Our Flag Should Not be Lowered for a Tyrant – Review this Shameful Convention
Britain is good at pomp. Our conventions and traditions are important threads that bind our nation together and add cherished ‘colour’ to Britain’s public life. Whether it’s a Royal Wedding, Remembrance Sunday or the Olympic Opening Ceremony, at a local and national level we know how to mark an occasion properly.
The fact that we often get it so right, makes it particularly striking when we get it wrong. The ‘guidance’ from the Department of Culture, Media and Sport to fly Union Flags at half-mast in line with ‘long-standing arrangements’ following the death of a foreign monarch has caught the public attention because, on Saudi Arabia’s King Abdullah, the government has got it badly wrong.
We, the public, may be able to swallow our government’s unethical foreign policy and our naked pragmatism on the Middle East. If we don’t, we have a chance to do something about it in May.
But we do not accept a convention that attempts to express our collective sympathy and respect for a tyrant who has overseen one of the most repressive regimes in the world. David Cameron or the Queen can send condolences as they see fit. They knew King Abdullah and his family and can take a personal perspective on his passing. But when it comes to attempts to express national grief, or marks of respect, we need to be clear to our leaders – Not In My Name!
The charges levelled at the House of Saud are deeply disturbing. The laws on treatment of women, for example, should be enough to keep our flags precisely where they are when a Saudi royal passes. Under the male guardianship system in Saudi, ministerial policies and practices forbid women from obtaining a passport, marrying, travelling, or entering higher education without the approval of a male guardian, usually a husband, father, brother or son. Women remain forbidden from driving in Saudi Arabia, and authorities have arrested women who dared challenge the ban. King Abdullah has been praised for opening the first university to accept men and women. The UK took that step in 1826. Part of the justification for our involvement in the Afghan War has been to improve the educational prospects of women, yet when it comes to the Saudis we appear to happy to offer at least 200 years grace.
And it gets worse. Floggings and be-headings are common. The treatment of Raif Badawi, the liberal blogger sentenced to 10 years’ imprisonment and 1,000 lashes for criticising the regime has been a timely reminder of the reality of life in Saudi Arabia.
The fact that these punishments are often metered out for blasphemy or the practising of faiths other than Islam makes a bended-knee condolence from the head of the Church of England particularly inappropriate. Also the rank hypocrisy of our government expressing outrage about the medieval barbarity of an IS beheading while extending full diplomatic honours to a regime that recently be-headed a woman with a sword erodes our credibility. How can anyone take the UK seriously when it expresses outrage about Islamist killings when it simultaneously shows itself to be a half-mast sympathiser towards state-sponsored murder on precisely the same ideological grounds.
Saudi Arabia does not observe official mournings and in the kingdom flags were not flying at half-mast. Their embassy flag in London was unlowered. Perhaps they would not have even noticed if Britain had not extended our formal mark of respect. So by adopting unthinking conventional wisdom that cuts across the feelings of the vast majority of Britons in 2015 we have belittled ourselves for no apparent reason. If there is a reason that we can not or must not understand, it begs a deeper question about the behind-closed-doors relationship between the House of Saud, the UK government and the House of Windsor.
None of that justifies the foul-mouthed comments of Louise Mensch on the subject, but it does require our government to review the process of extending formal national marks of respect. The government needs to look at these on a case-by-case basis and give some thought to the mood of the nation when it decides whether to lower our national flag in honour of a foreign leader. This time they got it shamefully wrong.