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What’s really behind Britain’s endless flag debate?

Men at the United States Naval Training Station, in Illinois, create a Union flag. circa 1917-1918. - Credit: Getty Images

Flags have dominated the news agenda in recent weeks as debates about national identity rumble on.

If you’ve only been casually checking into the news – and after the few years we have all had, who could blame you? – you might be forgiven for thinking that the world is suddenly quiet. What other possible reason could we have to explain why, seemingly every day, there is some new story centring around flags?

In the last few weeks alone we have had stories complaining about BBC presenters making jokes about flags, pledges from the government to fly flags more frequently on public buildings, a warning to the BBC director general from an MP to make sure the corporation’s annual report has more than one Union flag within its pages, and endless other variants of the UK’s new ‘favourite’ public discourse.

At first (and second, and third) glance this debate seems exceptionally stupid, particularly in a country where more than half the population – according to YouGov – couldn’t even tell you whether or not our national flag is being flown upside down when shown a picture of it.

Most of us across the UK (except in Scotland) will have filled out our census last weekend, including questions on our sense of national identity (as well as newer ones on our sexual orientation and gender identity).

But we already know from existing sources that by and large, British people are generally pro-Britain, but don’t especially care about demonstrating it and aren’t especially divided by it. And this sort of gentle, lazy patriotism hasn’t been radically reshaped by Brexit in the way some people on either extreme of the culture war tend to imagine.

When forced to pick, most people in England will say they feel more British than English – a ratio that’s increased since the 2016 referendum, from just under 50% to a little over it, according to British Social Attitudes survey data. Only around 30%, meanwhile, said they felt predominantly English.

When given an option to pick ‘European’ alongside other options, historically only 12% or so of the UK population chose to do so – rising to 18% in the most recent data, from 2019. The EU referendum result did reawaken a sense of a European identity – just not in very many of us.

The statistics would suggest this issue might be fringe, or even quixotic – but it can provoke anger of both the silliest and most deadly serious thought, and move our politics in shuddering and dangerous ways.

Labour leader Keir Starmer faces relentless vitriol from the extremely online left for suggesting his party shouldn’t seem embarrassed to be British. Nicola Sturgeon is the leader of a party that has long wanted to break up the United Kingdom, such is its devotion to a distinct, Scottish, national identity. Brexit has reignited the sectarian politics of Northern Ireland in a way that will resound through the rest of the decade, at least. And across Europe, governments are tapping into dark, nationalistic impulses.

At the most trivial end comes the flak for Starmer, who appears merely to be trying the classicly naff tactic of a middle-class, university-educated, liberal personally embarrassed by patriotism who is aware his view is niche but doesn’t have any real deep-seated meaning or principle behind it. In that position, Labour leaders tend to clunkily try to appeal to the more harmless bits of patriotism to cover their bases and avoid a needless hit of seeming to be against their country.

Generally, national polling would suggest it’s the right tack: even when looking at those who voted for Jeremy Corbyn’s Labour in 2017, 52% had a favourable view of people who flew the Union flag at home, versus 26% against (the rest sensibly either didn’t know or didn’t care).

Starmer is stuck in a trap of Labour’s own making – it has cut through to the public that the party’s last leader and a chunk of its current activist base hate anything that smacks of patriotism, let alone British or English nationalism. Tories know most Labour voters feel quite differently, and so are happy to try to make Starmer and his shadow cabinet squirm. And his internal critics are happy to do the same, from the other side of the ‘debate’. Who’d be Labour leader?

The other questions raised by different types of nationalism are serious ones, though. Scotland’s failed independence referendum of 2014 was pledged to be a once-in-a-generation thing – but Sturgeon has decided seven years is plenty for a generation. She is, after all, a different political generation to her predecessor.

But the SNP have played a complex game when it comes to identity. Some independence supporters have liked to push the economic benefits of being a free, nimble, smaller state, no longer tethered down by a larger economic union. Others recognise given the SNP’s vehement opposition to Brexit and continued pro-EU stance that this may be at best an inconsistent and at worse an outright bizarre argument for them to make

The broader understanding has been that the argument to leave will be an emotional one, based on identity – with the argument to stay in the Union being the one loaded with hard-headed economic realities. But that is a complex matter when it comes to nationalism – “my country is better than yours” can be a playful boast, like one between sporting teams. “My countrymen are better than yours”, though, can quickly move into the language of superiority and supremacy.

The SNP has deftly avoided such horrors in recent years, by creating – or trying to create – an inclusive nationalism, a sense that anyone can be Scottish, whether they are born in Scotland or whether they choose Scotland through moving.

While clearly a vast improvement on old ‘blood and soil’ nationalism, and a much more liberal sell, it still ends up raising the core dilemma of nationalism: the need to define yourself against someone else. What starts in jest, or in rivalry, can eventually end up worse. If we only wish to represent those who choose Scotland, what’s the deficiency of those who chose England, or Wales?

Regular politicians only making plays towards patriotism and national clichés can avoid those questions. Politicians campaigning for the separation of their nation should face stricter scrutiny on those issues, and should be expected to have thought about them far more deeply.

Because it isn’t Scotland we look to for the damage nationalism (and religious forces that go with it) can do – and it isn’t necessarily, right now, Northern Ireland, though if the government doesn’t fix the almighty mess its wretched Brexit deal is making there, and the political forces unleashed during its negotiation, we will soon see that damage again.

Instead, we should look to countries across Europe. Poland is appealing to old myths of national identity to persecute minorities, not least its LGBT population. Hungary is engaging in old school racial purity mythology by paying Hungarian-born women to have children.

Denmark is trying to enforce limits on “non-white” populations in given postal areas. Ministers working for Emmanuel Macron in France have accused Marine Le Pen of the Front National of being “too soft” on Islam. The EU as an institution is largely ignoring these forces lest confronting them tear it apart.

None of these problems are problems of nationalism alone – but they show its potential to combine with the other dark forces of our politics to make them still more toxic and still more dangerous.

Perhaps no nationalism is safe – but the question then becomes how we should feel about a sense of national identity, national pride, backing the national sports teams, cuisine, and similar. Perhaps patriotism, distinct from nationalism, could the embrace of these, if nothing else than a pressure valve against nationalism.

What is it we’re actually talking about, when we talk about flags?

What do you think? Have your say on this and more by emailing

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