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St George's Day has come late this year. The distinctive red crosses of England's patron saint flutter from a thousand car windows and have provoked a debate about whether they are a good thing or not. Of course, the proliferation of these flags is due to England's participation in the European Championships, which begin in Portugal today. But is something deeper, and possibly more sinister, than football going on here?

St George's Day has come late this year. The distinctive red crosses of England's patron saint flutter from a thousand car windows and have provoked a debate about whether they are a good thing or not. Of course, the proliferation of these flags is due to England's participation in the European Championships, which begin in Portugal today. But is something deeper, and possibly more sinister, than football going on here?

Some believe this mass embracing of the flag is a sign that people are beginning to reclaim the St George cross from its association with the far-right. Scotland and Wales are proud of their nations and never slow to wave their national flags, goes the reasoning, so why shouldn't the English be the same?

But others think that all those red crosses reflect an upsurge of ugly nationalism. By flying the St George cross people are proclaiming themselves to be xenophobic little Englanders.

There is an element of truth in both these views. Idiotic football hooligans and the British National Party do not hold a monopoly on English flags and we should try to erode their spurious claims to patriotism. But we must also recognise that racists will inevitably try to capitalise on the flag phenomenon, seeing it as a vindication of their own twisted views. Patriotism must not tip over into bigoted nationalism.

America, with its ubiquitous star-spangled banner, has demonstrated how a flag can be a genuine source of pride, but in the southern states the Confederate flag is inextricably associated with racism and reactionary politics.

National emblems are powerful things. If this new-found fondness for flags means that the England football team will be well supported when its plays the mighty French tomorrow, we can welcome them - but we must always be wary of the darker forces that can be awoken by such symbols too.

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