St George’s Day: nation, not class

Sir Keir flies the flag

Labour told candidates to mark St George’s Day ‘with enthusiasm’. Then there was the England jersey furore. Carl Collins examines the role of hegemony in today’s culture wars

The word ‘hegemony’ derives from an Ancient Greek term meaning to ‘dominate over’.1 In the historical context, a hegemon was a force - most typically a state - that had a significant military advantage over another state or area and its population. Simply, if the weaker or smaller group failed to comply with the demands of the hegemon, they would be dominated militarily.

To simplify the theory of Italian Marxist Antonio Gramsci, a class can also take the form of a hegemon, whilst using the state and its institutions to maintain the power relation of ‘dominance’ or ‘coercion’ over society.2 This is followed by an indefinite period of achieving and maintaining ‘consensus’ (a sort of acquiescence to being dominated) through force, ideology or a combination of the two.

Marx and Engels explained this relationship in terms of ‘base’ and ‘superstructure’, which permeate and reinforce each other: ie, the mode of production determines the way the ruling class enforces its rule, in schools, through media, laws, etc. Those rules, laws and ideology in turn prop up the current capitalist mode of production:

In the social production of their existence, men inevitably enter into definite relations, which are independent of their will: namely relations of production appropriate to a given stage in the development of their material forces of production. The totality of these relations of production constitutes the economic structure of society, the real foundation, on which arises a legal and political superstructure, and to which correspond definite forms of social consciousness. The mode of production of material life conditions the general process of social, political and intellectual life. It is not the consciousness of men that determines their existence, but their social existence that determines their consciousness.3

In relation to Britain, the point at which the dominant or hegemonic power - the ruling class - achieved power militarily, or by force, is a matter for debate. It may indeed be that this cannot be determined as happening within a particular period or event, if at all. What is certain, however, is that there is a ruling class - the capitalist class - and through the use of the state it is continually asserting its hegemonic power over society to achieve ‘consensus’ (in the Gramscian sense) amongst the population. Whilst open force is still used where needed - through the armed forces, the police, etc - the preferred contemporary mechanism of the ruling class is the dissemination of its ideology through peaceful, more subtle means. This includes the continual manipulation of what can be described as ‘culture’. This is what Gramsci called ‘cultural hegemony’.


A recent Guardian article claimed that Sir Keir Starmer had written to parliamentary candidates, demanding they mark St George’s Day “with enthusiasm” and “fly the flag”4. As many on the left noted, this was an attempt to conform to what the ruling class has decided should be a societal ‘norm’: pride in the flag and patriotism, irrespective (or indeed in spite of) any criticisms ‘others’ may have - be they simply about the flag itself (widely associated as it is with the far right) or what the flag symbolises and represents to them: nationalism, colonialism, etc.

The continued (at present, exaggerated) use of such symbols in certain contexts is designed to further the ideology the ruling class desires it to represent. If you create an enlarged feeling of patriotism, you can much more easily justify war, austerity - any number of things - as being ‘in the national interest’. What is more, it creates the conditions by which the ideology begins to reinforce itself and be expanded upon. For instance, it is much easier to connect the changing of the design of the St George Cross on the England football jersey as being ‘woke’ - a common term in today’s culture war - if certain ‘feelings’ are built up around the cross itself.

For me, many aspects of the ‘culture war’ - such as the England jersey ‘furore’ - demonstrate more the underlying weakness of the Tory Party, desperately looking for any short-term tactic to help it cling on to office, than a systematic furthering of an ideology in hegemonic terms. That said, there is a danger that, over time, such issues can start to dominate political discourse and in turn begin to resonate with the population. Starmer’s Labour Party (being ever ready to put itself on the rightwing side of culture war issues) and a supine media happy to dedicate endless column inches, can lead to a situation where the ruling class - the hegemon - is obliged to accommodate prevailing views in order to preserve its overall, long-term dominance over society. Such concessions to contemporary issues can be accommodated much more easily if they pose no danger of challenges to the generalised ideological status quo.


More often, however, it is the ideology of the ruling class that is passed down to society, rather than the other way around. And it is the more long-term, structural form of the culture war, the ‘cultural hegemony’, that I think should be better understood by the left, so that we can successfully challenge it. Yes, engage with the ruling class in the contemporary culture war, defending and proposing progressive views, but never lose sight of the more generalised, long-term ideological class war still taking place.

In 1980, whilst introducing the Housing Bill to the House of Commons, Michael Heseltine stated the following in his speech:

There is in this country a deeply ingrained desire for home ownership. The government believe that this spirit should be fostered. It reflects the wishes of the people, ensures the wide spread of wealth through society, encourages a personal desire to improve and modernise one’s own home, enables parents to accrue wealth for their children and stimulates the attitudes of independence and self-reliance that are the bedrock of a free society.5

Here we see the ruling class disseminating the general ideology of private ownership, against a backdrop of selling off public housing stock. It tells people, you are not ‘normal’, or not part of ‘normal society’, if you have no desire to own a home, as that should be an “ingrained desire”. It asserts that home ownership produces wealth and that you do not have your children’s best interests at heart if you do not own your own home.

This message, this ideology, is then further disseminated by any means possible. One of those means is through the popular media (often disguised as entertainment).

Following the Housing Bill being pushed through an institution of the state (ie, parliament), the ideology then finds itself introduced into TV programmes. We see the appearance of shows about the importance of buying a home; of the merits of buying a second home; buying a home in the country; a home abroad; swapping your home with somebody else for a week, etc, etc. The ‘idea’ of home ownership is portrayed as a lifestyle choice, to be desired and accepted even in television as ‘the norm’. Further programmes force home the issue, insidiously or transparently, so that they filter into people’s consciousness. Cookery programmes no longer show women how to be better housewives (à la Fanny Craddock) - instead we have young, cool chefs in their expensive kitchens with all the mod-cons, emphasising the ideology of home ownership and the accompanying lifestyle as desirable.

Endless further examples can be given, if one looks hard enough. Shows such as The apprentice and Dragon’s den delude people with the illusion of ‘entrepreneurial spirit’ being enough to open up a path of wealth, promoting capitalist ideology. Similar shows are regurgitated ad nauseam. The repetitiveness itself serves a further purpose - not only reinforcing the ideology, but creating a space of solace for the viewers in common, predictable, comforting outcomes. Furthermore, it serves the purpose of stymying more creative forms of media that might challenge the status quo, which usually manifest themselves through ‘independent’ producers who, in TV, are being hit by a lack of commissioning by broadcasting companies.6


What about those programmes that are not susceptible to any deeper meaning or ideology at work? Well, they simply act as ‘bread and circuses’ for the masses. We laugh at the poor souls making fools of themselves on Britain’s got talent, hopelessly trying to achieve a quick route to fame and fortune, and never questioning whether such fame and fortune really is what should be desired.

Importantly, the ideas of the ruling class simultaneously permeate down through other institutions of the state, not just popular media. Universities now include sections on ‘employability’ built into course modules, showing them to be nothing more than a conveyor belt to exploitation in the capitalist market, rather than harnessing creative thought - which could challenge the status quo. The introduction of market forces into wider education through academisation creates a gateway for these ideas to be placed into an already pro-capitalist curriculum by the highest bidder. It is now quite common that primary school children are made to design and produce things in class that are then sold ‘on the market’ (ie, to their schoolmates) - an example of cultural hegemony being forced into the minds of young children.

Gramsci theorised that, in addition to what he called the ‘war of manoeuvre’ - the overthrow of the existing hegemon - there exists the ‘war of position’: ie, the winning over of a larger number of people to the view of the existing hegemon.7 The state of contemporary political discourse makes one feel that ‘the left’ in Britain and internationally has a lot more positioning to do in order to make manoeuvring possible.

  1. www.britannica.com/topic/hegemony.↩︎

  2. www.marxists.org/archive/gramsci/prison_notebooks.↩︎

  3. K Marx A contribution to the critique of political economy: www.marxists.org/archive/marx/works/1859/critique-pol-economy.↩︎

  4. www.theguardian.com/politics/2024/apr/21/keir-starmer-asks-labour-candidates-to-fly-the-flag-on-st-georges-day.↩︎

  5. api.parliament.uk/historic-hansard/commons/1980/jan/15/housing-bill.↩︎

  6. www.bbc.co.uk/sounds/play/m001y86y.↩︎

  7. www.marxists.org/archive/gramsci/prison_notebooks.↩︎