Changing the St George’s Cross on the England kit? It’s practically treason

Off with their heads! At least someone is talking sense to the FA and Nike – even if it is the (leader of the) opposition

Sean O'Grady
Friday 22 March 2024 13:14 GMT
Starmer says Nike should recall England's Euro 2024 kit over change to St George's Cross

“New England kit: are you cross?” was the banner on my TV screen as I switched on. I have a feeling that Nicky Campbell, the king of controversy, probably knew the reaction to the question on his morning BBC show.

So it proved as the switchboard lit up, as we used to say – and he took calls from mostly apoplectic people objecting to the violation of the St George’s cross by the treacherous Football Association and Nike. At one point, Nicky almost fell out with Majorie – who was fine with the world until they started fooling about with the England flag and she felt the memory of her late uncle, who died at Dunkirk, had been dishonoured by the most detestable of people.

The flag provokes such passions. It’s understandable, if distressing to hear. Another viewer even suggested that the English nation must, like the United States, have the right to bear arms – and take up those arms against whoever it was who turned the ancient flag of England into a bland little corporate logo.

I felt like sending a text message in the same spirit of defiance: “The game’s afoot: Follow your spirit, and upon this charge, cry ‘God for Harry, England, and Saint George!’”. (Except that these days there are, well, mixed views on Harry, of course.)

It seems the Leader of the Opposition now wants to be leader of the opposition on this avant-garde tweak to the England strip. Nike say it’s supposed to be “playful”, but the response to it has been bellicose.

Knowing his audience, as the inaugural guest on the Sun podcast “Never mind the ballots”, and, with all the authority of the genuine football fan that he is, Sir Keir condemned the move with the same indignant vehemence he would bring to a suggestion that he, say, would give the teachers a pay rise or let Diane Abbott back into the Labour Party.

Let it be known that Sir Keir Starmer, stout Gooner and knight of the realm, is cross too – on behalf of the people he wishes to lead into battle, though obviously with due respect to the devolved administrations and their assorted shamrocks, dragons and saltires. Speak for England, Keir! But where is our prime minister and prime Southampton FC “Saints” fan when he is needed in his nation’s darkest hour?

For what it’s worth, Sir Keir, Marjorie and all the other people left in a state of impotent rage by this affront are right, albeit for their different reasons.

People are proud of the flag as a symbol of nation and would prefer if it weren’t mucked around with. Warriors fought and died for it a long time ago, before it was replaced by the Union Jack – and they retain a visceral, tribal loyalty to symbols and flags of Englishness and Britishness.

It’s true that people, ie. Eng-er-land fans, also fought for the flag with rival fans and riot police outside the stadia and the pleasant pavement bars of continental Europe, to the point where it became a symbol of drunken nihilistic violence, but you can’t deny that they feel that attachment to it all the same. People do get upset with change, and in ways that can be difficult to rationalise, as when British Airways phased out its Union flag livery in favour of a more “global” look for the tail fins – Māori art and the like.

It is sadly the case that the flag of St George has been to some degree appropriated by racists and fascists, as we see on their social media bios and when they choose to wear it to riot against phantom “woke mobs”. In the last few decades, the Union Jack – perhaps because it was associated with a less ethno-nationalistic concept of identity – gradually became supplanted by the red and white flag.

If you look at the old footage of the famous 1966 World Cup final you’ll see the old Wembley awash with the red-white-and-blue flag of the UK, with only a few England flags. Things changed for worse in the years that followed. The new strip’s designers claim they were inspired by the ‘66 team’s training kit, but that is neither obvious – nor much of a justification.

The St George’s flag has been stolen by knuckle-dragging fascists – even if most fans see the St George’s flag in a far more benign light – but we should be trying to win it back. We should work together to make it a symbol of a very civilised form of English inclusiveness, standing for the values of tolerance and a multicultural society.

But the way to do that is through action and civilised behaviour – not by erasing it altogether and inventing a logo that means nothing to anyone. You can’t really modernise the England flag and it’s foolish to try.

By far the simplest objection to the latest design is simply that it isn’t very nice. It’s an ugly clash of blue, red and purple, conveys no meaning or message – of inclusiveness or anything else – and it breaks the tasteful rules of heraldry: the colours should be separated by (say) thin strips of white. If there had been any reason to alter the flag then they should have asked some proper vexillologists to come up with a new design.

In my patriotic opinion the flag is just fine as it is: simple, bold and redolent. It’s inspirational, which is what you need for a game of football. The new flag on the back of the England shirts just looks “a bit weird”, as Emily Thornberry said – and there’s a woman who knows a few things about the power of the flag of St George and the unbiquitous “white van man”.

Somehow, out of nowhere, we seem to have started another quite unnecessary culture war (not that any culture wars are actually useful). Lots of football fans get used to changes in their team kit – and I can well recall the notorious England “indigo” strip from 1996-97. A throughly insipid affair; it was disliked but no one wanted to storm the FA in protest.

For some of us, watching Leicester City play occasionally in pink and in tangerine – rather than the usual classic royal blue – is a bit unsettling at first, but it’s just a novelty, a bit of a talking point. Messing about with the flag of England with no public consultation or fan involvement was a more inflammatory gesture, a typically high-handed move by football’s national governing body – and it’s ending badly.

They should admit their mistake and ditch it quietly. There are challenges enough on the pitch without these distractions. We don’t want any crowd trouble, do we?

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