Thursday, 17 April 2014

Put out fewer flags

The habit of flying national flags always strikes me as a little puzzling. Dr Johnson may have regarded patriotism as the last resort of the scoundrel. To me, when it’s expressed by a flag, it’s all slightly deluded.

At a pinch, it makes sense for people who are away from their home country. I can imagine a Kyrgyz family in Kent might fly their flag if only so that passers-by could see that a family from their great country was living there. Perfectly legitimate desire, I suppose. Though I suspect most people would just be left wondering which football team used that particular flag, followed by a sense of bemusement when they couldn’t identify it.

Don't tell, don't tell me. That's Charlton Athletic, isn't it?
I can understand flags being used for military purposes. Take the so-called authorities in Ukraine: they need their own flag to identify which armoured vehicles they still control, as opposed to the ones decorated with a Russian flag that have been taken over by rebels.

Ukrainian Armour. At least, until the flag gets changed
Ships need flags too. Without one, you wouldn’t know which nation had been selected by the owners to minimise its tax liabilities and obligations towards employees.

But flags used by civilians in their own countries? Do we really need a Union Jack outside, say, the British Home Office? Whose Home Office might it otherwise be? Do we really believe that Burkina Faso would put its Ministry of the Interior in Croydon?

And what about the private individuals who fly their national flags outside their houses? They’re telling us that someone British lives in this house. In Britain. It may be just me, but I’m not convinced that this is strikingly interesting news.

Of course, in Britain we don’t just fly the Union Jack. There are lots of flags of St George in England now, just as there are many Saltires in Scotland. Which reveals another aspect of flag-waving which isn’t particularly amusing: it’s about separating oneself off – English, so not Scots, or a Scot, so not an Englishman. As Ukraine’s discovering, people defining themselves as not part of someone else is a problem these days, not a solution.

And then there
’s the US. Take a look at a photo of the President. Or of candidates for the Presidency. Or even of many US politicians. They wear a lapel pin with the US flag on it.
Obama with a lapel pin.
Dose he need a reminder? Reassurance against the Birthers?
Now that really is extraordinary. I mean, do they expect foreigners to forget that they’re American? As they wander in behind their tanks with bankers in their wake?

Now Brits don’t stand out from the crowd like the US, either by wealth or by power. So maybe it makes sense that British politicians have started wearing lapel pins too. Not with the US flag, of course, but the Union Jack. Though given the independence of their foreign policy, it might actually make more sense if they wore the stars and stripes.

Clegg and Cameron with Union Jack lapel pins
Aping a trans-Atlantic fashion?
Now, people will tell me that the flag isn’t about identification but about pride. But I don’t wear that either. Pride is something you can have in an accomplishment: you climb a mountain, pass a test, complete a job. Those are things you can find satisfying. But your nationality? The vast majority of us get that by birth. And frankly it’s tough to find much to be proud about in getting born. In fact, I’ve never met anyone who hadn’t pulled that trick off.

Really, all this flag waving, doesn’t make sense. Serving no useful purpose. Divisive at worse. Marking a false pride at best.

Just what’s the mileage in it?


Anonymous said...

When I was a child in Mauritius, people used to fly the union Jack or the Tricolor, or if they were Muslims, the flag of Turkey or Egypt. Va savoir!


David Beeson said...

Clearly, flags clarified nothing...

Anonymous said...

To some extent I share your views re:flying/waving a flag when a civilian in your own country. & if you belong to a settler society where the Indigenous population was murdered or subjugated to pave way for the nation your flag symbolizes (eg Australia), that is rather cruel.

I do understand flag waving/flying when it is done by people who are struggling for freedom & nationhood - the West Papuans, for example. It is actually illegal for them to fly their flag on their own land in Indonesia - so flag flying is an act of pride, and a protest for freedom, in the face of brutality and oppression.