In case you missed it, the BBC Breakfast presenters Charlie Stayt and Naga Munchetty caused outrage last week by teasing Robert Jenrick, the Housing Secretary, for giving them an interview in front of a Union flag.
Conservative right-wingers and their media toadies spluttered into their proverbial cornflakes – or at least pretended to. Seventeen Tory backbenchers wrote to Tim Davie, the BBC’s director general, to demand that the pair apologised and were reprimanded. The tabloids and the Telegraph railed against their “sneering”. Laurence Fox asked why the BBC was “so comprehensively stocked with sneering moral supremacists” who look down on those who “love their country”. Andrew Neil tweeted: “Sometimes the BBC forgets what the first B stands for”.
The presenters’ behaviour was certainly a little crass and a gift to the reactionary right. But they did have a point. Since when have ministers begun using Union flags as backdrops for interviews, or displaying them in their offices? Since very recently, is the answer. Since Boris Johnson and his cronies began cynically using the flag as a political weapon – and there’s more to come.
Johnson has recently had the prime minister’s official RAF plane painted red, white and blue at a cost of nearly £1m, the better to advertise “Global Britain”. The new £2.6m Downing Street briefing room will feature a podium flanked by four Union flags. The Mail on Sunday reports that ministers will unveil plans this week for our “world-famous flag” to be flown over government buildings every day of the year, not just on special occasions such as the Queen’s birthday.
The purpose is clear. From the start of the 2016 EU referendum Brexiteers have sought to wrap themselves in the flag – metaphorically, if not literally. They have portrayed themselves as patriots determined to “Make Britain Great Again”, to liberate Britain from Brussels’s oppressive rule and to defend British sovereignty against devious Europeans bent on destroying our traditional way of life. As Johnson declared after winning the Conservative Party leadership contest: “We are once again going to believe in ourselves and what we can do… Like some slumbering giant we are going to rise and ping off the guy ropes of self-doubt and negativity.”
Conversely they have portrayed Remainers – implicitly and often explicitly – as people who do not love their country, who talk it down, sell it out and have no faith in it. They portray them as “citizens of nowhere” who prefer burgundy EU passports to Britain’s iconic blue ones. They accused Tory rebels such as Dominic Grieve and Oliver Letwin of “colluding” with Brussels to thwart Brexit. They labelled legislation to prevent a no-deal Brexit the “surrender act”. Andrea Leadsom told broadcasters to be more patriotic in their Brexit coverage.
This is patent nonsense. It is these self-styled patriots who are wrecking the very country that they profess to love. It is they who have caused enormous harm to its economy; they who have jeopardised England’s 300-year-old Union with Scotland; they who have greatly diminished the UK’s standing in the world; they who kowtowed to the disgraceful Donald Trump while alienating Britain from those European nations who had been its true friends and partners for the past half century.
By the same token there is nothing remotely unpatriotic about feeling both British and European. There is nothing unpatriotic about arguing that Britain’s best interests were served by belonging to the world’s largest political, economic and trading bloc, or that EU membership amplified our global influence. What would be unpatriotic would be meekly to acquiesce in the lunacies of Brexit and not to resist them.
The government practises an ugly jingoism, not patriotism. Just as it continues to pick needless fights with the EU to bolster its base, or to foment nasty culture wars, it is using the Union flag to divide not unite – to pit the honest yeomen of England against a perfidious metropolitan elite, to stoke their anger and indignation.
It has turned the Union flag that Jenrick described during last week’s spat with the BBC as “a symbol of liberty and freedom that binds the whole country together” into the polar opposite. I, for one, would no longer fly it outside my house because it has been politicised, usurped by Brexiteers just as it has been usurped for their own ends by Northern Ireland’s loyalists.
This is, of course, the oldest trick in the populist book, and a distinctly un-British one to boot.
These ostentatious US-style displays of the flag, this constant bragging of our “world-beating” accomplishments, this chest-thumping nationalism – these are a far cry from the traditional British traits of modesty, self-effacement, understatement and gentle humour. Nor, frankly, are they signs of a confident country that is at ease with itself.
Over the weekend the historian Robert Saunders tweeted a particularly apposite quote from George Orwell: “In England all the boasting and flag-waving is done by small minorities. The patriotism of ordinary people is not vocal.”
To that I would add Samuel Johnson’s astute observation that “patriotism is the last refuge of the scoundrel”. The 18th-century English writer was referring to the false patriot, of course, not to the genuine one. He added: “The true lover of his country is ready to communicate his fears, and to sound the alarm, whenever he perceives the approach of mischief. But he sounds no alarm, when there is no enemy… Still less does the true patriot circulate opinions which he knows to be false.”
[See also: How much has Brexit cost the UK?]