True Gripes: Flagging interest

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WHETHER you regard it as the pennant of imperialism, the bunting of humbug, or the valiant standard of democracy, the Union flag of Great Britain and Northern Ireland, aka the Union Jack, is a masterpiece of design. Not only does it cleverly combine the crosses of St Andrew, St George and St Patrick, it also possesses a beauty and an ambiguity that, on a good day, can elevate it to the status of high art.

So why don't we fly it more often? Visitors to Paris will have noticed that virtually every street corner is adorned by flagpoles proudly bearing a pristine tricolore. These put a bounce in the stride of the average citoyen, as well as adding a much-needed dash of colour to the Parisian grisaille. The same reverence for the national symbol is shown in Madrid, Moscow, Mexico City - or anywhere in the United States. Most American banks and public buildings are festooned with Old Glory, as are most hotels, offices, factories, garages, brothels, pubs and Mid-West back gardens.

France and the US have very different histories to ours. Both are republics and, in the absence of monarchical pomp and circumstance, have had to invest their flags, like their presidencies, with an emotional aura. Not for a moment am I suggesting that we stoop to such desperate iconising. But surely we could do better than those damp bits of dish-rag?

One look at Wordsworth's famous stretch of London's Thames-side, from Westminster Bridge to the Tower, proves the disregard with which we view our pretty national streamer. There aren't any. Not on top of the Houses of Parliament, not on the Ministry of Defence, not above the Foreign Office, or the Inns of Court, the Savoy, Somerset House, the Old Bailey, or St Paul's Cathedral.

The same goes for the rest of the country. Edinburgh has an exciting skyline that could be beautifully topped out by some flaggy adornment. But no. Liverpool's noble but drab Corniche would definitely benefit from a bit of red white and blue - but, again, no. Similarly with Leeds, Glasgow and Manchester - even the tourist honey-jars of Bath, Oxford, York and the rest. What few Union flags there are tend to look like second-hand tea-towels.

What does it mean? Is our faith in the Union dying? Or is the British temperament not given to nationalistic trumpet-blowing? Worst of all, is it now a little bit non-PC to be seen advertising the British state? Perhaps.

But I prefer to think it is old-fashioned British laziness that is to blame. In Paris, the council pays the Rive Gauche residents to keep their lights on at night to make the city pretty for visitors. In Britain, we can't be bothered to run a bit of bunting up a pole.