Flag of convenience

“A poke in the eye! That’s what you’ll get, so I’ll take your sticks away before you hurt one another!”

Imagine a little 6-year-old boy, so excited at holding his very own flag for the first time. As we lined up in the school yard ready to troop off to the venue at which hundreds of schoolkids were to wave their flags at the Queen, our crabby teacher took away the sticks the flags were fixed to; I can still picture her putting them on the window sill of our wooden classroom, and feel the indignation and disappointment! That was in the early 1950s, my earliest memory of the Union Flag, and my first sight of the Queen. Ever since then, I suppose I’ve had an up-and-down relationship with the Union Flag, and now a rapidly increasing disenchantment with the flag and all it has come to represent in recent years.

As a cadet at school, first in the Army section, and then in the RAF cadets, I often paraded behind the flag. After that I didn’t think twice about it for many years, then in the late 1980s I began my decade and a half working for the Ministry of Defence. One of my duties as a civilian ‘academic’ was to participate in parades… once again with the flag displayed prominently; it also flew from the college flagpole during daylight hours.

It was the same on the few short sea-trips I made with colleagues, the Union Jack being evident when it actually is the Union Jack! In 1997 I lined up with other heads of department to be presented to the Queen, shook her hand and had a brief chat. In those days, the flag certainly engendered a certain feeling of patriotism in me. Such progress for a little lad so miffed 43 years before at being deprived of the stick in his Union Flag.

At Remembrance Day parades I did indeed remember with pride: thinking of my namesake uncle who gave his life in 1944 flying for the RAF, and of my father and another uncle who volunteered to serve, fighting against the forces of extreme nationalism, and for freedom, justice and cooperation in Europe. My grandfather had done the same when he served from 1916-1918 under a different flag but with the same mission. I rarely experience as much sheer indignation as I feel when certain factions claim exclusive ownership of the Union Flag, the National Anthem and the Queen.

Worse, they claim that those wars were won by the British alone, and quote victory as justification for turning our backs on our immediate neighbours. My grandfather, my father and my uncles would be horrified. These factions should consider that men from at least eight nations fought on the Gustav Line across Central Italy in May 1944, and ten nations in the Normandy landings in June 1944. Try visiting the Polish war cemetery at Monte Cassino, where the memorial states:

For our freedom and yours
We soldiers of Poland gave
Our soul to God
Our life to the soil of Italy
Our hearts to Poland

In recent years, however, my feelings towards the Union Flag have been changing for the worse. The sacrilegious, as some would say, use of the flag as an anti-EU symbol, was and is offensive. Worse in recent weeks is the over-exposure of the union flag whenever the government and its ministers appear on screen; even ministers interviewed at home now seem compelled to have the flag beside them. Never mind that teacher removing the sticks from our flags back in the 1950s: nowadays that flag is waved in our faces at every opportunity by the very people who seem determined to destroy any sense of patriotism we might have left.

This assault on any vestige of patriotism I feel is accentuated by the ongoing outrage at the bare-faced negligence of most of the press when it comes to prioritising front page news. Oh, so predictable after the Good Law Project’s (GLP) victory in the High Court, at last holding the Health Secretary to account over the way so many health contracts were awarded in 2020: the front pages of most papers were plastered with the royal family ‘scandal’. The only paper which mentioned the GLP success was the Guardian; yet the BBC online in its ‘what the papers say’ section… conveniently didn’t include the Guardian on this particular morning. There is just so much gaslighting, burying of ‘inconvenient’ news, and pathetic excuses from the government that I almost feel ashamed to be part of this society; fortunately, I know too many right-minded people to become that cynical.

So, has the Health Secretary resigned? No chance. The trouble is that the more corruption ministers get away with, the more they indulge in. It is now endemic in this Brexit government. It started with malpractice in the Referendum, and the generating of all the basest xenophobic instincts of insular Brits to sway the vote and retain apparent popular support. It is also routine for the populist press to rubbish all sensible opposition and smother their readership with the opiate of the mindless adulation of the Royal Family and the ongoing cult of celebrity and celebrities.

Further to all that, there’s the growing number of television advertisements which mention ‘Britain’, such as the somewhat cringe-making ad which concludes with ‘You’re in the driving seat now, Britain’. Ironic that government ministers are less trustworthy than used car salesmen. These three factors make one think that this is all part of a concerted propaganda campaign to appeal to our sense of patriotism. Funny old thing: it all makes me feel LESS patriotic!

Finally, a very important point: kids who see newspapers and TV news, and who have an ounce of critical thinking ability, observe what is happening in the adult world, and that it doesn’t square with the values they are learning from their parents and teachers. It is the responsibility of politicians and other public figures to ‘behave’ in every sense with probity, integrity and honour. Instead, our government seems to think it is OK to behave like overgrown schoolboys (and that’s doing kids a disservice!), using pathetic excuses and any suitable means of deflecting attention, avoiding the truth and owning up to their misdemeanours. Worse, they think we are all too stupid to realise what is going on… and they drape themselves in a sort of cloak of respectability: OUR Union Flag. I feel just as disillusioned with the flag now as I did when I was six. Does that make me less patriotic? Like John le Carré, as I reported in

I just want the best for my country, and it isn’t what we have now, whoever is using our Union Flag as a mere flag of convenience, with all that implies.