The Substance of Symbols

In preparation for the summer Olympics draped across the length of Regents Street are the flags of 206 nations coming from around the globe to compete in the summer games. It is a spectacular sight adding great splashes of colour to one of the finest roads in London. It is also certain to generate feelings of pride and patriotism amongst the multitude of international pedestrians as they spot their country’s flag fluttering overhead.

The interesting thing about national flags is the meaning or association of their colours and symbols change over the course of time. Take the iconic Union Jack for instance. In the nineteenth century it stood as a symbol of a colonial empire. Today the very same flag stands for something else entirely; a multi-cultural Britain. The meaning of symbols is never constant it changes depending on circumstances and how people choose to read the symbols. In the case of nations, flags don’t just tell a story about the past they represent the present and the future as well.

Amongst the 206 flags are those belonging to nations that are in the midst of tremendous rupture and change. The ways in which these countries manage such change will inevitably affect the way their national flags are interpreted for years to come.

Lazy politicians and irresponsible scaremongers often shift the blame for their countries situation onto minority groups and outsiders.  Demonising the other is a tried and tested method of shirking responsibility for a national crisis. And yet historically those nations that embraced cultural, religious and ethnic diversity always came out ahead in the long run.

In the book of numbers the bible relates how the children of Israel wandered through the dessert under tribal banners. The colours and symbols chosen reflected not just the stories of their past but the highest religious and ethical ideals they hoped to live by in the future.

May each of the 206 flags fluttering on Regent’s Street represent a future of prosperity, security and human dignity.


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