Many people will have missed the government announcement that the union jack should, after the summer, be flown on official buildings every day rather than for 20 days a year. They are less likely to have missed the sight of government ministers making their official announcements against the background of the national flag. The new policy is supposed to elevate patriotism and to flush out those who lack it or are insufficiently zealous. The policy worked to persuade Keir Starmer that a recent address of his own should be made in front of the flag.
I suspect I wouldn’t score highly on a zealotry test. I have always considered myself patriotic about belonging to the United Kingdom, but without being nationalistic. Loyalty to the UK has never necessitated antipathy toward anywhere else. I have also identified with other flags and symbols: the white rose of Yorkshire, where I grew up; the Scottish saltire when I lived there; the black, red and green of Kenya, when I worked for its government; and the European Union’s stars on blue, on European occasions.
Many of us have multiple aspects to our identity, and consider our attachment to such symbols to be a perfectly healthy part of our patriotism. I thought that the beauty of those massive anti-Brexit marches was that people felt comfortable waving both British and European flags. They were making a powerful statement: that they were not “rootless cosmopolitans”, but had a sense of identity shared between the country of their birth (or that which they had adopted as their home) and a bigger entity. Now the government is making it illegal to fly the EU flag on state buildings without planning permission.
As a mere 77-year-old, I am far too young to have fought in the war, when patriotism was a matter of life or death. So where did my patriotism come from? And how much was it inspired by the flag? I remember being a member of the cub scouts, where patriotism was taken seriously. I learned there – along with how to tie reef knots – how to make sure the union jack was the right way up. If we got it wrong, it was regarded as criminally negligent, since this meant that the monarch was dead.
I also remember waving union jacks by the roadside for hours on end, waiting for some minor royal to drive past at great speed. And I learnt to recognise all the national flags by heart, but this became increasingly difficult with decolonisation, and has now – with over 200 of them – become nearly impossible.
What I learnt, above all, was to treat our national flag with respect, but to associate it with special occasions, like Remembrance Day, or royal weddings, or beating Germany in the World Cup. Otherwise, it was fairly unobtrusive and rather taken for granted unless there were practical reasons for its display, like identifying the British embassy in foreign cities.
I also learnt that flags can be a force for division and hate: not just the swastika – and now the black flag of ISIS – but also in the UK. Maybe I was just a naive young Englishman, but I was seriously shocked at my first Celtic-Rangers match in Glasgow to see the Irish tricolour at one end and the union jack at the other, waved to the accompaniment of colourful chants about the sexual proclivities of the Pope. The Pope hadn’t previously featured in my patriotic education.
Northern Ireland, with its annual parades and accompanying violence, demonstrated the enduring power of the flag as a divider. On visits there, I learnt to navigate my way around by looking for the flags on the lampposts. If there was a red hand in the middle of a white and red cross on show, I knew I was in unionist Paisley country. Confusingly, this territory was also marked out with union jacks, and it was never clear which emblem had precedence.
Then there was the National Front, followed by the BNP, appropriating the national flag to spread racial hatred. More recently, I learnt to speed up my constituency canvassing when I saw a union jack in a window or the garden advertising a particularly motivated Brexit voter. These exceptions should be a warning of the dangers of politicising the union jack.
Meanwhile, for the large numbers who consider themselves English rather than British, there is the flag of St George. It is mostly flown innocently at Twickenham on match days, or on St George’s Day parades (and on my local church), but has become, for some, an emblem of extreme nationalist politics and anti-Scottish sentiment. What is its official status in a world where the government thinks that flags matter for our national identity? How does the flag of St George – the Greek dragon-slayer and saviour of maidens, whom we share as patron saint with Ethiopia – fit into the culture war about our national identity?
Then there is the Scottish saltire, flown on official buildings in Scotland and by many individual Scots as a demonstration of their identity. Is that anti-British? For some; but not all. I recall the awkwardness when, as a UK cabinet minister, I paid an “official visit” to Scotland (as opposed to visiting my Scottish friends and relatives and fellow Lib Dems). I was required to pose for a photo with Alex Salmond in front of the Scottish flag as if I were in Paraguay or Zambia, visiting the president. This was Britain, but there was no union jack in sight.
As for the Welsh, they don’t seem to feature in the union jack. And Northern Ireland is included by the artifice of excluding both the red hand of Ulster and the green of Eire. The cross of St Patrick remains a feature.
Flag enthusiasts point out that in the USA, the stars and stripes are everywhere: not just on official buildings and presidential offices but in suburban gardens. At first sight, it is strange that a country so secure in its power and constitutional stability (at least until Trump) should feel such a need to parade its national identity. At least in part, there is a need in some states to differentiate allegiance to the United States from any residual support for the confederacy. But it is mainly to provide a common emblem binding together a disparate country of immigrants who pushed out the locals. We are different, surely.
For as long as the flag was a rather unobtrusive feature of our national life, the many ambiguities and multiple layers of our identity could sit comfortably with it. We take a similar approach to the national anthem, of which we can all remember the first verse, and lustily sing while forgetting the rest, including the unofficial English additions about crushing rebellious Scots and resisting Popish tricks.
But the elevation of the union flag to a sort of religious status just risks sowing more division. The rules insist not only that the flag be flown, but that it be flown in a “superior position”: the highest flagpole, or – where the poles are of equal height – at the centre of an odd number of flags, or at the centre-left of an even number of flags.
I assume we can be guaranteed a confected “row” when an LGBT rainbow flag, or that of another nation, appears on an official building at the wrong height. Demands that opposition MPs immediately condemn the outrage will then ensue. Then a hapless individual who never went to the cubs and scouts will fly the union flag the wrong way up. This will be shown, disrespectfully – though unintentionally so – on the BBC News. Cue more outrage. Apart from filling the tabloids with copy, I strongly suspect that all this will be used to suggest to us that only one party is truly “patriotic”.
But as someone who considers himself patriotic, I conclude that if ministers have to cower behind a flag, they have an identity problem themselves. Pride in a flag is not nearly as effective as pride in a country which is really succeeding. We have experienced a little of the latter lately, with our genuinely world-leading vaccine programme. We now need the same for our education system, our productivity, and our national infrastructure. Success on those and other counts would not require an ounce of zealotry to celebrate.
Sir Vince Cable is a former leader of the Liberal Democrats and served as secretary of state for business, innovation and skills from 2010 to 2015