Flagging interest in ‘folly’ of vexillology

Changing our brand?

Changing our brand?

John Key seems like an unlikely vexillologist – or should that be vexillographer?.

That aside, what was John Key ‘flagging’ when he proposed a referendum on New Zealand’s national flag to coincide with this year’s election – without having already let his Cabinet colleagues in on the brainwave?

I think I know: He flagged his tried and true campaign strategy – ‘No politics please, we’re Kiwis’.

Of course, for Key this was an extremely political play and one that carefully moves the formica-thin veneer that today passes for the media’s substantive political reporting right, slap onto the centre of his home turf – in more ways than it might first appear.

Flags are used to signal (hence, ‘flag’) messages between people or groups of people. The classic messages include surrender (‘white flag’) and ‘no mercy shown to those who resist’ (the ‘Jolly Roger’).

The history of flags has its origins in warfare with standards (borne by standard bearers) which allowed for identification and organisation of groups of soldiers on the battlefield.

It was only with the arrival of nation states in the 18th and 19th centuries that national flags started to appear. Given that nation states were (and are) often composed of groups with widely divergent interests – frequently in conflict with each other – flags were one symbolic means for trying to unite and organise people into these large political units.

Modern nationalism, that is, flew into history amid the incessant sound of flapping flags.

In an echo of their original use, bits of cloth are still used in this way today to create gangs, unite sports fans and mark out membership of a multitude of groups. It is remarkably effective, to the extent that wearing the wrong colour shirt can make you a target of violence in some places.

Why, then, has the leader of the ‘blue team’ raised the New Zealand national flag as an issue in election year?

The answer can be found in that ‘sweet spot’ where the persona at the heart of John Key’s electoral appeal (for some New Zealanders, at least) meets what national flags emotionally ‘flag’ – i.e., have come to symbolise – to those cut-adrift, residentially mobile and fragmented populations of modern nation states.

Personally, I have no emotional investment in flags, national or otherwise, apart from the interest they have as clues to history.

I was always impressed by the fact that the United States flag, for example, had the same number of stars as states of the union at any particular time, and that the Union Jack (Union Flag) incorporates the crosses of St George and St Andrew, graphically representing the United Kingdom (Which raises the question of what might happen to that flag and the New Zealand flag in the – possibly unlikely, but, then again??? – event that the union breaks as a result of the Scottish referendum?).

But flags, I realise, mean much more to many others, which is understandable. These flags, and the nations they symbolise, have become a part of how a modern individual self-defines.

Over the last couple of hundred years a lot of effort has been put into the manufacture of this very modern aspect of ‘identity’ – national identity. Before nation states, of course, there was no such thing.

There have always been other forms of ‘identity’ that mattered to people – personal, family, tribal, ethnic, etc.. But it is a curious thing that today, around the world, many millions of people – most of whom have never had any direct interaction with each other and may live hundreds or even thousands of kilometers from each other – should identify as one group.

In fact, the whole notion of a ‘national identity’ is a fascinating insight into the production of our personhood more generally. That is, it shows more explicitly than does any other ‘identity’ that the person we are is a production of our social world.

Think about it.

To say and, more significantly, to ‘feel‘ that one is a ‘New Zealander’ is, at one level, a pretty vague, amorphous and historically very recent hook to hang one’s identity on (e.g., the current New Zealand flag was officially adopted in March, 1902).

But at another level, New Zealanders’ sense of having a national identity is a remarkable testament to how social, political and economic processes can marshall – in pretty short order – the rag-tag collection of emotional predispositions available in our biology and organise them – individual by individual – into a massive grouping of people that more or less coheres (i.e., ‘New Zealand’).

And national identity is an immensely emotional matter – especially in our globalising world – as this abstract succinctly describes:

In order to understand the persistence and indeed strengthening of nationalism and national identities in the contemporary world, we need to take account not just of changes in the inter-relationships between economics, politics and culture at the global level, but also of the ways in which they may now be coming to inter-relate with the kind of unconscious psychological processes and strong emotions such as love, hate, shame and anger, which occur within groups.

One way in which those strong emotions get linked to nationalism is through flags, and all they claim to represent.

Like Royal Visits, debates over the flag are strange beasts – the deeply political events you have when it doesn’t feel like you’re having a political event.

The fact that arch-royalist John Key has raised the question of the flag’s design – and expressed a preference for removing the Union Jack –  in an election year that will also see a royal visit and is the 100 year anniversary of the start of World War I has struck ‘home’ thousands of miles away. As the Daily Telegraph explains:

The move is perhaps the more surprising coming from Mr Key, who has made no secret of his royalist credentials.

In September last year, he and his family were accorded the rare privilege of being invited to spend a weekend with the Queen at Balmoral.

Perhaps a case of ‘been there, done that, got the photo’?

It is certainly true that John Key has made no secret of his admiration for royalty and all that goes with it: The reinstatement of knighthoods and damehoods; his attendance at the royal wedding of Prince William and Kate Middleton during which he commented that there was “overwhelming support” for the Royal Family in New Zealand; and Key’s agreement to “advocate for the Queen’s role as head of the Commonwealth to pass down to her successors as of right”  which he may have mentioned during his special weekend visit to Balmoral.

Maybe, however, there is method in the ‘madness’ of this unashamed fan of the Royal Family now suggesting we ditch the Union Flag from the New Zealand flag. After all, the royal family may have “overwhelming support” in New Zealand (polling certainly suggests majority support) but that other thoroughly modern manifestation of national identity and pride – international sport – probably has even higher levels of support amongst New Zealanders.

In that vein, John Key has already announced his preference for a new flag. At the same time he managed to provide an – unflattering – insight into how he thinks New Zealanders form their views about these sorts of ‘constitutional’ matters:

The prime minister said the public was “50/50” on the idea of a new flag.

“And I think it depends when you do it. If you asked the question right after the [rugby] World Cup, it might have been closer to 60/40 in favour.

He said even if people wanted to change the flag, there wasn’t universal support for a single option to change to.

His preference was to see a silver fern on a black background.

A bit worrying that a rugby tournament would – in Key’s view – so significantly slant an issue that he deems ‘constitutional’ and, therefore, important enough that it needs to go to the people via a government-initiated referendum. But, there you go – apparently it can’t be helped and such ephemeral fluctuations in public opinion needn’t be a reason for delay.

Perhaps John Key believes that a general election – one in which he is personally vying for re-election – is far less likely to influence the outcome of this ‘solemn’ decision than would a Rugby World Cup tournament? (A decision he sees as, de facto, ‘constitutional’ despite the fact that the flag can be changed by simple legislation.)

Relatedly, it’s certainly not a state secret that the silver fern on a black background is a prominent motif for many national sports teams, including the All Blacks. John Key has explicitly stated that one reason he preferred this design for a flag was its association with sports teams:

“In my view the silver fern is something which is applied to our greatest sporting teams and to so many other things that we do,” says Mr Key. “It has international recognition and cachet.”

And, last year:

Mr Key said his own support for changing the flag had strengthened over time. “The Rugby World Cup for me really cemented the view we should change to the silver fern.”

There’s apparently another reason, however, for changing the flag and removing the Union Jack from it. Key is our most high profile ‘confirmed monarchist‘ – albeit one who seems unfazed by the idea of New Zealand becoming a republic, believes that it is inevitable and may well be the only confirmed monarchist described by the Financial Times as a republican. Yet, the following reason  seems to have persuaded him that such a change is necessary:

Mr Key’s a big fan of the Queen, but says the Union Jack must go for the fern.

“Our flag sometimes gets confused with the Australian flag, and I think it’s part of the modern, new look of New Zealand.”

To take the second reason first; the Union Jack (and the Queen) is, for Key, apparently part of that ‘pre-modern’, ‘old look of New Zealand’ (dating back to 1902, as part of the national flag), whereas the silver fern on a black background is ‘modern’ and a ‘new look’.

Strangely – for such a “modern, new look” – the silver fern has symbolised New Zealand for quite some time – since 1888, in fact:

The silver fern (a species of tree fern, Cyathea dealbata) has been an important, though unofficial, national emblem since it was first worn by players in the 1888 New Zealand Natives rugby team which toured Britain. It has been used mostly as a badge by representative sporting teams and on military uniforms and graves, but also became a trademark for meat and dairy exports.

On the first point – confusion with the Australian flag – the New Zealand flag is certainly not alone in the world of flags in being mistaken for that of another country. (Try these look-alikes.). But perhaps it is less a concern with confusion over whose fans are sitting where in an Olympic Stadium or Rugby World Cup game than it is with distinctiveness of ‘NZ Inc.’s’ brand?

John Key’s preference for a silver fern came to light on Breakfast television back in 2010, at the time that the New Zealand Herald was (last?) running a campaign to change the flag. Apparently, he,

drew his preferred flag for TV One’sBreakfast show this morning and picked a silver fern.

“I actually think it looks magnificent on a flag pole … The simplicity works well for branding New Zealand, like the maple leaf for Canada and Japan’s rising sun,” he said.

The silver fern, already used by sports teams and recognised worldwide, would bring the country together, he said.

Key could also have mentioned, as noted above, that the silver fern has also been used to brand our dairy and meat products – perfect brand synergy!

Interestingly, from that same article John Key also had this to say about the Government putting a change of flag on its agenda:

Last week, Mr Key said a new flag was “not on our agenda” and the Government had more important things to do.

“I think the thing with the flag is that it is a very emotional issue for a variety of reasons,” Mr Key said.

“For the Government to set its focus on whether we need a new New Zealand flag I think would be a very foolish thing to do when you are trying to deal with big international economic issues.

Not only does the passage of a few years change Winston Peters from political no-go zone to possible support party for National and John Key but, it seems, flag changing has moved from being “very foolish” to being the target of an election-linked referendum.

It may be, however, that Key no longer believes that the government is dealing with such big economic issues or, simply, that he has recanted his view that focusing on the flag is ‘folly’.

In fact, as long ago as August last year, Key had apparently “revealed changing the flag was the one policy he wished he could implement but didn’t think he could do it“. So this particular ‘folly’ has been wistfully incubating for at least six months.

But still, why?

As I hinted above, throwing the flag into an election year shifts issues onto home turf for Key. And here’s how.

First, as John Armstrong identified, it’s a clear play for nationalism:

Enter Key. He intends making things even harder for his opponents. Don’t be fooled into thinking his advocacy for a change of flag is some innocent diversion. [are political diversions ‘innocent’??]

He is doing it on the back of a rapidly strengthening economy and much healthier levels of national confidence. Arguing for a new flag is an opportunity for him to display leadership and make people feel good about themselves and the country.

It is all about nationhood. It is all about patriotism. It is all about gathering more votes for National.

It is well known that flags and nationalism go hand in hand (that’s the point of national flags). What is less well known is that flags apparently also bring out the conservative in us all. From the link:

We report that a brief exposure to the American flag led to a shift toward Republican beliefs, attitudes, and voting behavior among both Republican and Democratic participants, despite their overwhelming belief that exposure to the flag would not influence their behavior.

Admittedly, here in New Zealand we aren’t raised on an ideological diet that involves pledging allegiance, hand on heart, to the flag every school morning.

A previous National Minister of Education (Merv Wellington), however, came close to establishing a similar practice in New Zealand schools and that idea was part of a long tradition of flag-raising in schools:

Towards the end of the 19th century the notion of using the flag to promote patriotic and imperial ideals was raised. As one member of the House of Representatives described it, to know the history of the flag was to ‘have his heart warmed and his national feeling quickened, and be fired with love and affection for his flag‘. Letters to the newspapers called on the Government and Education Boards to instill in children a respect for the flag, with flag-raising ceremonies to heighten a sense of national identity and pride.

In the context of a pride-stirring debate over the flag, any criticisms of how the country is currently faring – unless very carefully phrased – could easily be characterised – and popularly felt – as denigrating New Zealand. A kind of party-political national party-pooping blooper by any politician who pushes the ‘something rotten in the state of New Zealand’ line.

Second – and relatedly – a debate over the flag is very close territory to that strange hinterland of politics called ‘constitutional matters’. Debate in this rarefied arena is the politics you do when you aren’t doing everyday politics but, rather, something ‘above’ it.

The irony here is exquisite – since the suggestion to change the flag is clearly politically motivated – yet it aligns so well with everything we know about how John Key likes to ‘do’ politics.

During the 2011 election I wrote a post called “‘Not electioneering’ – John Key style‘. It was provoked by the Radio Live ‘PM’s Hour’ appearance of John Key, during the election campaign, which Key began with the announcement that it was an “election free zone!“.

The point of the post was simple: Key’s potent style of electioneering is to appear to eschew things political.

Of course, when the politics is removed only one thing remains – John Key. And not just any old John Key but that ‘middling’, ‘reasonable’, ‘relaxed’, ‘affable’, ‘smiley’, ‘Kiwi standing at the BBQ’ version of John Key.

A debate over the flag has the appearance of something that should ‘transcend’ the political (since it concerns the symbology of a nation rather than a particular government) and so it gives Key carte blanche to look ‘Prime Ministerial’ and to be focused on matters that should unite New Zealanders.

Yet, at the same time, he can express his opinion and preference (as an ‘ordinary New Zealander’) and do so in that now-familiar manner: ‘that’s just my view but, actually, I’m relaxed about it and just want New Zealanders to have a chance to show what they think’.

While, symbolically, the question of the flag may be important to some, it has no significance for the important policy areas that this government has been pushing. This provides ideal territory for Key to appear reasonable and interested in New Zealand and New Zealanders.

Third, by raising the question of the flag now – when previously he considered it would be “foolish” for his government to do so – he reinforces the idea that the economic crisis and associated pain is behind us and, so, we can now turn our attention to more uplifting matters, ones we can all be part of and upon which we can all be heard.

As I said in the previous post, the ‘good news vibe’ is likely to be pushed relentlessly by National this year.

Like the Promised Land, we can now glimpse the ‘brighter future’ from the top of the high mountains whose arduous tracks we have all climbed, with Key as our up-beat and cheery Kiwi guide. As we pause, tired but smiling with satisfaction, each to another, in the distance below the rivers flow with milk and honey (well, at least milk). Time, then, to celebrate who we are as a nation and people!

Or something like that.

Fourth – and this is where opposition parties should really be careful should this notion become a reality – it leaves Key in exactly the kind of position in which he excels: Having a bob each way.

After all, here he is, suggesting a change of flag. But he is doing so not as the first step that stems from a longstanding desire to make New Zealand a republic – our ‘confirmed monarchist’ would never do that – but, instead, from some common sensical, ‘un-political’ notions about ‘confusion’ with the Australian flag and ‘being modern’.

The ground has already been laid to ensure that this is not seen as some kind of republicanism by stealth. For all you conservative monarchists out there, the Prime Minister is “a big fan of the Queen” – so don’t feel threatened. Of course, for all you republicans out there, this’ll help, won’t it?

Raising the flag cuts across political allegiance (monarchists and republicans span the left-right divide) so it’s the perfect ‘wedge’ and vehicle for John Key’s elusive strategy of multiple political posturing.

In fact, Key doesn’t even ‘dislike’ the current flag:

Mr Key says he’s doesn’t dislike the current flag, but thinks a new one would reflect a more modern New Zealand.

It’s not a matter that I don’t like it. In my view the silver fern is something which is applied to our greatest sporting teams, to so many other things that we do, it has international recognition and cachet.”

And, while its importance as an issue is not high:

“It’s obviously not the number one issue, but it’s something we might consider.”

… it’s important enough to be a constitutional matter:

While technically it was as simple as changing the legislation governing the flag, Key believed it should be voted on by New Zealanders.

It’s constitutional in my view, and constitutional matters have to be taken to the people,” he said.

“So in principle, it’d have to be part of a referendum just like it was for MMP.”

Yes, a bob each way in classic, John Key style.

And just the kind of issue on which he feels completely free to have a bob each way – presumably, and paradoxically, because, despite raising an issue that requires a referendum, it doesn’t really matter to him.

That is, it’s a ‘trade’, a bet, that can’t fail – even if Cabinet decides to “park it up” – and, to boot, it’s a situation set up to have just the kind of logic and features so familiar to John Key and so compatible with his demeanour.

And notice that Key has already cornered the ‘ordinary Kiwi’, sports option for his flag ‘preference’. Those regular sessions on Radio Sports were not for nought. The sports option is perhaps better described as the superficially apolitical/non-political option. That’s important.

It cleverly leaves other political leaders with two options: Follow in the footsteps of Key’s sporting populism and endorse the silver fern on a black background or – and here’s the trap – promote their own ‘preference’, one which is very likely imbued with their political views.

Mana’s Hone Harawira has already come out pushing for the Tino Rangitiratanga flag:

Mana leader Hone Harawira said he wanted to see the Tino Rangatiratanga flag used.

“Its my personal choice, I love it,” Harawira said.

“It’s more reflective of our history, of our world, and it shows that were not just babies of Queen Victoria we are our own people, an independent naiton.

The Green Party co-leader, Russel Norman, did not cite a preference but did volunteer his republican credentials and highlighted the need to consult with Maori:

Green party co-leader Russel Norman says he is open to changing the flag, but also wants New Zealand to be a republic. He believes any decision to change should be made with public consultation, including with Maori and there needs to be more than one option.

David Parker also offered no preference but stated that he ‘didn’t care’ about the flag changing or not, though did say he would vote for a change:

Labour Party deputy leader David Parker does not think the change is a “very important issue”.

I don’t care if it stays or if it changes.

Given the option though, he would vote for a change, he says.

For leaders of opposition parties, it’s hard to know whether or not it would be best to express a preference – and risk alienating sections of the electorate already wary of ‘political’ motives over issues meant to be ‘unifying’ – or express complete indifference (‘disdain’?) about something that many New Zealanders may well feel passionately about or, at least, feel quite interested in.

Key has none of those problems: No republican motives (he loves the Royal Family); ‘common sense’ concerns (‘confusion’, ‘modernise’); preference has ‘nothing to do’ with politics (sporting emblem); interested in the issue, but not too much.

That allows John Key to project his particular brand of everyman ambivalence: He says he’s ok with the flag as it is but also would like to change it; admits it’s not the most important of issues but so important it needs to go to the people in a referendum that coincides with an election.

It’s perhaps not surprising that the only political leader immediately to land on the best response to Key’s suggestion was the man for whom recourse to the deep, sentimental wells of New Zealand nationalism is second nature: Winston Peters.

Leap-frogging Key’s opportunism, Peters simultaneously embraced the importance of the issue and acknowledged the ‘common sense’ concerns while neatly undermining it’s usefulness as an issue in this election – and, of course, there’s no way his political or ideological motives could be questioned since his political feet are firmly planted  in the very ground Key was attempting to populate:

New Zealand First leader Winston Peters says the flag can be easily confused with the Australian flag.

There needs to be a long debateat least two-and-a-half-years – look at the alternatives and then hold a referendum, he says.

Nevertheless, for both National and Key it’s the perfect issue – inconsequential in terms of National’s main policy thrusts yet a perfect platform for Key’s electioneering style – i.e., ‘not electioneering’.

Expect Key to do much more of the same before election day – with or without tapping into his vexillological interests.

After all, he could hardly have flagged his electoral strategy more clearly.

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10 Responses to Flagging interest in ‘folly’ of vexillology

  1. Keri Hulme says:

    I am a vexollogist. I am also flag warden for the Okarito Free Republic.
    Here – in a tiny remote settlement – we have flown our own – and official – flags for nearly 3 decades.
    We do not fly the official – grovelly/unadventurous/DULL – flag. But we have some cracker others! We are happy to share…

    • Puddleglum says:

      Hi Keri,

      Thanks for taking the time to make a comment. Much appreciated.

      I’d be more than happy to see the flags your settlement flies – I could put it in an update on this post 🙂

      When I was a child we had an Atlas, old enough to still have places like the Aden Protectorate marked on its maps. There were also pages of national flags.

      I remember from that time looking at the vibrant flags of African countries (post-colonial) – strong, bright colours representing the land and the people.


  2. bArt says:

    It’s not a red flag either, but it is a red herring! Referendums too are just window dressing in New Zealand.
    80% of NZ’rs voted no to the Anti Smacking referendum and how much notice did Labour or National take of New Zealanders then!
    Parties ARE the problem. All parliamentary votes SHOULD be conscience votes.

    • Puddleglum says:

      Hi bArt,

      Thanks for commenting – new commenters are always welcome!

      I take your point about Citizens Initiated Referenda – non-binding so government responses are purely optional. This kind of referendum, though, would be a government referendum and so is likely to be more or less binding. It would need an enabling act prior to it happening.

      My understanding is that formal political parties first arose, in England, after well-established ‘factions’ had already arrived on the scene (e.g., Whigs and Royalists/Tories).

      Factions (or loose ‘alliances’) seem to form almost ‘naturally’ in human groups but are often unstable and heavily influenced by dominant individuals. I therefore don’t think ridding parliament of formal parties would necessarily eliminate patronage, careerism, wheeling and dealing or ‘internal politicking’. Those phenomena pre-date political parties. In some ways, a party system at least makes those features transparent.

      Thanks again for the comment, bArt.


      • bArt says:

        You’re right of course but I am so down about politics in New Zealand at the moment. I think it has something to do with my undamaged land and home being red zoned for political expediency and the 2007 GV of $99,00 used as “fair” compensation for my 1 acre by Gerry the Bulldozer.

        • Puddleglum says:

          Really sorry to hear.about that, bArt. There’s been just too much of that kind of injustice resulting from the heavy hand approach here.

          All the best,

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  5. Sacha says:

    Great analysis, thanks. Part of the bob each way might also be activating conservative votes for Nat coalition options like WinstonFirst or Colin Craig’s mob, even if they come from former National voters. Better than a cup of tea and Joyce is Machiavellian enough.

    • Puddleglum says:

      Hi Sacha,

      That’s a good point. It certainly gives some oxygen for parties with a more conservative bent and, because Key has positioned himself ambiguously and only diffidently interested in it (despite having himself raised it) there’s no need for it to cause much friction with likely conservative partners.

      Thanks for the contribution. Very interesting.


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