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29 March 2021

The Tories’ flag-flying is the shallowest form of patriotism

Flags aren’t proof that the government loves this country. They’re a distraction from the reality that it obviously doesn’t.   

By Jonn Elledge

Despite my ability, frequently helpful in this line of work, to get hysterically worked up about Whatever Has Happened On The Internet This Week, or Whatever Culture War Bullshit Those Tory Bastards have Pulled Now, I find myself strangely unmoved by the news that union flags were to fly on every government building from here on in.

The fact that dual flagging was a term that referred to the presence of two flags on a single pole – and not, as one might previously have assumed, some kind of unspeakable sex act, not appropriate to the pages of a family magazine like this – caused some mild interest. Similarly, the examples that prematurely dodgy communities secretary Robert Jenrick gave as to when organisations might wish to fly two flags caused some wry amusement, because in doing so he suggested, apparently deliberately, that the defunct county of Middlesex was in some way comparable to the very much existing nation of Scotland. (I am forced to deduct troll points for his failure to point out the two had similar populations, however.)

But despite what parts of the internet seem concerned by, I just can’t conceptualise this as another step on the winding path towards fascism. Many democratic polities fly flags as standard on government buildings, including many whose history of foreign adventures are, if not worse than the UK’s, then not strikingly better either. indeed, it’s an interesting question as to why the Union flag should be so much more politically contested than the Stars and Stripes or the Tricolore. Britain’s lack of a popular revolution may be one explanation. Its status quo as a rickety union, parts of whose population do not recognise the flag as their own and which may, anyway, not last the decade, may be another.

There are far better reasons to worry we are drifting towards fascism than the flag. Priti Patel’s attempts to make it as difficult as possible for migrants to get to this country. The policing bill, which would give police discretion to shut down virtually any public protest (because what we learned from Clapham Common is that the Metropolitan Police definitely need more unchecked power). The way this government has, for half a decade or more, bent over backwards to accommodate the weird urges of a series of oddballs on its own right-flank, while sneering at anyone who espouses liberalism. A few flags here or there are the least of our worries.

At any rate, I find I don’t really care whether or not the Union flag will be flown from the roof of, say, the headquarters of the Driver & Vehicle Licensing Agency in Swansea. It feels faintly tacky to obsess about a symbol that, being a child of the Nineties, I will always associate with Noel’s guitar and Geri’s dress more than warm fuzzy feelings towards the land of my birth. Then again, none of my ancestors ever to my knowledge associated that flag with the appearance over the horizon of an army who promptly nicked their land and/or kicked the shit out of them, so perhaps being able to dismiss it as merely embarrassing is yet another symptom of privilege.

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I’m irritated by the flag discourse nevertheless, because it’s a reminder, as if one were needed, that this government is far more interested in symbols than in actually fixing anything. This country is dealing with rising poverty, crumbling infrastructure, a shortage of houses in the towns and cities where most of the jobs are, and a demographic crisis which means fewer and fewer workers are going to be picking up the tab for the pensions, healthcare and social care needs of a large cohort of surprisingly wealthy retirees. To distract us from all that, the government has decided to wrap itself in the flag. It must think we’re fools. History suggests it might be right.

It’s annoying, too, because it’s a reminder of quite how hollow the Tory notion of patriotism actually is. A real patriot would want better public services for everyone. A real patriot would want to see wages and living standards improve, rather than noisily panicking that we’re becoming uncompetitive every time they do. 

And a government of real patriots would not be quite so obviously unconcerned about the fact it had just presided over one of the worst pandemic death rates in the world. Having quite this many deaths, at least some of which were surely avoidable, happen on its watch is something that would surely prick the conscience of a real patriot, just a tad.

Then again it’s foolish to imagine that this government actually cares about this country. Whenever I think of the Tory party and its supposed patriotism, my mind drifts back to Britannia Unchained, the 152-page, free-market tract co-authored in 2012 by a cohort of newly-arrived Tory MPs including Patel, Dominic Raab, Liz Truss and Kwasi Kwarteng (who are all now cabinet ministers). In it, they deride the UK’s “bloated state, high taxes and excessive regulation”, and denounce British workers as “among the worst idlers in the world”. Is it really patriotic to sneer, so proudly and so publicly, at the people and the country you aspire to govern?

So I can’t help but think those flags aren’t there to remind us that the members of this government love this country. They’re there to distract us from the fact that they quite obviously don’t.