Why do these flags make us so uncomfortable?

My children's tree house looks like it might be the woodland home of a hermit with racist views
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Last week, I did something I had never done before; I bought a flag of St George.

Last week, I did something I had never done before; I bought a flag of St George. The children had been asking if they could have one, to attach to their newly-built tree house. I bought the flag from a sports shop. It cost £3 and is huge, about the size of a bedspread. So now, their tree house looks like it might be the woodland home of a hermit with racist views. Or it looks like a tree house belonging to some kids who are looking forward to supporting England in the forthcoming European football championships. Take your pick.

Are there other countries, I wonder, with ambivalent feelings about their national flag? The United States leans in the opposite direction; across swathes of suburban America, it is not only considered acceptable to fly the Stars and Stripes in front of your house, but slightly questionable not to. In the South, the Confederate flag is similarly conspicuous, and not only on front lawns. Rare is the good ol' boy driving a Dodge pick-up through Georgia without the flag of the Confederacy fluttering from his roof.

Not even liberal Americans disapprove of this. I have been in diners with friends of impeccable liberal credentials and suggested - in a low voice, obviously - that we might ask the trucker in the next booth whether the Confederate flag now hanging limp from his pick-up means that he would quite like to see slavery re-established, or at least segregation brought back, or at the very least no more Academy awards for Morgan Freeman?

Their firm advice not to was motivated, partly, by the understandable desire to avoid a pistol-whipping, partly by the awareness that loyalty to the old Confederacy doesn't necessarily make a man a racist (although I never saw black Americans flying those flags), but perhaps mostly by the innate conviction that it is every American's inalienable right to fly a flag.

When coalition forces invaded Iraq, flag sales in the US went through the roof, as indeed did some flags. Here, by contrast, there was no sudden leap in the number of Union Jacks or St George's crosses on display, even in the bedroom windows or in the vehicles of those who wholeheartedly supported the war. Not like there has been in the bedroom windows and vehicles of those who wholeheartedly want England to win Euro 2004, at any rate.

Why is this? Is it because such demonstrations of patriotism - oddly in a country that is still a world leader in pomp and circumstance - are considered a little unseemly? Or because football energises the public more than war? Or, in the case of the flag of St George, because the emblem has been appropriated by the odious British National Party? Perhaps a little of all three.

Yesterday, the flag was the subject of a phone-in on Julian Worricker's excellent Five Live radio programme. Inevitably, several callers advanced the view that it shouldn't be frowned upon for an Englishman to fly the English flag. Indubitably, that is right. But the fact remains that in the liberal mind - in the mind, perhaps, of many Independent readers - there exists some discomfort with the proliferation this past week or so, on the roads especially, of St George's cross flags.

Never mind the football, what kind of xenophobic message are we sending out as the European elections approach? It certainly appears fortuitous for the BNP that the election is so close to Euro 2004; in the run-up to polling day tomorrow, their symbol is everywhere. But that shouldn't stop the rest of us flying the flag. On the contrary, maybe it should encourage us to. Rather as the best place to hide a tree is in a forest, maybe the best way to distil the potency of the flag of St George as a BNP symbol is for everyone to have one.

And yet it's not so much the associations with right-wing extremism that stop you and me - or, as of last Friday, just you - flying the flag even for something as innocuous as a few football matches; it's more the vague feeling that it's just not something educated, reasonable, broad-minded people do.

During Euro 2000, I was living in a terraced street in north London, and it was no surprise to me or my neighbours that the house festooned with England flags was the home not of the deputy headmaster, or the optometrist, or the cello player with the famous string quartet, but the shaven-headed guy, tattooed to the nines, who used to call his kids in for tea with loud profanities that almost caused the wife of the GP across the road to swoon.

In other words, reservations towards England flags are less to do with politics, more to do with class and snobbery. And if you doubt me, consider the very word England. Its use with a capitalised adjective is almost always pejorative and condescending: Little England, Middle England. That, again, is a phenomenon unique to this country. And again, the comparison with the US is instructive. There, Middle America is considered to be an entirely positive force. The conclusion can only be that we are a pretty mixed-up bunch, either proud of our country but reluctant to show it, or not so proud of our country and happy to show it.

As so often, it is children who show the way to enlightenment. My kids wanted a flag for their tree house; how, for the sake of £3 and a frankly absurd set of liberal sensibilities, could I deny them? So I didn't. Come on Eng-er-land!