… the stars are infinite and what is represented on the flag is a continuum rather than a finite number’ (page 107). I clearly haven’t studied this flag in much detail since I didn’t even realise the top and bottom stars were sliced in half, but I love the explanation of this symbolism as a ‘continuum’, giving the impression of limitless potential and hope for the future. I like this flag design even more than I did before now.


Marshall discusses the origin of the Nigerian flag in depth and quotes a very entertaining take by a Nigerian on his nation’s flag; ‘Writing on Nigeria’s highbrow ‘Village Square (Marketplace for Ideas)’ website in 2012, Farooq A. Kperogi felt that his country’s flag was ‘undoubtedly one of the worst-design flags in the world. It is unimaginative, aesthetically unpleasant, and sterile in imagery and symbolism. It is one of only few national flags I know that repeat one bland color twice… Are colors the only symbolic representations we can invoke to depict our culture, peculiarities and history? What about the awe-inspiring, time-honoured rivers that course through the length and breadth of our country’s landscape; the rich labyrinthine tapestry of our history; our uniquely sumptuous culinary treats; our valiant pre-colonial empires…? Why is none of these captured representationally on our national flag”’ (page 212-3). I really enjoyed this bold criticism of his own nation’s flag because of the emphasis that Kperogi places on other symbols of national identity – something which I am keen to explore in my research project – emphasising the limitations of a flag and colour schemes alone to symbolise the complexity of nationhood.


I have always been a fan of the South-African flag which I think has instantly recognisable, unique, bold and dynamic design, so I was interested to read about the history and origin of this design. ‘The design, particularly the Y shape reflects the convergence of the past and the present and all the different peoples’ (page 216) and was a direct response to a request from Nelson Mandela to represent these values. Marshall quotes the designer of the South-African flag, ‘The red, gold and green were existing political realities and I thought if I put all these together in the design there would be a convergence, a convergence of colour, of people, of languages’ (page 215). I think the South-African flag is one of few flag designs which so effectively visually represents the values of a nation.


Community Flags

Skylar Longridge, a participant in my Brexiles project who asked to be painted in the colours of the gender non-binary flag; yellow, black, purple and white


Marshall details the flags of various communities including the LGBTQ+ flag. I have been interested in the different flags of the lGBTQ+ communtiies, including the Trans and non-binary communities, since it was raised in my ‘Brexiles’ projects by two of my participants from these communities. Marshall quotes Gilbert Baker, the designer of the Pride Flag, ‘We are a people, a tribe if you will. And flags are about proclaiming power’ (page 249) – I find it interesting how she describes the community as a ‘tribe’ harking back to the ‘tradition’ of flags which Marshall earlier describes which seems at odds with the liberal and progressive values of the LGBTQ+ community. Marshall explains how ‘The original design had eight colours. Pink represented sex and was deliberately included to claim it from the Nazis’ use of the pink triangle which homosexuals were made to wear…. Pink was dropped fairly quickly as it was an unusual colour for a flag and made manufacture expensive’ (page 276). I was slightly amused by this example of how capitalism can trump symbolism, given that from an artistic point of view the removal of the pink is outrageous.




Marshall concludes by speculating on the role and impact of flags, ‘Usually flags man identity; they identify what people are, but by the same token they also identify what they are not… Perhaps we lack the imagination to see ourselves as one united entity with a common purpose and must wait until Mars attacks to truly understand that’ (page 281). I particularly enjoyed this comment, since it is something I have observed and often thought myself, that it is human nature to quarrel with one’s neighbour until an outsider from further away joins the fray, and then suddenly those quarrelling neighbours become united. It's the same tribalist mentality which pits football hooligans from different counties against each other – until England are playing in a world cup. I have never understood this behaviour, and I don’t think I ever will and I genuinely believe it will take aliens attacking the Earth before the human race ever stands untied as one.


The final point which Marshall makes which I want to focus on during my research project,  ‘One of the mistakes we make is assuming that what’s on the flag is what makes it powerful… it’s what it means to some-one, and that it belongs to them, and say perhaps to ten million other people, which gives it the power’ (page 280). My ultimate aim is to create a flag for my research participants which means something to them and the reason I have decided to gift this flag to them, is so that they feel like it belongs to them – I may fail in this aim, but I think there will be much to learn from the process of at least trying to achieve this.

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