On inclusive and exclusive flags

Flags are one of the most recognisable cultural artefacts that identify any community since they confer social cohesion to the group (Reichl 2004, Knowlton 2012,Leone 2018). The semiotic relevance of flags is evident, as they become an expression of a collective experience therefore constructing communities and eliciting multiple emotional and pragmatic responses. Flags construct a narrative of belonging that become unavoidably linked to concepts such as power and resistance through history. The use of flags has been always been instrumentalised by different political forces with a clear symbolic meaning.

The big issue with the Spanish flag is that it has traditionally been associated with the far-right, or ‘fachas’ – a deformation of the word ‘fascist’- using the pejorative term the Left has given to the conservative forces. Since the old regime constantly showed its tight bond with national emblems, anyone who wears any clothing  with the colours of the flag is immediately considered to be ‘facha’ and consequently associated with the ideology of the pre-constitutional dictatorship of Franco.

For VOX, the meaning, relevance and use of the Spanish flag is far more central than it is for any other Spanish political parties. For example, and as a meaningful anecdote, VOX’s deep love for the flag even led them to ask the city hall of Murcia to raise a 300 metres Spanish flag in July of this year. Moreover, in their political programme (100 measures for the living Spain), one of their first principles was the defence of the national symbols as they represent the “defence of the Nation, that is the defence of our present and of our future with the heritage of our past”. The third of the 100 measures was the legal protection of the symbols of the nation, specially the flag, the anthem and the Crown. In VOX’ eyes, any insult  of these national symbols should not be resricted from the full force of the law.

The party, led by Santiago Abascal, feels these national symbols, especially the flag and the anthem, have been continually attacked by those who are enemies of the nation. According to Abascal, this has been conducted in the presence of the silence and passivity of the authorities who have not done anything to prevent that from happening. Hence, they have started a campaign in which they encourage citizens to report and sue any attack on the national symbols as part of their campaign “Defiende la bandera de todos” (Defend everybody’s flag) – with the Instagram hashtag ‘#labanderadetodos’ (everybody’s flag). That “everybody” in a sense is targeted and includes the Catalonian independence movement and ‘progres’ (VOX’s pejorative term for the leftish politicians and supporters), or those who do not consider or feel the unity of the country a priority.

What could be considered just an anecdotal issue, then, has turned out to be something more serious. Some months ago, for example, a schoolgirl was attacked in Tarrasa (Barcelona) by her teacher for drawing a Spanish flag and writing ‘Viva España’ (Viva Spain). The incident provoked a large wave of empathy by neighbours and the girl’s school friends who posted lots of Spanish flags at the door of the school. Such support also extended to . In August 2019, a young VOX supporter was hit and attacked by a group of guys when they saw he was wearing a bracelet with VOX’s logo and the colours of the national flag. Political campaigners immediately came to the support of the youngster and started a in which everybody was encouraged to upload a picture wearing the same bracelet together with the hashtag ‘#yosoyEspañaViva’ (‘I am the living Spain’). The most serious incident so far happened in December 2017 when Victor Lainez, a member of the motorbike group ‘The Templars of Zaragoza’, was brutally attacked by an anarchist who did not like Lainez’s suspenders printed with the Spanish flag and died days later. VOX’s most popular members wore the same type of suspenders in social media as a gesture of solidarity with the dead man as well as filing a criminal complaint for Lainez’s death.

But VOX’s relationship with flags is not homogeneous. The party has a very different relationship with other flags, like the one representing the LGBT community for instance. The far-right political force publicly opposed to the celebration of the Gay Pride Festival in Madrid last June and July for “being an ideological imposition, represent the contravention of [their] neighbours’ rights and the local regulations as well as the misuse of public fundings” and also proposed to remove the rainbow flag from any official institution. For VOX, the gay pride celebrations were biased, sectarian, and totally politicized and wanted the LGBT flag to be replaced by the Spanish flag since – in their eyes – the latter represents “everybody”. Madrid’s recently elected mayor from the conservative Popular Party, José Luis Almeida, raised the LGBT flag at Madrid’s City Hall – though placed it to one of the sides of the main  façade. This was joined by a second Spanish flag, which  VOX claimed was a concession to their petitioning.

Such campaigning by VOX is problematic in its thinking that both flags cannot coexist because they are mutually exclusive and hence one should be replaced by the other. But they are not. In my opinion, that kind of argumentation would lead to the ridiculous disjunctive of choosing if you are Spanish or gay to raise one flag or the other. For example, there will be citizens who will feel represented by both, others by just one of them and others by none. There will be members of the LGBT community who may feel  that the Spanish flag is their own while others may dislike the way the celebrations are held or even the festival itself. Equalling, one can argue, having to choose between both categories is totally unfair and definitely diverts all the attention from some other aspects of the Gay Pride celebrations, like the current philosophy underlying the celebration or the involvement of other marginalized groups in the festival, that might be worth discussing.

In conclusion,VOX’s relationship with flags is not uniform as we have seen; there are inclusive flags and exclusive flags, flags which should be removed from public institutions and flags which should always occupy a position of honour. But flags are more than political pieces in the power jigsaw: they identify who we are and where we belong to, something that politicians seem to forget too frequently.

Dr Carmen Aguilera-Carnerero is a Senior Fellow at CARR and Lecturer at the Department of English and German Philologies, School of Humanities, University of Granada (Spain). See her profile here.

© Carmen Aguilera-Carnerero. Views expressed on this website are individual contributors and do not necessarily reflect that of the Centre for Analysis of the Radical Right (CARR). We are pleased to share previously unpublished materials with the community under creative commons license 4.0 (Attribution-NoDerivatives).