Colin Brazier: Why are Brits so sniffy about flying our flag?
The flag should be reclaimed from those who would misuse its power to unify
In the United States every school, famously, flies the stars and stripes. We Brits tend to be a bit sniffy about it. Only a snot-nosed nipper of a nation like America needs to resort to such crude nation building. Not a mature democracy, sure of its place in the world, like ours, oh no.
But such superciliousness is misplaced. Britain is not the nation state it was. The unity of our United Kingdom is threatened by separatism north of the border, and deep cultural fault lines everywhere. The institutions which once provided the glue that kept us together are in retreat. The national church is largely irrelevant, the national broadcaster mistrusted, the armed forces are shrinking fast. Even the monarchy is assailed by a young man who was once its brightest ornament. Social media magnifies difference. Covid has seen neighbour denounce neighbour.
This is the context within which we should pay attention to a motion being debated and voted on tonight in Lancashire. It’s backers suggest that every public building in the Oldham local authority area, including schools, should fly the union flag and display a picture of our head of state, the Queen.
Again, it’s easy to be dismissive. Easy, that is, if you live in a leafy suburb which hasn’t struggled, as Oldham has, with the downsides of diversity. Oldham’s not unusual. My home city of Bradford, along with several other Pennine communities that once relied on textiles, need to find symbols and songs and images around which everyone can coalesce.
Lots of people found the idea of a patriotic song – One Nation, One Britain – being sung in Bradford at the suggestion of a former police officer in the city earlier this year as risible. What a joke, said some. But nobody was laughing in Bradford. Not ten years on from the riots which left 300 police officers injured.
So whatever the outcome of tonight’s vote in Oldham, we ought to thank the councillors whose brainchild this motion was. As my old friend and colleague and fellow West Yorkshireman Tim Marhsall acknowledges in a recent book – flags matter.
Some say the union flag is tainted. It’s associated with Empire or toxic nationalism. If that’s true, then it’s more important than ever to fly it at every opportunity, so it can be reclaimed from those who would misuse its power to unify.
One final thought. It will always be impossible to get a consensus on unifying symbols. Those councillors in Oldham aren’t asking for every public building to put up a picture of a man many Britons view as an almost sacred figure, but who a vociferous minority now see differently. A man who stood to be Oldham’s MP. A man by the name of Sir Winston Churchill. It’s a measure of how we’ve changed as a society that even his image could be seen as divisive. So, Oldham, run up the flag and reach for pictures of the Queen, while we can still agree on one figure that everyone can admire. That’s tonight’s viewpoint.