My bus home from the station goes past my local town hall. I have not been on it all that much in the last year, but I have been to the town hall itself once or twice to be tested for Covid.
Does it have a union jack on the roof? I really couldn’t tell you. Well, I could tell you, because I now know what I didn’t yesterday: that it is required to fly the union flag for twenty days a year, to mark significant moments in the life of the nation, like Prince Andrew’s birthday.
So the answer is that sometimes it’s there and sometimes it isn’t. At some point soon, it will no longer be a case of sometimes but always. The Department for Culture, Media and Sport has issued new guidance that government buildings should fly the union jack every day. Every day will be Prince Andrew’s birthday, an unlikely turn of events that may yet save Pizza Express.
But for the online hoo-ha, would I have noticed? Almost certainly not. And given the fraction of people that get involved in online hoo-ha is an extremely small one, it is highly likely most people won’t notice either.
Of course, it is low but clever politics from the Conservatives: a fitting national recreation of a game traditionally played by eight-year-olds, Capture the Flag.
If, in a two-party system, one party is held in the public subconscious as having some kind of ownership claim to the national flag, it is highly unlikely that the party in question will lose. (It is precisely for this reason that, while pursuing the nuclear bomb at any cost, the Labour foreign secretary Ernest Bevin is known to have said: “We’ve got to have the bloody union jack on top of it.”)
Of course, it is gently ridiculous that government ministers conducting broadcast interviews from their own homes are now required to have giant flags and flagpoles in their living rooms. These are the kind of mad mundanities of pandemic life that should always be laughed at.
The thought of a cabinet minister carrying a massive flag up and down his own stairs, trying it out in the corner of various spare bedrooms to find where it looks best, is extremely comical. But said Conservative ministers won’t mind one bit when the ridicule they attract can very easily be repackaged as their opponents mocking the flag.
For years, feverish battles went on outside the House of Commons between Remainers and Brexiteers. That Remainers chose to take up the rather weird and tremendously boring flag of the European Union, and allowed their opponents to badge themselves with the union jack, was a huge strategic error; one that, while not dooming them to fail – they had already failed, after all – certainly made it clear how unlikely they were to succeed.
To allow the terms of the debate to be perceived as Brexit, and all its miserable outcomes, being somehow more patriotic than preserving the country’s role of global leadership through the institutions of the European Union was an enormous mistake.
The Conservatives know very well that howls of outrage about something so trivial as the flying of the union jack over local council buildings on more days than is currently the case arguably do more to impact the public subconscious than the measure itself.
Besides, is it really such a terrible idea? Not many comparable countries around the world have as dysfunctional a relationship with their own flag as we do. It is precisely because there is considered to be something rather naff, rather frankly un-British about it, that the far right managed to appropriate it with such ease.
There is a clear reason that when you first switch on the TV news, it can be hard, in the first instance, to tell if you are watching a Democrat or Republican rally. Neither side will ever yield the national colour palette to the other. It is too precious a commodity.
Donald Trump may have quite literally publicly hugged and kissed the US flag on several occasions, but his party has still lost the popular vote at every election in the past thirty years, with the exception of 2004.
This weird and very mildly nationalistic onslaught on the part of the Conservatives is supposed to confound their opponents. But it needn’t turn out this way. There will not be a general election for quite a long time. In three-and-a-half years from now, Conservative, Labour, Liberal Democrat and SNP councils alike will all have been flying the union flag for quite some time.
The other parties should know better than to come out swinging. Not all deliveries can or should be blasted back in the bowler’s face. Some can just be gently glanced to the boundary rope behind, or simply left alone.
Join our new commenting forum
Join thought-provoking conversations, follow other Independent readers and see their replies