The most extraordinary sight of the week, indeed the year, was the leader of Her Majesty’s Opposition riding into Westminster with a Cross of St George Fluttering from the back of his bike. We’ve all gone flag crazy - except in Scotland where it’s viewed with more than a little unease.
Tessa Jowell, the Culture Secretary, is flying two, or is it three. Tony Blair announced, after initial wariness, that the Cross of St George would fly above Downing St. for every Engerland match for the duration of the World Cup.
Politicians of every hue are wrapping themselves in the flag.
And if they aren’t then the guardians of English nationalism are soon on their backs. “Tony Has pledged to fly the flag”, taunted Boris Johnson in Thursday’s Daily Telegraph, “Will Gordon have the nerve to do the same? Will Gordon have the nerve to resist”. It’s not enough for the Chancellor to back the England team, he has to bow before the flag too.
There is a hectoring and bullying note creeping into this the new English nationalism. Middle class intellectuals, who have clearly forgotten everything George Orwell wrote, are embracing the flag like teenagers on a bender. They pretend that it’s ironic, a laugh, an affectionate revival of antique passions. But this isn’t progressive nationalism, it is national laddism.
I hate to be a killjoy, but I find it tasteless and faintly sinister. I’m all for rediscovering national symbols and I can even accept a little post-modern patriotism. But there are limits. The attitudes and emotions unleashed by flag worship can rapidly become oppressive. Look at America, where the flag is a kind of fetish - a piece of cloth imbued with almost mystical significance.
And I don't like Saltire worship either, with all the blood-soaked "Braveheart" romanticism. But it’s one thing for a small nation like Scotland, with a tenth of the population and a fraction of the wealth, to be flaunting national symbols - a kind of regional attention-seeking; when the dominant partner in a union of nations starts stuffing its flag down our throats, day after day, on a London-dominated media, I reach for my sick bag.
And I have no problem with people supporting the English football team - my own twelve year old son does. And by the way he isn’t bullied or fire-bombed at his state school in Dalkeith for doing so. But I’m fed up being asked where my own loyalties lie. Scottish politicians can’t approach a microphone without being challenged to say whether they support England. This isn’t football - it is a new version of Norman Tebbbit’s cricket test.
And why does every television programme and every article about the phenomenon seem to include a dig at the Scots for being unpleasant spongers? There was Max Hastings on Question Time on Thursday accusing the Scots of being “nasty to the English even when we pay their bills”. On Tuesday, the London Mayor Ken Livingstone girned about how London continues to “pay the Scots to live in the manner to which they are accustomed”.
Boris Johnson announced in his own flag-waving piece that Gordon Brown couldn’t be Prime Minister because he is Scottish. That isn’t funny - it’s racist. The UK parliament is a unitary one in which all MPs are supposedly equal. You cannot deny an elected politician high office because you don’t like his ethnic origins. Or is this now an English parliament?
Ken Livingstone’s idea that London is subsidising Scotland is economically illiterate. Tens of billions are being spent on public projects like the London Olympics and the cross-rail link funded in part by Scottish taxpayers. And before Max Hastings mouths off about subsidising the Scots he would do well to remember that the UK Exchequer is currently benefiting from #12 bn a year in oil revenues.
This is nasty nationalism - the patriotism of fools. And in brings out the worst in all of us. The SNP leader, Alex Salmond, went totally over the top in the Commons last week when he accused Gordon Brown of “morphing into an Englishman”. The nationalists are willing the England team to do well or even win the World Cup, because every extra day of this brings an SNP victory in the Scottish elections in May closer.
There’s nothing wrong with people exploring their national identity and even rediscovering symbols. And there’s nothing wrong with football that a change of rules and lower salaries wouldn’t cure. But when we start importing the passion of the terrace into British politics it turns into tribalism.
Or chauvinism. Love of flag has blinded Americans to the fact that across half the world the Stars and Stripes has become a symbol of imperialism and military supremacism. The Cross of St George has some unfortunate associations also. Like the Salford Councillors, I was distinctly uneasy about Labour cabinet ministers wrapping themselves in a flag which was, in the not too distant past, the emblem of the British National Party. Ten years ago, Tony Blair and Gordon Brown wouldn’t have been seen dead near a Cross of St George. Now they’re getting their underpants made of it.
Yet when the deputy chief constable of Wales dared to suggest that waving this flag might be a little provocative in the principality, he was hounded by the new patriots. Schools in England have been instructed to fly the flag with pride.
But surely if Prime Minister is so keen on preserving the union shouldn’t they be flying the Union Flag above Downing St., as was the case in 1966. If it was good enough for Harold Wilson, why not for Tony Blair? And, anyway, since when did the government of the country become the property of England? The Union flag, remember, is supposed to incorporate the Cross of St George and the Saltire. Surely that symbol of inclusion should correctly fly above all UK institutions.
You don’t see the flag of St. George flying above Buckingham Palace - at least not yet. Flags are where emotion and politics collide. This is infantile behaviour from a country with a long enough memory to know that it’s wrong.