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Cry 'God for Harry, England, and Saint George!'

Mark Easton | 14:10 UK time, Monday, 14 June 2010

Is waving the Cross of St George an act of patriotism, nationalism or racism? With England flying the flag as never before, the distinction appears to have caused some confusion.

Lion with ball containing meat treatsA neighbour in my street decked his house in red and white bunting with a message attached: "If you are offended, leave the country!"

I have yet to meet anyone who is offended by the flags and banners supporting the English football team, but the papers have found apparent examples of employers who have "banned" the St George's cross because, it is claimed, the ostentatious display of a national flag might upset people.

Most of these tales turn out either to be nonsense or to reflect corporate concerns about safety or branding, but the notion that some people believe showing your true colours is offensive has significant traction.

Local government minister Grant Shapps recently wrote to local councils saying that he understood that a risk-based approach to health and safety was important, but urging them "to avoid accusations of being over-zealous or spoilsports". David Cameron, of course, has decreed that the English flag should fly over No 10.

On Friday, a friend joked that he didn't realise I was a BNP supporter when he saw an England flag on my car. It was a joke but also a reminder of how our national emblem was appropriated by racists during the 1970s and '80s.

EDLOver the last twenty years, however, the flag has gradually been regained by the moderate majority and this World Cup has seen it flown in greater abundance than I can ever recall; I was living in Scotland in 1966 but I suspect that even then the English scene was less decked than today.

So to return to my question: is the cross of St George a symbol of patriotism, nationalism or racism? We need to define our terms, a tricky task.

George Orwell had a go in his 1945 essay Notes on Nationalism:

"Nationalism is not to be confused with patriotism. Both words are normally used in so vague a way that any definition is liable to be challenged, but one must draw a distinction between them, since two different and even opposing ideas are involved. By 'patriotism' I mean devotion to a particular place and a particular way of life, which one believes to be the best in the world but has no wish to force on other people. Patriotism is of its nature defensive, both militarily and culturally. Nationalism, on the other hand, is inseparable from the desire for power. The abiding purpose of every nationalist is to secure more power and more prestige, not for himself but for the nation or other unit in which he has chosen to sink his own individuality."

In the shadow of World War II, one can understand why Orwell saw "patriotism" as a passive force (Britain) and "nationalism" as an aggressive force (Germany), but the distinction is important.

Some academics have divided nationalism into "good" and "bad" - the laudable good nationalists wishing to maintain and support their own nation versus the bad nationalists who seek to pit their own "superior" nation against all others.

Bad nationalism is almost indistinguishable from racism, it has been argued, and I suspect that some people do worry that in flying the flag they risk being perceived as inconsiderate at best and bigoted at worst.

However, the idea of a universal international identity in which citizens across the planet celebrate their bonds has had little success in the last 200 years.

The philosopher John Stuart Mill defined nationalism as a desire to match national and political borders:

Where the sentiment of nationality exists in any force, there is a prima facie case for uniting all the members of the nationality under the same government, and a government to themselves apart

His comment is a reminder of how the concept of nation is relatively new. It is often argued that the notion of nationalism was created along with the first nation-state - usually said to be France in 1789.

Victorian essayist Walter Bagehot wrote that "nation-making" was the essential content of 19th-Century evolution, but found it hard to put his finger on what defined a nation:

The problem of 'nation-making' - that is, the explanation of the origin of nations such as we now see them, and such as in historical times they have always been - cannot, as it seems to me, be solved without separating it into two: one, the making of broadly-marked races, such as the negro, or the red man, or the European; and the second, that of making the minor distinctions, such as the distinction between Spartan and Athenian, or between Scotchman and Englishman.

Bagehot recognised that race could not identify a nation, but he was stuck on what might. The climate? Shared history? "The way in which nations change, generation after generation, is exceedingly curious", he concluded.

Joseph Stalin got closer to defining a modern nation when he said that it was a "historically evolved, stable community of language, territory, economic life and psychological make-up manifested in a community of culture". Even this does not account for the multi-lingual, multi-racial, multi-cultural, multi-faith nations that have developed as the planet has shrunk.

England flagsThe World Cup is a celebration of nationhood as much as of football. Such "international" sporting competitions cement the concept of the nation-state, acting as a lightning rod for "bad" aggressive nationalism and a support for global values.

The flag is a symbol of support for a team and love for a nation. If people choose to fly it or interpret it as a symbol of English superiority or aggression, that is not the flag's fault. I shall continue to drape a large cross of St George upon my house.

I fear, though, that given England's recent history in the World Cup, a proud nation will end up saluting its sporting heroes as they "go down with all flags flying". Or is that an unpatriotic thought?


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