I’ve been fortunate to travel extensively in the US. I have eaten in small town diners beneath signs proclaiming that ‘if God didn’t want us to have guns he wouldn’t have given us trigger fingers’ and wandered through bustling metropolises with LGBT rainbow zebra crossings. Few nations are as polarised as America. Yet from front porches on quiet country roads to Ground Zero, from small town court houses to bustling corporate headquarters, the stars and stripes is a surprising and enduring source of unity. The United States rarely sets an example worth following. We may rightly balk at American culture’s crass materialism and its relative absence of heritage or tradition. Yet we cannot deny that, despite being far more diverse and far less historically rooted, America has forged a unified national identity far stronger than our own. That Korean grocers, Irish policemen and Mexican farm labourers all look to the same flag and proudly call themselves Americans is something we across the pond can only envy.
Britain has, for decades now, wandered aimlessly, bereft of a national identity capable of keeping our islands together. Great Britain, after all, was an imperial construct, predicated upon an empire that once spanned one third of the globe. WWII and our empire’s unceremonious collapse sent shockwaves through that identity; our humiliation in the Suez crisis killed any vestige that remained. In the wake of this unprecedented upheaval, it is tragic failure that no government of either party ever sought to implement a much-needed programme of nation building.
Is it any wonder then that our flag is now treated with such indifference? That, in the shadow of neglect, fringe nationalists and radicals have plotted to redefine a literal symbol of unity, of four nations made one, as an object of oppression and tyranny? Can we really blame sensible, good people, exposed only to the unjust criticisms made of the Union Jack, of feeling slightly uncomfortable when they see it fly?
In this context I sympathise entirely with those who wish to rehabilitate our flag as a symbol of national unity and pride. We can no longer afford to apologise for our patriotism. Yet at the same time, we must not forget that the purpose of national symbols must be to unite rather than to divide, or else we fall into the hands of the very people whose radical criticisms we repudiate.
Brave men and women have been asked to march to war under that flag. Many of them have died for it. Their sacrifice ought to have rendered our red, white and blue above politics. That is the argument we must make. We do ourselves no favours when we ourselves drag it down into the mud of politics and tarnish it as a symbol of conservative defiance in the so-called ‘culture war’. Those who have fought under it did not do so in order for it to be the subject of a cheap headline, the tainted standard for an invisible war on woke.
We will never convince the majority of our fellow citizens that the Union Jack represents them and the Britain of today – modern, diverse, outward looking – whilst we cynically use it as a stick with which to beat our political opponents. In doing so we only play into the hands of our detractors, who gleefully point to our antics as a sign of our intolerance. As true patriots we should be above weaponizing symbols of national unity for our own cynical ends.
Today Britain’s identity is contested like never before. It is at times like these that emblems of unity are more important than ever. Yet by taking the bait we fall into the radical’s trap. National symbols like our flag must always represent places where people from every walk of life can come together and feel proud of a shared identity. The Union Jack is not right wing or left wing; it is British. It symbolises the pride we can all have, from every corner of this country, in the place we call home, whatever that may mean for each of us. So please, please fly it. But fly it because you are proud of the country we share, not as a gloating statement of division. It ought to mean more to us than that.