King's is still King's - the flag is just detail

The Founder's Fountain, King's College Image credit: Brent Eades

I applied to King’s precisely because of the ornately-framed communist flag in the bar.

At least, that’s how the story goes. In actuality, when I visited on an open day – and I can’t have spent more than half an hour at each of the colleges on my shortlist – I couldn’t find the flag. Maybe I just didn’t see it; maybe it had been taken down to avoid accidental damage, as happens regularly when the projector is needed to screen a football match or an episode of University Challenge. It didn’t matter: the flag was shorthand for the unique character of King’s, a character which was obvious with or without this particular symbol. It made no difference whether or not the flag was there.

The flag was put up in 2003, only ten years ago, as a response to (not the cause of) the already radical nature of Kingsmen and -women. That’s 13 years after the fall of the Berlin Wall; 120 years after the death of Karl Marx; 562 years after the foundation of the College by King Henry VI – incidentally, the youngest person ever to succeed to the English throne (aged 9 months) and a radical figure in his own right. Yet the rapid student turnover means that even most postgrads can’t remember a time without it: it takes no time at all for something to become a tradition in Cambridge.

But this tradition has reached its natural end. The horrifically expensive frame, without which the flag loses so much of its irony, is due to be returned to its original painting. The flag cannot continue in its current state anyway. And so, when Lisa Karlin pointed out just how offensive the current flag can be, the solution should have been obvious: adapt, change, move forwards, and find a better way to express ourselves that does not reify a murderous and oppressive regime.

Few students seemed to grasp the irony of their attempts to represent the college’s radical history by means of the conservative retention of an out-of-date symbol. One would wonder whether their time would be better spent improving access, fighting rent increases, campaigning for the living wage across college – if not for the fact that, actually, students do champion such causes, and will continue to do so long after the flag is forgotten.

The ‘flag debate’, by now almost a tradition in itself, is another form of shorthand for the character of King’s. When, next term, King’s students vote on a new (and, one hopes, less offensive) image to be displayed in its place in the bar, the story of its hammer-and-sickle predecessor will not disappear; neither will student radicalism.

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