Flying the flag

Over recent weeks we have seen evidence of the Home Secretary’s desire for young citizen’s to take part in Citizenship ceremonies to be modelled on affirmation ceremonies held in Australia. Central to these events will inevitably be a Union Jack with participants expected to wrap themselves up in the flag of the nation.1

While it may be desirable for us all to sing from the same hymn sheet and display loyalty to the same flag, it is important to recognise that freedom of expression means that we should all have a choice.  Indeed, it is this exercise of choice that seems to be troubling the police with reports of them prohibiting people from flying flags of a different nation.2

The Metropolitan Police justified their decision of denying a person a right to fly a flag of their choice in Southall on the grounds that a religious ceremony like Eid-ul-Adha3 does not require the flying of a national flag and the rallying around a national flag could lead to public disorder.  By comparison, in Greater Manchester the police seem to have avoided such a prohibitive approach and taken a more tolerant attitude by involving the Olympic silver medallist boxing star Amir Khan – whose family famously rallied around the Union Jack at the Olympics - in a public relations exercise intent on encouraging Muslims to enjoy the festivities peacefully.4

A right to fly a flag.

Given these two differing approaches to the policing of what has traditionally been a time of family celebrations for Muslims, it is important to reflect upon the rights of citizens in such circumstances. Obviously, a public relations approach is preferable to a prohibitive approach. Indeed, this must especially apply when a prohibitive approach stems from a Metropolitan Police force that has been stained with a reputation of ‘institutionalised racism’.5 This argument of racism is of particular importance when it comes to the issue of flying a flag, since someone who flies a national flag is denoting his or her pride in the nation associated with that flag.  To say that Eid is a religious event and therefore no national flag can be flown is about as logical as arguing that a person cannot pray while wearing an England football shirt. What is more, to ban people from flying a national flag (of any nation) is inconsistent with the logic behind diversity from which it is accepted that people of differing nations or ancestory should be able to celebrate their cultural identity.6  It follows that a ban on national flag flying may also fly in the face of the Race Relations Act 1976, which makes clear that discrimination on the grounds of nationality can establish a clear potential for direct discrimination.7  It is also clear that a person has a right, under Article 10 of the European Convention of Human Rights, to freedom of expression. This right must include a right to fly a flag, since that is a form of expression in itself.

The potential for the incitement of crime.

Having expressed that a person has a right to simply fly a national flag, it is important to recognise that such a right of expression does not provide freedom to incite illegality.  Indeed, in some instances the flying of a national flag can incite unlawful activity and/or racial/religious hatred. In such circumstances, it may be appropriate for the police to warn of the potential for conflict, and/or illegal activity, and then be prepared to take action should illegalities occur or seem inevitable.  To give examples of such situations, we can think back to the 1970’s when right wing extremists marched through ethnic communities flying their racist version of the Union Jack.8 Again, in Northern Ireland, there have been situations where nationalists have claimed that loyalists have marched through republican areas flying the Union flag resulting in discontent and even riots. In these extreme situations, the police have needed to undertake strong pre-emptive action to maintain law and order and on occasions have re-routed and even banned marches. However, it is important to recognise that while there have been a few problems at Eid festivities – this has been of a relatively minor9 nature compared to the riotous activities at some NF, Loyalist or Republican protests. That being so, there seems to be little justification for such a prohibitive approach to the flying of a flag at Eid festivities. The Greater Manchester non-prohibitive policing approach deserves to be praised. Indeed, it emphasises that it is important for the police to work with elders, and others within ethnic communities, to try and prevent religious and other festivities developing into anti-social behaviour.

The need for a community based solution.

Clearly, the police have the difficulty of walking a tight rope of civil libertarian acceptability. They are legally bound to respect a person’s right to freedom of expression, but they need to balance that freedom with an approach to policing that is intent on preventing unlawfulness and maintaining law and order. 

The Metropolitan Police effectively opened themselves up to accusations of race discrimination, and acting in a manner incompatible with human rights, when they tried to enforce a ban on the flying of a national flag in Southall. They should, in future, seek co-operation rather than depend upon such an authoritarian approach. This means working with elders, and leading figures within the communities, to establish a community based solution.

Dr Peter Jepson.

Head of the Department of Laws at Strode’s College in Egham.

Author of the book ‘Tackling Militant Racism’ (Ashgate Publishing).

23rd January 2005.



(1) All teenagers face citizen pledge at 18 – Alan Travis, The Guardian 20th January 2005.

(2) Eid festival flag ban criticised -

(3) This religious event is more traditionally referred to as ‘Eid’.

(4) Boxer’s plea for trouble free Eid -

(5) See the ‘Stephen Lawrence Inquiry’ report of Sir William Macpherson of Cluny – HMSO 1999.

(6) The celebration of St Patrick’s, St George’s Day, Eid etc.

(7) Direct discrimination is unlawful and cannot be justidied under the Race Relations Act 1976.

(8) A number of such provocative marches were banned under the Public Order Act. However, there is little evidence of any Union Jack flags being prohibited (with the excepting of flags that had a dangerous tip on the flagpole, which established the potentiality of the pole being used as a weapon).

(9) There was some “trouble” in 2004 in Rusholme, Greater Manchester, but this was reported to stem from a group of people from outside the city (see endnote 4).