Andrew Vine: Waving the flag for a patriotism that can unite us

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POOR old St George. He really doesn’t get the acclaim he deserves, even on the day supposedly devoted to him.

By rights, we should be raising his flag tomorrow and in doing so saluting England, but the chances are that most of us won’t as we go about our everyday business, perhaps wistfully wishing that it was still the long Easter weekend.

He’s something of a prophet without honour is St George, his day just another one whizzing by in the whirl of busy lives. A straw poll of friends and family produced a fair number of blank looks in response to the question “What is April 23?”, especially among the younger ones, and I’d bet they are a reflection of wider society.

We like to think of ourselves as a patriotic nation – and when it comes to the big flag-waving events like Royal ceremonials we have no rival anywhere in putting on a show – but we’re curiously poor at demonstrating that patriotism away from special occasions.

Visiting Ireland on St Patrick’s Day, or Scotland on St Andrew’s Day is to witness nations celebrating their heritage and identity – as well as having a right old knees-up – in joyous public proclamations of patriotism.

But St George’s Day in England is a damp squib in comparison. Yes, some public buildings dutifully raise the flag, and the odd one left over from a football or cricket international is to be seen fluttering from car windows, but it’s all very muted.

There is an odd and tangled mix of emotions swirling around the English flag, which means it is far less prominent than it should be, even on St George’s Day.

Part of it is a peculiarly English sort of reticence about making a fuss or drawing attention to oneself, but other, rather troubling, reasons have come into play.

It’s not so very long ago that a concerted effort was made to hijack the flag by neo-Nazi groups which for a while – until the public rumbled them for the contemptible boneheaded inadequates that they are – appeared to be making some inroads into mainstream politics.

Decent people of moderate views – whether of the left or right – wanted nothing to do with such associations, and as a consequence there was a degree of reluctance to fly the flag which has persisted because expressions of patriotism were seen as being tainted by the nastiest sort of nationalism.

That came on top of the sort of institutional paranoia about offending any section of society that grips parts of both national and local government. The idea that any particular ethnic or religious grouping would be offended by the flying of the national flag is as preposterous as the misguided reasoning that people of faiths other than Christianity will be insulted by any official celebration of Christmas or Easter.

These factors have resulted in a sense of vague unease in certain official quarters and in the minds of too many people about flying the flag or overt expressions of patriotism, which is not only misplaced but also rather sad.

The great thing about the flag of St George is that far from it being a divisive symbol, it is a unifying one. It flies for everybody in England, irrespective of where their roots lie, or their creed.

It belongs to no political viewpoint, and is most definitely not a symbol of hatred or xenophobia.

And the patriotism it represents is a unifying force as well. The sense of belonging and pride that manifests itself on the big state occasions is uplifting and cheering, and we’d all be the richer for flag-waving rather more often.

The argument for St George’s Day becoming a bank holiday has always been on shaky ground, not least in a year like this when it follows hard on the heels of Easter, but the absence of something to mark it has added to its increasing anonymity.

And that, in turn, means England’s flag doesn’t get the prominence it deserves.

But the country doesn’t need a day off work to express a sense of patriotism as it gets on with life.

It being the World Cup this summer, the England flag will be more visible than usual, with every supermarket stacked out with mugs and pennants bearing the cross of St George, at least until whatever stage it is when the national team makes the now-traditional ignominious exit from the tournament.

Even so, there will be among many – especially the young – a belief that the white flag with the red cross represents St Wayne of Rooney rather than the nation’s patron saint.

There’s plenty of time before tomorrow to dig out that flag consigned sadly to the back of a cupboard the last time England were dumped – again – by a penalty shoot-out and put it on show for the day.

It’s well worth doing, not just to mark the unjustly neglected St George’s Day, but to remind ourselves that a generous and open-hearted sense of patriotism is good for us all.