New and old reasons for flying the flag

25 Mar

Come with ConservativeHome for a stroll along Whitehall.  Do you see that Union flag above the Treasury, and do you know why it’s there?  Because of Gordon Brown.

In his first Commons statement as Prime Minister, Brown declared that he would lift the restrictions that barred the Union flag from flying above government buildings for more than 18 days a year.  The date explains his decision.  That statement was made on July 5 2007.  Five days earlier, Islamist terrorists had attempted a mass atrocity at Glasgow airport.

Brown’s initiative was an aspect of the focus in Westminster and Whitehall at the time on integration: flying the flag would help to unite the country.  It is worth pondering what he did in the wake of last week’s consequential BBC interview of Robert Jenrick.

“Your flag is not up to the size of Government interview measurements,” Charlie Stayt, a BBC Breakfast presenter, said to the Housing Secretary as an interview ended.  “We’ve seen it every day, haven’t we?” he added to his co-presenter, Naga Munchetty, who was interjecting “always a flag”.

There was a rumpus, and now comes the news that whereas Brown allowed government buildings to fly the flag each day, Oliver Dowden will require them to.  It’s remarkable what a single interview can achieve.

One might react to the Culture Secretary’s decision by wondering if the presenters had a point.  Englishness and understatedness are bound up together, and seldom more so than when it comes to patriotism.  There’s no need to make an exhibition of it in order to show that we have it, and that Ministers are now seldom filmed at work without a Union flag is cynical and exploitative.

Our view is that, whatever may be said of this take, it neglects the context: the way in which Munchetty turned her head away in scorn, for example, as she added: “there’s a picture of the Queen there as well”.

But do you see what we did there?  Englishness and understatement, we wrote.  But the point Brown was making was about Britishness.  The sum of his argument was that amidst a new terrorist threat, much of it from people who had been born or raised here, we needed to rally round what the flag is – a symbol of our common nationhood and identity.

Both now face a new though democratically pursued, non-violent threat: Scottish nationalism.  Flying the Union flag above a building is a response to it.  So would be putting it on a plaque in a facility in Scotland financed by the Shared Prosperity Fund.

That the BBC is the British Broadcasting Corporation has been said often enough for us not to repeat it at length, but one would hope that its presenters understand it.  If enough of them don’t, and show it, their disdain will be self-defeating.  Public support for the Corporation will fall and the licence fee will end sooner.

There is a bigger context.  It is easy for the part of the the UK that has over 80 per cent of the population to assume that it’s the whole – to bask, as it were, in the superiority of numbers, get complacent, and take our country for granted.

Broadly speaking, this is what has been happening (Northern Ireland’s peculiar circumstances aside) since Margo MacDonald won the Glasgow Govan by-election for the SNP in 1973.  There is a case for the devolution settlement in Scotland that Brown co-crafted and one against, but it is incontrovertible that, if one’s measure is the stability of the Union, it has failed.

And if Ministers sit down for broadcasts with the Union flag, don’t worry about them using it for advantage.  The British people are wonderfully knowing, and can sniff out insincerity in a moment.

If Boris Johnson does so, for example, they will make a judgement about him and his party.  Ditto Keir Starmer.  Given the adolescent state of the left, in auto-protest against Britain’s history as a whole, the comparison is unlikely to be his advantage.  That may be rough justice on Starmer himself, but there you go.

Ultimately, the Jenrick saga is a reminder that patriotrism is not only a matter of duty but also one of taste.  If he had appeared in that interview wearing a small Union Flag badge on his lapel, even the most left-wing BBC presenter would be unlikely to have said a word.

If, on the other hand, he had appeared in the full Union Flag three-piece suit, complete with red white and blue top hat, even the most right-wing ConHome commenter would have assumed that he had either a) gone mad or b) was making a leadership bid, or both.  Or was preparing to fly himself from the bows of a warship.

Whether English, Scottish, Welsh or Northern Irish, we should get used to that taste being a bit broader, a bit more transatlantic-flavoured, than it used to be.  There are good reasons for it.