Will Donald Trump start jailing people for disrespecting the American flag?

He has already called for football players to be sacked for kneeling during the national anthem.

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I used to regard Americans’ veneration of their flag as a harmless eccentricity. They don’t have a monarchy, poor things, and the flag served as a cheaper and more egalitarian substitute.

Now, after President Donald Trump’s call for football players, protesting against police treatment of black people, to be sacked for kneeling during the national anthem, I have acquainted myself with the US Flag Code. First drawn up in the 1920s and given the force of federal law in 1942, it goes into alarming detail.

When the national anthem is played, all civilians “should stand at attention facing the flag with the right hand over the heart”. Men should hold “headdress” at the left shoulder. The code has 11 specifications to ensure “respect” for the flag. For example, “it should never touch anything beneath it, such as the ground, the floor, water or merchandise” and it “should never be used as covering for a ceiling” or “embroidered on such articles as cushions or handkerchiefs and the like”.

The penalty for breaking such rules is a fine and/or up to a year in prison. Happily, they have never been enforced and, in 1990, the Supreme Court ruled that it would be an unconstitutional breach of free speech even to prohibit burning the flag. But with Trump in office, appointing more conservative judges, anything is possible.

Spinning Uber

Who keeps the “gig economy” going? The people who, for want of alternatives, are forced to work in it, obviously. But also the rest of us who buy its services. Transport for London, which announced that Uber’s licence to run taxis in the capital will not be renewed, apparently forgot that. So did mayor Sadiq Khan who supported the decision. Within a few days, more than 750,000 people signed a petition in protest, with the company’s insecure and underpaid drivers, some of whom are taking Uber to court, among the most scathing critics.

In its statement, TfL said nothing about how the company treats its drivers. In accordance with its regulatory brief, it deemed that Uber was “not fit and proper” to hold a licence because it fell short on passenger safety standards such as checking drivers’ backgrounds.

But passengers apparently do not want to be kept safe. They prefer to take their chance with the cheapness and easy availability of Uber cabs. Young women particularly say that, since they cannot afford other taxi services, their only late-night alternative for getting home is to walk at least part of the way. Perhaps rightly, they judge the risks of Uber cabs to be lower.

Tfl and Khan failed to sweeten the blow to drivers and customers. They failed to explain how the ban would benefit Londoners, offer the prospect that Uber could continue if it mended its ways, or tell a story of dialogue with the company. They just issued bald statements and sat back waiting for applause that never came. If a future Labour government tries to tackle capitalist malpractice on a larger scale, it will need to do far better. Are Jeremy Corbyn and his spin doctor Seumas Milne up to the job?

Tory to its paper-clips

Last week’s column was criticised on Twitter for describing Daily Telegraph reporting as “once… almost wholly unbiased”. The former Labour MP Chris Mullin, aged 69, asked: “When was that? I’m not old enough to remember.”

The 20th century Telegraph was, as one former hack said, “Tory to its paper-clips”. Its selection of stories, as well as its comment pages, left no doubt as to its political preferences. But its reporting was reliable and professional, concentrating on the principle of explaining, in the opening paragraphs, who did what to whom, where, when and how.

It is, I suppose, a comment on contemporary journalism that even Mullin seems unable to remember what straight reporting looked like. Only the Financial Times, while palpably believing that capitalism is a good idea, now offers it in the old sense. The Telegraph has become a slightly upmarket version of the Daily Mail, dedicated to factional propaganda.

Homage to Catalonia

Round-robin letter writers, of whom I have written before, are out in force again. This time they are exercised about Spain’s attempt to stop Catalonia holding an independence referendum. The other day, two “we, the undersigned” letters appeared in the Guardian, one from 22 peers and MPs, another from 113 UK and Irish academics. They are “extremely disturbed”, a condition to which signatories of such letters are chronically prone. What do they hope to achieve? Even Guardian readers are unlikely to have heard of them, though more perhaps should know of Tony Berkeley (Eton and Trinity College, Cambridge), a hereditary peer with a title created in 1421 who also wangled himself a life peerage. Do these pompous folk really think that, in Madrid, anybody will pay the slightest attention?

Never surrender

Having belatedly watched the film Dunkirk, I understand better why most southern coastal towns from Bournemouth to the Medway support Brexit so overwhelmingly. Many in those areas will have heard, perhaps from parents, first-hand accounts of how hundreds of ordinary folk with small boats rescued the army, enabling their country to fight on against overwhelming odds. Dunkirk remains a powerful symbol across Britain, but its hold on the popular imagination must be greatest in communities that were directly involved.

To them, proposals to delay or water down Brexit must recall those who wanted to make terms with Hitler in 1940. They will never surrender whatever the economic cost. The comparison is preposterous. But Dunkirk happened less than 80 years ago. When you think what the Battle of the Boyne, after nearly 330 years, means to Northern Ireland’s Protestants, it is not so surprising. 

Peter Wilby was editor of the Independent on Sunday from 1995 to 1996 and of the New Statesman from 1998 to 2005. He writes the weekly First Thoughts column for the NS.

This article first appeared in the 28 September 2017 issue of the New Statesman, The Tory tragedy