The Union flag has had its day in the sun

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The Independent Online
If you are reading this column, you are probably among those far-sighted Britons who have worked out that global warming has made the foreign holiday in summer redundant. Even if you are high-minded and think that meeting foreigners broadens your horizons, it is still best to stay at home. Ibiza is full of booze-fuelled Brits in search of a one-night stand (actually, a whole night may be excessive - for some young Brits one minute is apparently the equivalent of Tantric sex); and all the foreigners are here. Tony Travers, an LSE don, who knows more about this sort of thing than most, points out that if you want to meet the rest of the world in August, you don't need to waste your money in Italy, France, Spain, Japan or the United States. Just take a stroll down Regent Street in London. All humanity is there. Granted, wherever they come from they are wearing Levis and T-shirts made in Korea, and carrying cameras made in Japan, but the street is a horizontal Tower of Babel. Thank God, I say. They may be taking our manufacturing jobs, but frankly if we can dip our hands in their pockets to the tune of several billion a year, fair exchange is no robbery. And with all respect to those who have worked themselves up into rage over the British Tourist Authority's perfectly sensible plan to update its image, these people do not come to the UK to gaze adoringly at the Union flag - they want to experience our countryside, visit our stately homes, and above all they want to spend oodles of dosh on our culture and arts, particularly in London.

I know that those leaping to the defence of the Union flag regard themselves as patriots, but they need to consider this: is it more patriotic to have a huge flag and no tourists, or a small flag and millions of cash-rich visitors? You don't need three A-levels to work that one out. But even clever people like Brian Sewell and Peter Mandelson have been induced to talk about this piece of second-rate 19th-century design as though it were sacrosanct.

I do not expect most people to be vexillologically literate, but even the newest wolf cub could tell you that this flag is less than 200 years old, having first appeared in 1801. Even then it was only one of several possible patriotic symbols. Horror of horrors: the symbol of British pride is junior to Old Glory, the American flag, the first version of which was hoisted in June 1777.

The flag worshippers would have a slightly stronger case if we as a nation behaved as though we cared about the thing. Americans salute their flag, and they are constitutionally entitled to lock you up if you show disrespect to it. The South Africans, having invented a new flag, decreed that it must be displayed above any other flag; by law, you cannot use it as a tablecloth or to start or finish a race, and on no account must it ever touch the floor or the ground. Australians have had an acrimonious debate about changing their flag to recognise that country's multiculturalism and its debt to the Aboriginal peoples. Many Aussies want to reduce the importance of the Union emblem that sits in their flag's vexillological honour point, the top left-hand corner as you look at it, in order to mark their growing distance from the Crown. The debate became so passionate last year that the Australian government was forced to placate opponents of change with a law establishing that the flag could only be changed by referendum.

The British, on the other hand, have allowed the flag to become a marketing tool for the Spice Girls and Oasis; most of us have no clue whether it is being flown the right way up or not; and we stood by when fascist thugs used it as a symbol of resistance to diversity in our society.

What the British Tourist Authority has cottoned on to is that for the past 10 years, our flag has been seen abroad principally on the flabby arses of lager-swilling louts or around the shoulders of shaven-headed football hooligans. Far from being the banner of our national pride, it has been a symbol of our shame.

The critics of the British Tourist Authority really must think a bit harder. Flags have long been used as a mark of tribal, national, and military identity. The first to use them in this way were the Chinese. For some reason best known to the Zhou dynasty, their troops carried a white flag for nearly a thousand years from around 1100BC. (Maybe their opponents kept thinking the battle was over, only to find themselves massacred by the Zhou gang, and that's how they lasted so long.) The Romans had a flag for every division of every legion. In feudal times, each individual noble or knight had his own pennant, and carried it into battle. The idea of a single national flag is really less than two centuries old, and most have changed design over that period as what they represented changed.

The Union flag now represents what people call our "national identity" less accurately than ever. Unfortunately, the very term "national identity" is a red herring. It is principally an invention of European leaders desperate to unite warring statelets in what is now Germany and Italy. That is not to say we do not share traditions and heritage, but we do have to distinguish between these two things on the one hand and identity on the other. Traditions are about history - rituals, practices and symbols shared by a group of people over centuries - the monarchy, for example. Heritage comes with birth - land, genes - and is therefore a matter of biology and geography; it can of course be shared by families, clans and tribes. But in the modern world identity is, inevitably, about psychology - an individual property, which in itself can change according to our situation. For example, at our children's school concerts we are principally parents; at football we can be, if we are lucky, part of the Chelsea tribe; we may at other times identify with our city. The point is that the modern Briton, the modern European, is an amalgam of tradition, heritage and personal identity.

Given what we know of the mood in the country, it would make far more sense in 21st-century Britain to fly the Scottish saltire, the Welsh Dragon, the Cross of St Patrick and the Cross of St George separately, to recognise the fact that in so far as the people of the British Isles identify with any nation, it is with people who share their traditions and their heritage, be those Scottish, Welsh, Irish or English.

And we should go further: why should aristocrats and members of the House of Lords be the only people with symbols that are theirs alone? Why shouldn't every home have its own flag-post with both a national flag and a family flag?

Mine would be particularly confusing, I'm afraid - dominated by the London skyline, perhaps on a background of Atlantic Blue to represent my family's crossing from Africa to the Caribbean, then the Caribbean to Britain; a bit of Guyanese rainforest, with a Scottish thistle rampant; topped by the journalists' contemporary symbol, the quartered flag of Microsoft Windows, crossed with a battered old trumpet. One of these outside every home and what a riot of colour our streets would become; and what better way to dance on the grave of that rotting, constricting and stagnant hangover from the 19th century, the nation state.