The meaning of the Tory conference flag

There was something missing as I watched re-plays of Theresa May’s first conference speech as Conservative party leader.

Emblazoned on her lectern was the hollow phrase, ‘A country that works for everyone’, parenthesised by two Union Flags.

But the Union Flags looked oddly anaemic.

Blue was there. White was there. Another, a lighter blue was there. Where was red?

The whole Tory party conference was draped in this concoction.

Clearly, design choices were made to convey a message, but what?

The typeface is Avenir, or Gotham. These days, this is political cliché. Both manage to convey nostalgia and modernity simultaneously. Those geometric O’s and powerful R’s harking back to the empire-building days of Gill Sans and the ideologically suspect neutrality of Helvetica.

The Union Flag has been abstracted in the way established brands like Coca-Cola can can rely purely on a white serpentine ribbon on a Pantone 484 red background to assert itself. Everyone knows what the Union Flag stands for, yet it’s been deliberately neutralised.

The flag is blue. Very blue. Because this is the Conservative Party conference.

But a deliberate decision has been made to excise red from the primary symbol of Britishness and Conservatism.

What is going on? Why am I curious enough about this to write about it?

Well, here are my thoughts.

  • Blue is the Tories’ brand colour. In a very literal sense, communications strategists wanted to emphasise a sense of distinct identity and to project coherence rather than schism within the party to the general public.
  • Red is the Labour Party’s key colour. Strategists may have believed they needed to avoid any visual association with their avowed enemy. Since half of Theresa May’s speech was about co-opting Labour Party tropes and policies to appeal to floating voters, I can see why this might have made sense.
  • The Union Flag — red and all — is strongly associated with UKIP and British jingoism. The UK and the Tory party have just come through a highly divisive, blood and guts battle ending up in Brexit. Britain is divided, and so is the Tory party. While half of May’s speech was intended as a sop to soft lefties, the other half was a nationalist appeal to UKIPpers within and without the party. But to go with the full-on British flag may have been a step too far — May’s speech may have felt more like a speech at Nuremberg delivered by Emperor Palpatine.
  • But it’s a curious choice if the key message of the conference, in the context of an increasingly likely ‘hard Brexit’, is all about the United Kingdom sticking together and going on a journey with Theresa May to never-never land because the St. George’s Cross and St. Patrick’s cross — the red bits in the Union Flag — are the ones missing (Wales doesn’t get its own flag).

Have English nationalists and Northern Irish unionists suddenly found humility or, at least, realised they need to row back their rhetoric for a while? Am I reading too much into this? Probably. To both.

And this is what, I think, this tiny design decision that will be forgotten next month comes down to.

The flag is more a symbol of division and weakness than strength. Tory party weakness and division. Labour party weakness and division. Nationwide division catalysed by Brexit. Fragiliy of the United Kingdom. At times of fragmentation like this — people feeling insecure, anxious, despondent, scared, even — this is when projecting coherence and strength and singular, nationalist identity becomes more important. It gives us psychological comfort, and it can be dangerous.

It’s an expression of a kind of anti-political kind of politics (something very different to resurgent Labour’s political politics).

So there’s my two cents.