Express & Star

Black Country flag 'race' row: Wolverhampton MP Eleanor Smith backtracks over comments

Tens of thousands of readers have leaped to the defence of the Black Country flag ­-­ while the MP at the centre of the furore has beaten a hasty retreat.

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Wolverhampton South West MP Eleanor Smith

New Wolverhampton South West MP Eleanor Smith claims her views have been ‘misrepresented’ by the Express & Star.

The Black Country flag

She denied saying the flag was ‘racist’ or that it should be ‘banned’.

In a statement backed by the city’s left-wing Momentum group, she now says un-named ‘constituents’ had raised concerns about the flag but admitted she felt ‘uneasy’ about it.

MORE: What is the Black Country flag and what does it represent?

MORE: Black Country flag is 'racist' and should be scrapped says Wolverhampton MP Eleanor Smith

MORE: Thousands reject Black Country flag racism claims

She also claimed she had not posed for a picture with fellow MPs holding the flag outside the Palace of Westminster due to 'parliamentary commitments'.

But the Express & Star is standing by comments attributed to Ms Smith in which she said she was concerned about the flag's 'racist connotations' and suggested it should be 'changed' for one that 'represents us all as a collective rainbow of people'.

Editor Keith Harrison said: “We have received no complaint from Ms Smith about the accuracy of her comments in Saturday’s paper.

“I am entirely confident that Political Editor Peter Madeley’s story is accurate and I have seen his notes that prove it.

“For the vast majority of people in the area, the flag has quickly become a symbol of great pride and celebration of everything that is great about the Black Country.

“Ms Smith and Momentum are fully entitled to their view, but clearly it is not one most people would agree with.”

Last night, more than 26,000 had voted in an online poll with 95 per cent of them saying the popular red, white and black flag is not racist.

Wolverhampton’s left-wing Momentum group, which has close links with Corbynite Ms Smith, said it supported her over the flag issue.

It said: “Eleanor’s concerns are important.

“Too often the horrors of capitalist exploitation are hidden behind talk of industrial innovation.

“The reality that the chains made in the Black Country were used in the genocide that was the Transatlantic slave trade is not something we should hide behind talk of the glories of industrialisation and engineering.

“We call on all progressively-minded people and organisations to support Eleanor on this issue

"We call for the withdrawal of the flag and for a committee representative of the diversity of the Black Country today to be established to explore an alternative and more appropriate symbol for our times."

See the full transcript further down the story.

Ms Smith said in a statement: "I talked about some concerns which had been raised by my constituents about the flag - specifically the image of a chain, because of their historical use in the Slave Trade.

"I went on to say that I was uneasy about this image becoming the brand for the Black Country, on the grounds that it associates the Black Country with heritage industries, rather than modern ones.

"However, to set the record straight, I did not say the flag was racist. Neither did I say it should be banned. My views on this matter have been misrepresented."

The flag was previously criticised in 2015 by Wolverhampton-born historian Patrick Vernon, who branded it offensive because of the connection between chains and slavery.

In response to Ms Smith's comments he tweeted: "Black Country flag reflects wealth it created as part of The Transatlantic Slave Trade. Chains is a painful motif."

He added: "What about the history of the Black working class that enslaves by the chains and worked 400 years without pay whilst being dehumanised."

However, politicians from the region and organisers of the Black Country festival have backed the flag.

Conservative MP for Stourbridge Margot James said she was proud to hold the Black Country flag aloft with Dudley South MP Mike Wood on the roof of Parliament last week.

She added: "We are proud of our Black Country heritage, especially the chainmaking industry which flourished in Cradley Heath at the start of the 20th century.

"Eleanor Smith should visit the museum of chainmaking in Mushroom Green rather than set herself apart from this celebration."

Transcript of Eleanor Smith's comments about the Black Country flag

Here is a transcript of Peter Madeley’s conversation with Eleanor Smith:

PM: Do you have any issues with the Black Country flag?

ES: I am concerned about it [the flag]. When you break it down the white on black imagery used together with the chains...I’m not going to pretend to you it doesn’t worry me as a black person.

I was told the chains represent the chainmakers. I have got absolutely nothing against the chainmakers. They were working people making money like working people do. I have supported them a lot. People have to understand that it [the flag] can be seen as offensive.

I have serious concerns about the racist connotations, particularly the fact that chains are used to represent the Black Country.

Ian Austin said to me it was designed by a young person. I don’t for one minute think they realised its connotations or the sensitivity of it.”

PM: Why didn’t you attend the photograph with the flag outside the Palace of Westminster?

ES: I didn’t go because it is not something I feel comfortable about standing in front of. I think it is time for an intelligent conversation about the flag.

PM: Do you think the Black Country should have a different flag to represent it,?

ES: Yes. I would look to have it changed. Why can’t we have a flag that represents us all as a collective rainbow of people? In my constituency 130 different languages are spoken. Let’s have a flag that actually says we are proud of where we come from...that represents the pride of the region.

I don’t want to offend anyone. I’m sure it wasn’t the intention of the flag [to offend anyone]. It is time for us to have an intelligent conversation about the flag. I’m not taking away the whole history of the chainmakers. We know women went on strike, like Mary Macarthur...they were oppressed. But that doesn’t change the fact that I think the way the flag is done is a big mistake.