Gordon Brown has played the jingoistic card, by promising to review the regulations governing the flying of the Union Flag on public buildings. The Sun's George Pascoe-Watson, not surprisingly, over-reacted with delight, proclaiming that Gordon wanted to see the flag "flutter in Whitehall and around the country every day", and offering free flags to readers who sent in a stamped, addressed envelope, or Union-Flag "screensavers" (actually background images, but we shouldn't expect accuracy from The Sun) to download. The document on which Mr Pascoe-Watson's reporting was based (The Governance of Britain, published by No.10 yesterday) says very much less than he claims, promising only to "consult on altering the current guidance that prohibits the flying of the Union Flag from Government buildings for more than 18 set days in the year".
Perhaps Mr Pascoe-Watson is projecting, or perhaps he was briefed. Whichever, the inflation of this modest proposal has ignited debate, for instance on BBC Radio 5Live today, about the merits of flying our national flag. People seem to focus on whether it is British to display our national pride in such a vulgar way, and whether they are inclined to fly the Union Flag, or the flag of their respective regions (England, Scotland, and Wales - the issue is altogether more tricky in Northern Ireland, as the Government's document notes). This seems to me to miss the point.
I could care less how you choose to display your national pride - proudly with a Flag of the Union, St George, St Andrew, the Red Dragon or whatever outside your window, or quietly through deployment of the British characteristics of understatement, scepticism, humour, stoicism and so on. (Actually, that's not entirely true - I'd prefer the latter, but it really is up to you.)
But I do care about the conflation of the nation and the state. These are our national flags, not our governments' flags. The state (pace Rousseau) is not the embodiment of the nation, though one can see how Gordon might find much in common with that other Chancellor (of Gilbert and Sullivan's Iolanthe):
The law is the true embodiment
Of everything that's excellent
It has no kind of fault or flaw
And I, my Lords, embody the law.
Too close association of nation and state has always been a mark of despotic government. If flying the Union Flag becomes an important symbol of patriotism, and a Union Flag waving by the front entrance becomes a hallmark of all government buildings, it is not a long step for some people to make the association that disrespect for and resistance to what is done within those buildings is unpatriotic. At the least, it gives spurious legitimacy to those activities.
Most people, being sceptical Brits, will not be that simple. But let's not give the idiots the excuse. Wrapping the state in nationalist garb is not very British.
And by the way, what happened to Gordon's incredible promise to put an end to spin?