Event Summary: ‘The Power and Politics of Flags’


By Alexis David

On Thursday 13th October, the Henry Jackson Society welcomed Tim Marshall, former diplomatic editor at Sky News, to discuss his book Worth Dying For: Power and Politics of Flags. The talk initially tackled the history of flags; Mr Marshall explained that flags are perhaps as old as we are, yet flags as we know them are some 3,000 years old, as it was only once the Chinese had invented silk that flags were developed as we recognise them today.

Mr Marshall went on to demonstrate that flags have been the visual representation of our histories, hopes and cultures. For example, the US flag is iconic, with thirteen horizontal Red and White stripes representing the thirteen British colonies that declared independence from Great Britain, as well as a Blue rectangle in the canton with fifty stars, representing the fifty states of the United States of America, the US flag is certainly distinguishable. The American flag speaks to the American people and individuals around the world more than most other flags do, and the American flag code, in which themes such as not being able to merely discard a flag, but in fact ensure a flag is provided with a ceremony, decent burial and/or cremation, speaks volumes of the symbolism behind the emblem.

The Arab flag of revolt in 1916 was subsequently discussed by Mr Marshall, as it has a great historical meaning and has given way to many of the Arab flags that exist today. The three horizontal colours on the Arab flag of revolt (Black, Green and White) represented bringing together the three great dynasties as equals, while the Red triangle represented the Hashemite dynasty, which would look after all of the groups as a Pan-Islamic state. Yet the dynasty broke apart, thus reverting the original meaning of the flag. Nevertheless, the colours of this flag gave birth to flags all across Arab countries, and as seen in Iraq today, the colours of the flag still generate distress, as the nation’s flag – despite being designed in a modern age- fails to speak to other religions in the country apart from Islam.

Mr Marshall then discussed the power of a flag to market a nation. For example the Italian flag, according to the speaker, expresses how successful Italian cooking is, shouting the brand of the country in a way that others do not. The Green, White and Red colours also provide an insight to the history of the state; the colours represent the different militias after Napoleon’s victorious army crossed Italy in 1976.

When observing new flags such as the Rainbow flag, which is only 30 years old and commonly represents the LGBT communities, it indicates a sense of acceptance to gay individuals. The fact that it is flown in many countries of the West creates a big political and social message; Mr Marshall then acknowledged the depth regarding the states that choose to fly the flag, and those that choose not to.

Mr Marshall concluded by discussing international flags such as:

  • the UN flag, which may be deemed as out of date thus reminding us that the organisation itself is out of date
  • the EU flag, which has gained an emotional depth as the shock of the results of the referendum provided individuals with a symbol and sense of belonging
  • the World flag, which according to Mr Marshall, due to its lack of publicity and explanation of the emblem, has proven to be a difficult icon for individuals across the world to feel represented by.

For a transcript of this event click here


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