Leading Article: Flying the flag, but for whom?

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The Independent Online
JOHN PATTEN, the Education Secretary, wants the people of Britain to reclaim the Union Jack as a symbol of national unity. He told an audience of Conservative supporters on Friday night that the flag had been hijacked by thugs and racists, and 'the last place we want to see it is wrapped round a shaven-headed British National Party storm-trooper or a drunken football lout besmirching the good name of Britain abroad'. Instead, he said, we needed to see it fluttering more frequently from schools and public buildings (and possibly back gardens) to celebrate the fine qualities of Britain and Britishness.

Mr Patten is right to be 'sickened' when he sees our various tribes of potato-heads lurching around in the red, white and blue. He is on trickier ground, however, when he argues that these people's attitudes are 'the antithesis of the very values that the Union flag represents'. A flag, as Gertrude Stein might have observed, is a flag is a flag. The outstanding aspect of the Union Jack is that it is a brilliant piece of design, the work of the College of Heralds over two centuries. The union of Scotland and England inspired the first version, incorporating the crosses of St Andrew and St George in 1606. The present version, incorporating (indeed, inventing) the cross of St Patrick, dates from the union of Great Britain and Ireland in 1801.

Since then it has been used for different purposes at different times in different parts of the world. By regiments and gunboats, missionaries, scout troops, crowds on Mafeking and VE nights, at coronations and football games. The Sixties brought it to carrier bags. Punks and skinheads used it as face decoration. And then there are those curious people - ironists, patriots, ironic patriots, fools? - who wave it around at the last night of the Proms. So this 'reclaiming' business is not going to be easy. Mr Patten could make a start by abolishing its presence at Tory party rallies. Until then, one person's 'national unity' will remain another person's political sectarianism.