English flags Photograph: Getty Images

Gus John: the use of flags to send a message to immigrants and their offspring about who really belongs to Britain should be condemned by Ed Miliband

There is something very instructive about the events that unfolded in Rochester last week. For me, the most disturbing and dangerous is the reaction to Emily Thornberry’s tweet.  Disturbing, because of the assumptions that underlie the popular narrative.  It was felt that Thornberry was sneering at the working class, Labour’s traditional voters for whom it was ‘normal’ to display their patriotism by flying the Union flag and the English flag. But no one seems to have paused to consider who and what constitutes that working class. 

For decades, Labour has taken for granted the support of a growing section of that working class, the African and Asian Diaspora in Britain.  They are patriotic, too, but do not adopt and unfurl those two flags because they see them as emblems of racial oppression, depicting Britain for what it is, a nation of complementary forces for evil and for good, emblems that have been appropriated by the Far Right (National Front, Column 88, BNP, Britain First, etc), even as they are used to demonstrate an inclusive Britishness.  It is after all the flag with which all our great British African Olympians and national heroes such as Lewis Hamilton wrap themselves. 

Asian shopkeepers were coerced into flying the Union flag on their premises during the Gulf Wars and Asian parents stuck the flag on their children’s school satchels in order to demonstrate that they identified with Great Britain and agreed with the war, so as not to invite the attention of racists and neo-fascists. They were making a statement that they are not the Muslims with whom the British state and ‘its’ people have a problem and that they want to be left in peace and free from racist attack. 

As Director of Education in Hackney, it was a regular occurrence for me to be called from my office at around 8.00 am and asked to go to one of our girls’ schools because an Asian student, typically wearing a veil, was stabbed or otherwise physically attacked on her way to school and the head felt it would be a comfort to her distraught relatives if I were to come down and speak to them.

Ed Milliband appeared on television to reassure white working class voters that he disassociated himself from Thornberry’s actions and that, in essence, the Labour Party still loved the working class and endorsed their right to be patriotic and show such patriotism by flying their flags.  Yet, for the last eight weeks, the Far Right group, ‘Britain First’ has been flying the Union and St George’s flags in their hundreds as they parade through the neighbourhoods of Doncaster North, in the constituencies of Ed Milliband and Caroline Flint, neighbourhoods where settled Roma people and Asian and Caribbean people live. They terrorise those communities, engage in racially aggravated harassment and abuse, frighten women and children and insist that they would not tolerate ‘their sort’ any more.

One wonders why, therefore, even if he considered Thornberry’s tweet misjudged, Ed Milliband did not acknowledge and condemn the fact that those flags under which we all stand have been appropriated by the Far Right for decades and used to send a message to immigrants and their offspring about who really belongs to Britain and have the right to eject those who don’t belong by any means necessary, including murder. 

Upcoming election or not, one expects a Shadow Prime Minister to say that this is divisive and that it incites racial hostility and puts at physical risk British people who are of African and Asian heritage and who have as much right to claim Britain and determine its future as anybody else.  What Ed Milliband should understand is that his view of Labour’s traditional heartland, the working class, does not consist of whites only, with or without white vans.

Even as he seeks to placate the white working class, the British African and Asian working class could justifiably resent his failure to acknowledge that they experience painfully the flags which the Far Right elements of that patriotic section of Labour’s supporters have a right to fly. In the hands of that section of the white working class, the Union Flag and the St George’s flag have replaced the famous black shirts and brown shirts that once represented the ugliest face of the ‘Keep Britain White’ and Christian brigade.

The danger in the Labour Party allowing Ukip to set the agenda on immigration and then running around to woo the electorate away from them is that Milliband and his Party get engulfed in the same racist discourse and end up projecting a ‘white Britain’ mindset.

Gus John

Professor Gus John was born in Grenada, Eastern Caribbean in 1945 and has lived in the UK since 1964.

He is an associate professor of education and honorary fellow of the Institute of Education, University of London, and Director of Gus John Consultancy Limited.

Gus has worked internationally as an executive coach and a management and social investment consultant since the 1990s.

He is an educationalist with a deep commitment to life long learning and a social analyst specialising in social audits, change management, policy formulation and review, and programme evaluation and development.

He became the first African Director of Education and Leisure Services in Britain in 1989.