Fate of the Union Jack

The Union Jack has been robbed of its innocence by football hooligans and knicker manufacturers
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For several years now we have camped in these August weeks at Hendre Eynon on St David's Head, and done so under the flag of the French. The tricolour wasn't my first choice. The vicar of our village was happy to lend us the English flag, which graced his church on special days, but some very modern sort of English person had nicked it. So we have flown the red-white-and-blue which a friend bought after a good lunch in France.

People who camp are a tolerant bunch, so no one complained that it was an English lot who flew the foreigner's flag, and it looked very handsome.

But it wouldn't quite do, either. One shouldn't make a joke of a national flag, and our flying this one was close to insolence. Going round the National Gallery's "Making and Meaning" show devoted to the Wilton Diptych a couple of years ago, I became entranced by the beauty and symbolism of the flag of St George: the red cross on a white background. So this year I bought one in Hereford. To a modern eye, it is, of course, the flag of England. Well, perhaps not, actually. One woman came to the tent the other evening and asked if the flag was that of Switzerland. Or perhaps Britain? So I delivered a little lecture about the Union Jack. It was derived, I bored on, from the crosses of St George, St Patrick and St Andrew. So what about the Welsh, she asked? I was stumped, and then realised that the Welsh presumably aren't on the Union flag because they are a principality, not a nation.

On this logic, flying the Union Jack in Wales (where we are, of course) might be rubbing salt in the wound. In any case, the Union Jack has been robbed of its innocence and dignity by football hooligans and knicker manufacturers, so I don't really fancy it any more.

Arguably, as one or two neighbouring campers have mused, it might seem rude to fly the St George's cross - the national flag of England - in the the Principality. But I have persuaded myself that it is possible to fly one's national flag, not out of triumphalism, as though over the encampment of an occupying army, but out of a guestly desire to show one's identity. This has an element of pride in it, but need not be overbearing.

There are lots of ways in which the Danes are the mirror image of the English. They share our latitude, but subtly invert a lot of our attitudes. They also invert our flag (by flying a white cross on a red background). But they fly their flag at all possible moments, so that their suburbs are littered with them. The Danes' nationalism is quite intense. But the worst that can be said of it is that it is a little smug: it has very little supremicism in it. On the other hand, the English post-imperialist mood is a curious mix of embarrassment, self-doubt and - at its occasional worst - a sort of stung assertiveness.

The first two of these attributes have meant that the English flag is seldom seen, except on churches, so that many people believe the cross of St George is the flag of the Church of England. And, in a way it is. In the Wilton Diptych, the flag of St George is very much a religious, as well as a nationalist, icon. Medieval Europe saw St George as the fighting saint, and used his emblem as the sign of the Christian warrior. But it is also, the show's catalogue says, a symbol of Christ arisen, and was often put on pictures depicting the Resurrection. So, in the Diptych, King Richard II is shown having his nationalism and religious feeling - as well as his divine right to rule - confirmed as Christ prepares to receive - or perhaps to bless - the king's offering of the cross of St George.

As it happens, the Germans and the Portuguese were amongst many other European peoples who venerated George. Its being a spiritual icon, and a borrowed one at that, seems to me markedly to enrich the English national flag as it streams out over our tents.