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Follow the Flag

Pete Smith reflects on patriotism.

England crash out of the 2004 European Football Championships, which just confirmed the deepest fears that England supporters always have that, despite all the hopes and expectations, it is going to end in tears. The more interesting thing is not that England lost but the few weeks in the run-up to the competition.

If you see pictures of the England team in the 1966 World Cup, England fans were waving the Union Flag; now that hardly ever happens. Since the 1996 European competition the Cross of St George, the English national flag, has been ubiquitous. Perhaps one of the explanations is that as the Scots and Welsh have become more assertive, and particularly with the devolution of power, English people have become more assertive about their national identity. Homes have been adorned with the red cross and my admittedly impressionistic judgment is that it is working class neighbourhoods and on the council estates that this is most common.

Some of this is straightforward and more than one person has expressed it to me in terms of “you’ve got to show your support”. But maybe there is a deeper thing: people searching for a sense of belonging and even solidarity which transcends their everyday mundane lives.

For some people on the left, this has not been a happy experience. All those flags in the windows and flying from cars and vans are seen as a threat to a multicultural and multiracial society. Bluntly, in my view, this is little more than snobbery: the silly masses thinking that waving a St George’s flag is anything significant in the big scheme of things. Lord Snooty and his pals on the left seem to have an unswerving desire to ridicule the beliefs and sentiments of the people, whether it is the reaction to Princess Diana’s death or something as simple as flying the flag for England.

There cannot be any suspicion that flying the flag had some racist or xenophobic implication since Pakistani taxi drivers in Bradford were criticised for flying the flag. Indian restaurants happily flew the flag and offered special deals on meals while watching matches on widescreen TVs. The landlady of my local pub, who is Irish, festooned the building with the Cross of St George.

Some of this is to do with the ambiguity of our identity. A lot of us are more than one thing: we are English and Irish, English and Afro-Caribbean or Asian. This was obvious from the TV coverage of the reaction to the matches. England has become a rainbow nation and in its odd quirky way the Cross of St George has become the symbol of that in the way that the Union Flag never could.

It reminds me of the comment by George Orwell that the working class are always and everywhere patriotic because they have nowhere else to go. In contrast, the elite, the privileged, the advantaged have no roots in any particular nation or society: they are divorced from the masses, they do not share the same education system, the same healthcare system, they live in a world cut off from their compatriots, with the most extreme examples being gated communities or shopping malls where you are not even allowed in unless you have got a platinum credit card. I believe it was Aristotle who told the story that one day he was walking along the road and he met a stranger who he did not recognise and he asked him what country he was from and the man replied, I have no country, I am one of the rich.