A few years ago, when I was in Arkansas, USA, I commented to one of the Mayors that I was with that every house seemed to have two flags, the Stars and Stripes and the Arkansas State flag. “Yes, we all have flags here. Don’t you”, he asked me. My reply was that I have never owned either an English or a national flag. I’ve never seen the need for one although I have sat in front of a Union flag on many occasions whilst representing this Country overseas at conferences and on delegations.
I raise this because in the past three days I have two examples of English and UK flags being used appropriately and one where I believe they have been used to tarnish the reputation of our Country.
On Sunday I went to a commemoration of the 17th (PALs) Battalion of the Liverpool Kings Regiment. This was the first battalion to be formed at the commencement of the Great War and the last to be disbanded after the war. After World War I was concluded and after 5 years in the trenches the 17th Battalion was sent to the Murmansk and Archangel area to defend 2 million tons of munitions assembled for the war against Germany which would have fallen into the hands of Bolsheviks. 21 died. The Union Flag was rightly carried in by an honour guard and laid before the altar. Afterwards it was lowered when the Last Post was sounded as a sign of respect.
This morning we had a brief service to commemorate the bravery of all in 999 emergency services who have either lost their lives during the course of undertaking their duties or on a daily basis may be called on to risk their lives. Again, our flags were used to emphasise how they represented everyone and were a part of our national identity.
However, on Saturday via the BBC, I saw our flags being used in the wrong way. A small bunch of thugs assembled in Whitehall carrying the Union Flag and the English Flag. They had to have man or woman to man marking by the Police. They were foul, vulgar, aggressive and thick. They thought so little of our Country that they trampled all over poppy wreaths laid in honour of the Dead at our Country’s National Cenotaph. These people don’t represent me and they don’t represent the vast majority of people in this Country. Yet the signs of our flags being carried almost into battle against our Police Force would have been beamed across the World.
The problem that I have with taking things further is how we get to decide what is proper or improper use of our flags. Some will say that football supporters going to a game in which England or (or Scotland or Wales or Northern Ireland) are playing should not be flag wavers. I disagree. I see nothing wrong with people who have pride in their nation and want to carry their flag when there is a national game on. Being proud of one’s Country, as I am, is not nationalistic provided we accept that our Country is good but imperfect and realise that other Countries doing things differently to us makes them neither better or worse than us because of those differences.
In some Countries that issue has been resolved and there are actually laws about how and when a flag can be used. To my mind that is overkill. Because we have been both a nation and a then United Kingdom of 4 Nations for so long perhaps, we just don’t need think of outward signs of belonging in a way that relatively new nations do. Or perhaps we need to think again about this because of the way that our flags are being used by narrow-minded xenophobic bigots? I am not prepared to surrender my Country’s identity to people like this. The flags are representative of our nation and should be carried with dignity and awareness of the way that our nation is perceived as a result of those that carry them.
Having raised this issue I must tell you that I don’t have a solution to it. I do think it’s a discussion that needs to be had. Men and women died because of the beliefs inherent in those flags. They ‘followed the flag’ wherever it led and whatever personal sacrifice needed to be made. The way that they are being used now by a small minority of people besmirches their sacrifice and besmirches our Country on a day to day basis. This we must prevent and together we must find answers to this conundrum.