Wednesday, September 12, 2012
Before the Olympics and Paralympics, I was very secure in my nationality. I was English. Not British.
For me, Great Britain grated, as it felt like a coalition of the reluctant - a Christmas get-together of distant relatives with next to nothing in common.
As I have said before, I enjoyed watching the Scottish tennis player Andy Murray get beaten, and couldn’t have cared less what happened to the Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland football teams.
I was very happy to extend the same support to them as many of their players and fans would to England - ie, none.
But the Olympics and Paralympics have left me feeling somewhat schizophrenic.
I am still English, but with a confusing dash of Britishness thrown in; red and white, with an occasional touch of blue.
The slight softening can be put down in part to the way in which the two events have enabled the union flag to be reclaimed.
Before the Games, I was often unsettled by how the flag would be claimed as a symbol of aggressive nationalism, by jingoistic, rather than patriotic, people.
Too often, it was unfurled with defiance, to intimidate others and to evoke echoes of Empire. At worst, it has been used as a sick symbol of white supremacy by extremist organisations.
The hijacking of the flag - which also happens with the St George’s flag - makes it difficult for your average proud Brit to fly the flag without being accused of being borderline racist.
That is rarely the case in other countries - perhaps helped by the fact that Britain is unique in being a nation made up of nations, rather than a single entity.
Countries like the United States, France, Brazil, China, India and others are united as one nation under one flag. We are too often disunited under five flags, with different national anthems and national identities.
Then along came the London 2012 Olympics and Paralympics. Suddenly it was cool to fly the union flag, and to do it in a positive manner.
Team GB athletes in the velodrome, on the river, at Lord’s cricket ground, at Horseguards Parade and at the Olympic Stadium were backed by a riot of red, white and blue.
As I joined millions of people screaming at their TVs to urge him to victory, it did not cross my mind that Sir Chris Hoy was from Scotland.
The same went for Murray when he won the tennis gold medal in the singles and a silver in the mixed doubles. Hopefully, by the time you read this, he will have added the US Open tennis title to his collection.
And I certainly didn’t have my enjoyment of Jade Jones’s taekwondo gold marred by the fact that she’s Welsh (although I was pleased that her coach moved swiftly to snatch away a Wales flag and hand her a union flag for her lap of honour).
For perhaps the first time in my life, I was proud to be British. And yet I am still proud to be English. And a proud Norfolkman. And a proud Cromer Crab.
All of which goes to show that even a stubbornly insular man like myself can be won over.
The challenge now is to see how this nation can retain the spirit that has gripped so many people. It would be a crying shame to see it ebb away to partiality and pettiness again.