June 14 is National Flag Day in America, when Americans celebrate their symbol of national identity, the Stars and Stripes. In England, June 14 was the day the Post Office announced that in the run-up to the football World Cup it was banning the display of England flags on its cars, bikes and trolleys.
Americans are generally much more open in their displays of patriotism than we are, and they show great reverence for their flag. Good for them. They instinctively understand that people need to identify with their homeland, to have a sense of belonging, tradition and place. There is nothing aggressive in that and nothing that denigrates others.
History is full of demagogues and bullies who have abused the patriotism of their people, sometimes spectacularly so, for deeply unpleasant purposes, but any emotion can be exploited. And we shouldn’t confuse patriotism with its sometimes ugly cousin, nationalism. They might be linked but they are still very different.
The Post Office’s official reason for the ban apparently has nothing to do with symbolism. Spokesmen point out that staff are still free to display the emblem in their offices or depots (where the public won’t see them); they just can’t have them on vehicles. They tell us their concern is safety. Apparently the little flags that so many drivers like to attach to their cars during championships, and which must have sold in millions over the years, are dangerous. And so too would be a sticker displayed on one of those little trolleys my postie wheels down my street most mornings.
Either the Post Office chiefs are in a ridiculously disproportionate panic over health and safety or they are not being straight with us and are scared of upsetting the overly sensitive; worried that an accusation of racism or of being soft on imperialism is about to come their way. Perhaps they think Emily Thornberry might get sarcastic with them on Twitter.
Whatever the reason, how miserable and petty-minded do you have to be to stop people expressing their identity and showing support for their national team flag during a sporting tournament? And the dourness is spreading. Barrow-in-Furness council has banned the flags on licensed taxis in town. You don’t have to be a football fan (the game leaves me cold) to enjoy the sense of community that events like the World Cup can bring. The flags and the bunting, the replica England shirts on every second kid in the park: I love it. It shows we have a shared identity and a shared home we can celebrate, just as Ecuadorians, Botswanans and Scots rightly celebrate Ecuador, Botswana and Scotland.
There is no racism or hatred in that. People are expressing a love of football and of their country, not some ghastly ‘blood and soil’ nationalism. So whatever the Post Office or Barrow Council say, let posties and taxi drivers enjoy the World Cup and be proud of their team, their flag and England.