Mr Blair won't be able to play the patriotic card

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I well remember my first general election campaign, in 1979. I was standing as a Conservative candidate, travelling around in a Land Rover, with a loud speaker belting out "Land of Hope and Glory" and the Union Jack draped across the front of the vehicle. At every public meeting my faithful agent would remove the battered cloth flag and place it ceremoniously on the top table of the appropriate draughty village hall or scout hut.

The Union Jack belonged to the Conservative Party. Go to any Conservative Party conference and hoards of normally sane Conservative ladies would be seen wearing ridiculous plastic bowler hats emblazoned with the flag. Young Conservatives, or their predecessors, would wave the flag in tribute to the party leader of the day. Margaret Thatcher adored these gatherings and lost no opportunity to wrap herself in the flag. At an election rally, organised by the Young Conservatives in 1983 in the wake of her Falklands victory the year before, she grabbed one of the flags and twirled it around to the delight of hungry photographers. For Baroness Thatcher, Great Britain was the flag, the flag was Thatcher, ergo Thatcher was Britain. The image conjured up was of patriotism in the British Bulldog style of Winston Churchill.

This heady mix of national pride, so well epitomised by Margaret Thatcher playing the role of Britannia, successfully appealed to the basic (and base) emotions of patriotism that always gave the Conservative Party the edge over the dubious credentials of the Labour Party when it came to "standing up for Britain."

Michael Foot and Neil Kinnock could never play the patriotic card because they carried the heavy baggage of the "Internationale" and the red flag. Even the advent of the red rose did nothing to improve the suspicion that Labour was full of a bunch of pacifists who would sell Britain down the river at the first opportunity. If there were ever a conflict with another country, it was supposed, these unpatriotic peaceniks would sell out the national interest.

All this is about to change as Tony Blair makes his own bid to take over the Union flag for New Labour. Seizing the chance provided by a Conservative Party, which did not even display the national flag at their last party conference, the Prime Minister will tomorrow wrap himself in the Union Jack and make the final journey to the land of national pride where New Labour now rules the patriotic roost.

The move is as audacious as it is symbolic. It shows how determined he is to negate any advantage that the Conservatives thought they might have been building up on the issue of Europe. Hitherto, Mr Blair's "good European" stance has chimed with the internationalist outlook of the Labour Party but it has jarred with the suspicion that he is about to sell Britain short on issues such as the single currency.

There has been much more talk recently, however, by the Prime Minister about "standing up for the national interest". The seeds for this blatant appeal to patriotism were sown during the last general election, by Peter Mandelson, who was pictured being dragged along by a virile British bulldog during a campaign photo call.

Perhaps all Prime Ministers succumb to the warm glow of representing their country at countless summits. The constant red-carpet welcomes, the RAF jet, the salutes at take-off and landing, and the playing of the national anthem on arrival must seep into the prime ministerial bloodstream.

It is now clear that Mr Blair has spotted the patriotic factor and intends to milk it, at the next election, for all it is worth. Even Harold Wilson caught this mood, momentarily, during the 1960s when he allowed himself to be associated with the infamous "I'm Backing Britain" campaign during a fatuous attempt to control the balance of payments deficit by persuading an unwilling population to buy British. Sounds familiar?

Although Mr Blair has not issued a fatwa against BMW buyers, his trick will be to try to place himself at the head of the "new" patriots, led by footballers and film stars in an effort to restore the flagging fortunes of the "Cool Britannia" set. But his chances of inheriting the mantle of Churchill and Thatcher are doomed unless he sees that patriotism is steeped in national preservation and - yes - instinctive conservatism.

Sadly, Mr Blair wants it both ways. At one level he wants the trappings of the national flag and all that this implies about the country's past. On the other, modernising, hand he wants us to disown our history and revels in dismantling the structures that give us the sense of national unity. The tinkerings with the constitution are inconsistent with attempts to appropriate the Union flag. A nation has to be based on a common identity. The Conservative attempt to retain the Union may have failed to win votes in Wales and Scotland, but it was still a coherent approach to maintaining a national patriotic appeal. Devolution, of necessity, requires a watering down of national pride and a transfer of allegiance to a new set of local institutions.

No one doubts that a Labour Prime Minister can share in the love of his country as much as a Conservative one. Attlee, Wilson and Callaghan were patriots and, in their own way, negotiated the best deals for their country and stood up for the national interest as they saw fit. But their respect for established institutions somehow gave the impression that, if they could get away with dismantling long-held traditions and customs, they would do so. Similarly with Tony Blair. His endless fiddling with national structures means that he has no respect for the past.

But Mr Blair, I suspect, has been listening to the focus groups on issues like Europe and the single currency and decided that the country has found him wanting when it comes to saving our national identity. What greater national identity and symbolism is there than a country's own currency? It is impossible to wave the flag one day and sacrifice the pound the next. All this makes me think that Mr Blair is preparing the ground for quietly dumping plans to hold a referendum on the single currency in the next parliament. The Prime Minister knows that he is exposed to William Hague on the issue of Europe. He can hardly make a speech on patriotism one day and soft-soap the British people about the delights of the euro in an election campaign a few months later.

What is remarkable, however, is just how frightened William Hague has become of the flag. Two years ago, at the Conservative Party conference, Mr Hague was cheerfully burbling away about "The British Way". We then heard no more about it. Perhaps it is not so much Mr Blair stealing the Tory clothes, as the Tories becoming so lacking in self-confidence that they discarded the clothes of patriotism in the nearest charity shop. All Mr Blair has had to do is to pick up the flag for a pittance. Whether Mr Blair and New Labour have the body to wear the flag without tearing it apart will be known only when we learn just whether that referendum on the single currency is to be kicked, as I suspect, into the long grass.