Britain needs a flag that reflects our artists, not our racists

I am cheering England on with the rest of them, says Tim Lott. But not without mixed feelings
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By the time you read this many of you will be feeling either thoroughly cheered or mortally depressed by England's World Cup performance against the USA. I know I will. And isn't that odd? Because, like most lefty liberals, I am not of a particularly patriotic stripe.

In the part of my brain that I regard as rational, "supporting" a team that describes itself as "English" makes no sense. How can their glory reflect upon me in any way? I had no hand in their training, or their inborn talent or their managerial (Italian) guidance. I have never met any of them, and I doubt that if I did I would like them very much.

But for as long as England is in the World Cup, I will be shouting, jeering, hooraying and falling in love with some of those anonymous players. I may jump out of my chair, I may spill my drink, I may swear in front of my children – all in service of an abstraction that I barely believe in the first place.

Mass behaviour is always a mystery, but there are a number of peculiarities about national feeling. First, it involves highly selective thinking. Many an avowed anti-patriot, who might feel, at best, indifference to those fighting on our behalf in Afghanistan and Iraq, will be responding emotionally to this symbolic clash. Members of the intellectual middle classes who might otherwise believe that patriotism is a grubby business for Sun and Mail readers will be waving little red and white flags.

Second, those anti-patriots who do sing out for Harry and St George tonight will not think twice about it. No cognitive dissonance will be triggered. The idea that we want England to be "great" will eventually be restored to the cupboard under the stairs, where it can be left unremarked upon, a dirty little secret. In the meantime, we vent our pride shamelessly.

Sporting events expose the hypocrisy of those who dislike the idea of England in the abstract, but anyone supporting a team – or a country – displays a degree of irrationality. Why should any of us care about the destinies of strangers bearing a particular symbol on their shirts, who happen to share some "bloodline" or accident of geography with us?

Supporting troops in Afghanistan, who shed blood on our behalf, makes much more sense, not least because those carrying out the work are usually genuinely patriotic themselves (rather than the salarymen that one suspects make up the national football team). Nevertheless, many of us turn our faces from supporting that team, however many coffins are marched through Wootton Bassett.

I have no particular axe to grind for nationalism, I only observe that its emotional force remains tremendous. And if this comes as a surprise to me, it is one that has surprised many previous generations. As far back as the beginning of the 20th century, people were writing off the idea of national identity as any kind of meaningful national glue.

There was no shortage of international socialists and mainstream Fabians who, prior to the outbreak of the First World War, were convinced that the illusions of national pride would fall to bits in the face of the economic logic of workers' solidarity. What was the slaughter all in aid of other than to preserve the anciens régimes? And yet, millions of oppressed workers marched to war, determined to fight for their countries. It was ridiculous in a sense – but it exposed the weakness of rationalism in the face of the idea of the national tribe.

That same avowed rationalism was in action in Russia after 1917 where the logic of Trotsky and Lenin, convinced of proletarian world revolution, should have led to the withering away of the idea of "Russia". But it was on behalf of Mother Russia that millions fought and died – not a revolutionary idea – and the same held good after the still greater slaughter of the Second World War, by which time a generation of socialist thought should have eradicated all such superstitions.

For anti-patriots, there can be no greater examples of the malign effects of patriotism than Nazism, the Spanish Falange or the Italian Fascists. This was love of country that implied hate of all others, and led ultimately to the Holocaust. Nationalism has had a tarnished name ever since.

Yet it seems to be as strong as ever. The immense forces of globalisation, mass immigration and the rise of the European superstate should have provided yet another impetus for the eroding of ideas of national identity. Not a bit of it. Countries have become more assertive than ever about this strange abstraction, not the least in Scotland and Wales where patriotism is far less complicated than in England, partly because national movements are identified with movements of rebellion and democracy.

Perhaps our relative economic success means that in England, we should have greater fuel for national pride than any of our neighbouring states. But we still wear our flag with an element of shame – except when it comes to football and other sporting contests.

Maybe we can give ourselves over to our sentiments so completely because sport seems to occupy a level playing field in a way that political entities and economic organisations do not. But, even given that, what is it that is being celebrated? What is it that is being supported?

The answer to that, obviously, is a sense of belonging: of shared history, of language, of landscape. We are uncomfortable with these notions, but they will not go away because the human urge to belong to something larger than ourselves, and to extend back in time, is intractable. The powers of commerce have tried to co-opt our loyalties into the realm of consumption, but we cannot be loyal to a brand in the way we are to our nation.

Or is England itself simply a brand? There are certainly those who think so, but they treat Englishness – or Britishness – cynically at their peril. Remember those disastrous rebrands of the British Airways tail designs, created to reflect a more global landscape? Remember Tony Blair's attempt to create "Cool Britannia"?

Despite those disasters, I do have a fervent wish for some of the national symbols to be rethought. The Union flag and the St George's cross are right-wing symbols in the minds of many, myself included. I am tempted by a bit of tactical rebranding here – redesigning the flags so that they could represent something of modern England rather than simply historical England. Not as a replacement for the original designs – too much blood is soaked in those insignia – but as an alternative.

It is this modern England – liberal, multicultural and without deference to royalty – that many of us now want to celebrate, but our archaic national flag designs hold us back. A redesign of national identity that removed the stain of imperial shame and nationalist hysteria could only be for the good. Perhaps even a double flag could be conceived – two Englands, historical and contemporary, side by side.

The fact is, I want to feel a sense of love for my country and the World Cup confirms the fact. It is a human universal, and appeals to the deepest of our psychological needs. And it feels good. I want more of it.

Given that we cannot get rid of patriotism, and that most of us don't want to, then surely the answer is simply to redefine it. Nationalism should not appear to simply celebrate our military victories, imperial past and royal heritage, but our tradition of radicalism, of rebellion, of art and intellect. It should, like the American flag, represent ideals. I don't know how this is to be achieved in a single design, but it would be fascinating to find out.

There is one more thing to consider in the search of a modern, shame-free patriotism. Let's get rid of that awful, stinking, turgid national anthem. Nobody likes it, and watching the English football players sing it is like watching a Catholic boys' choir render greatest hits from the Scottish kirk – with grim, palpable reluctance. After all, to love our nation is surely no longer synonymous with loving the Queen for any but a tiny rump of traditionalists, and after she's gone, it will have even less resonance.

In the meantime, given the lack of a meaningful flag or a decent national ditty, tonight I will, against all common sense, be screaming my lungs out for the old red cross on a white background, humming the anthem, and cheering a horror of a man like John Terry.

I will be jumping up and down (or bursting into tears ) because "we" are doing well or badly. It makes no sense whatsoever. But it will have been a real experience, and a powerful one, and one that I would love to repeat in other, less narrow, ways. All it takes is imagination – and that is one resource we have just about more of than any other country in the world. Shame it so rarely stretches to our football team.