‘Waving flags’ is, it has to be said, an anthem, built for festivals, for celebrating togetherness. I usually have a problem with anthems (not to mention festivals) but this is one of very few that I’d happily sing along to. Perhaps what saves it from anthemic bombast is Yan’s voice, which is considerably softer than the musical broadside booming behind it. It’s this – together with the background choral harmonies – that gives the song both a vulnerability and a touching politesse. Then there are the words, which cut through the fat surrounding the subject of immigration to go to its emotional heart. The song is both an acceptance of the freedom of movement across national borders that the British seemingly take for granted only as emigrants, and a lightly-issued plea for focussing on what different national identities hold in common. Forgive me if I conflate two issues, namely immigration and the expression of anti-Islamic feeling in the wake of the recent murder of Lee Rigby in Woolwich, but it seems obvious to extrapolate and go so far as to say that the message of ‘Waving flags’ could just as easily stand for ethnic as well as national identity. So were those opposed to the narrow-minded intolerance of either the UK Independence Party or the English Defence League to choose a song behind which they could unite, it would surely be a leading contender.
Not so long ago, on a late night train shortly after the Woolwich attack, I witnessed random, real-life racist thuggery from EDL sympathisers or supporters. I hadn’t seen anything like it for many years, and it both worried and shamed me. I support the right of the EDL to say what it thinks – assuming that anything in the way of thinking has taken place – just as I support a UKIP member’s right to retire to the Costa del Sol, or even to emigrate to Australia or New Zealand if down under was prepared to have them. But when a gang of drunken thugs threaten and harass a random passer-by because of the colour of his skin and its presumed associations, then they leave themselves open to being treated with the same contempt that they have shown towards another human being. The EDL and their like are guilty of meeting intolerance with intolerance; how sheepish some of their number must have felt when that intolerance was met with engagement by one of the very communities they seek to attack, soaking up hostility with the offer of a cup of tea followed by a game of football.
I admire British Sea Power for writing this song, and making an anthem of it; for choosing to stand in the face of what British media would have you believe is the tide of opinion, that ‘something needs to be done’ about immigration; that we need to put up the drawbridge on entry to fortress Britain. It’s narrow-minded, blinkered, historically ignorant and just plain wrong on so many levels. So I’m right with Yan when he sings ‘Welcome in!’ to those coming here – for however long – from the countries above which the Carpathians rise. I only wish they were coming to a better and more understanding country than perhaps they imagine it to be.
British Sea Power are my kind of British – proud of or at least fascinated by our history but far from uncritical of it; celebrants of the full extent of a body of culture which is peppered with eccentricity; and internationalist and anti-authoritarian in their outlook. And I’m not the only one who made all these connections when listening to their song, for I discovered as I was writing this that earlier this year a pro-immigration, anti-UKIP campaign was deliberately formed around it. The campaign may not have succeeded in its stated aim, but it and the song nevertheless serve as a reminder to those of the UKIP persuasion that plenty of us are happy for all manner of flags to be waved on British soil, not just the Union Jack or the St George’s Cross.