Global Britain or Little Britain? The flag furore can play both ways

Global Britain or Little Britain? The flag furore can play both ways

Britain seems to be undergoing a fit of patriotism.

Enough with Brexit, vaccine nationalism, or even the Harry and Meghan interview. So start of the month. The real issue for Britain right now, apparently, is whether everyone’s being patriotic enough. If you’re not wearing a Union Jack face mask, sitting on a red, white and blue cushion, or flying the flag behind you while you’re Zoom-ing, you may be a dangerous subversive.

It’s hard to pinpoint exactly when it began, but a signal moment came last Friday when Robert Jenrick, the housing minister, was being interviewed on BBC Breakfast. At the end of the segment, with Jenrick smiling a little nervously, presenters Charlie Stayt and Naga Munchetty gently ribbed him about the large size of the Union Jack hanging on a pole behind him.

“I think your flag is not up to standard size, government interview measurements,” said Stayt sarcastically. “I think it’s just a little bit small, but that’s your department really.”

Chuckling, Munchetty added: “There’s always a flag.”

The pair have since apologised and sought to quell the Twitter-fuelled firestorm that predictably erupted. But it burns on.

During a public accounts committee hearing this week, Tory MP James Wild quizzed the director general of the BBC, Tim Davie, about how many images of the Union flag appeared in the BBC’s last annual report. A non-plussed Davie declined to answer, before Wild gleefully told him there were ‘zero’. “My constituents would expect probably more than one flag appearing,” he thundered.

Not to be outdone, the government announced that the flag will now be flown from all government buildings every day, rather than just on ceremonial occasions, and has urged local councils to follow suit. If nothing else it’s a bid to boost unionism – England, Wales, Scotland and Northern Ireland standing together as one nation under one flag – counteracting Scotland’s calls for independence and frustration in Northern Ireland over Brexit-related trade disruption.

But where will this pique of patriotism lead?

In the United States, it’s totally common for people to fly the Stars & Stripes from their homes and stick decals of it all over their cars. Students put their hands over their hearts and recite the pledge of allegiance every day at school. France in 2019 decided that all schools should display the French tricolore and the EU flag in every classroom in the country.

But Britain has always pooh-poohed such overt displays of nationalism. After Wild’s intervention, critics on Twitter were quick to dig up pictures of Winston Churchill during World War Two with no signs of a Union flag flying in his office. It doesn’t mean there’s any lack of patriotism – look no further than the last night of the Proms for that — it’s just that it’s usually kept in low-relief. People are more inclined to have a red-white-and-blue mobile phone cover or a Union-emblazoned cushion for the dog than brandish the flag in front of their home or plant a flag stand in their office.

The danger clearly comes when it takes on too much nationalist sentiment — when any lack of a flag on display is branded as anti-British or showing disloyalty. In the current environment of culture wars and divisive debates over migration and multiculturalism, flying the flag can easily become tied up with being ‘truly’ British.

As well as the divisiveness and the risk of kindling petty-minded nationalism, the point is that Britain doesn’t need this. Yes, it wants to promote Global Britain in a post-Brexit world. But its brand is strong. The Union flag is globally recognised and influential. Britain’s soft power is among the greatest in the world (although second to France). Flying the flag where necessary — but not being too overt or in your face about it — has worked very well so far. Better the lower-key flag waving of Royal babies, James Bond and Cool Britannia than a bout of Little Britain Redux.

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