‘The Union Jack is divisive - maybe we should ditch it?’
- Credit: PA Archive/PA Images
A campaign to ban the European flag flying in the UK post-Brexit is 'beyond ridiculous' argues Richard Porritt and asks 'why not ban the Union Jack as well?'
My grandfather was a stoic Scotsman given to quick discipline and fierce rebukes.
As a child he would religiously take me to watch my home town football team - Huddersfield - and would berate the players from the terraces for 90 minutes before berating me for dragging my feet as we tried to "beat the traffic" after the game.
I was never scared of him though. Just aware that he did not suffer fools and messing around would not be tolerated.
His temper was lost at the strangest things.
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I remember one occasion when he came around and I got the full hair-dryer treatment for relaxing on the sofa instead of being out "working, earning a living". It was 8pm on Christmas Eve and I was 15.
But on the drive home from the football, as Sports Report played out on the Radio in his Rover, he would attempt to educate me on the world as he saw it.
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One time in his thick, aggressive, Kilmarnock drawl he said: "Did you see the away fans waving flags, son? Beware the man who waves a flag - no-one with good intentions waves flags."
For years I took this literally. I thought he meant football hooligans had flags. I didn't understand.
But then years later it dawned on me. He was, of course, talking about nationalism.
He was a proud Scotsman but brought his children up in Yorkshire and loved travelling abroad. His warning is an interesting one. He lived through the Second World War - although wasn't old enough to fight. He saw how close nationalism and populism came to destroying civilisation and democracy. He witnessed at arms's length the destruction of cities and towns across Europe.
And his warning to me was made in the 1980s in the North of England. It was not uncommon in my part of West Yorkshire to see Swastikas and the 'P-word' daubed on the doors of Asian families.
The Union Jack - or Flag but let us not get in to that argument here - was toxic.
The thugs that followed England away and smashed up foreign bars draped themselves in it while lobbing plastic chairs at police and swigging lager. The skinheads who roamed the town centre had it tattooed on their thick arms. I remember seeing it being carried during marches in Northern Ireland which almost inevitably in those days ended with petrol bombs arching through the night sky.
But by the end of the next decade the Union Jack had been reborn. Cool Britannia wrestled the flag back from the thugs and racists and triumphantly reclaimed it. Oasis had Union Jack guitars, Spice Girl Geri wore it emblazoned on a dress and slowly but surely the toxicity lifted.
In many ways it is extraordinary that the British flag has gained so much traction, notoriety and love down the ages. Britain is not a country. It does not have a patron saint. In fact - tin hat donned - it is actually just an economic union much like the EU. Therefore the Union Jack is just a logo - like the Nike swoosh or the famous golden arches.
Which brings me to January 31, 2020. Today we leave the EU. But whether you are celebrating or commiserating surely you will agree that the current campaign to ban the flying of the European flag is beyond ridiculous.
A national newspaper has taken up the plan to outlaw the flying of the flag on public buildings. The question I ask is simply "why do we care?"
We live in a world that is choking. A world where vast numbers of people cannot even afford to eat. A world of division and violence.
Is the flying of a flag of any concern at all?
I wonder what my - sadly now departed - grandfather would think?
I think he might have backed my rather radical idea. If we are outlawing the European flag then we should ditch them all - British, English, the lot.
But of course that would be silly - as silly as banning the European flag anyway.
I believe in freedom. If someone wants to fly a flag let them. As long as they don't accompany their fluttering logo with a belief that the fluke of where they were born makes them better than anyone else I couldn't care less.
I told this to a chap in a pub recently as we were discussing the wider issue of Brexit (I wish I had stuck to football to be honest) and he asked: "But aren't you proud to be British?"
My answer was; "No, I am glad I am British but I can't be proud of something I had no influence over. But if you want to be proud that's great."
So wave your flags. Or don't. Just do it nicely.