AFTER winning the European Grand Prix on Sunday, in the Spanish city of Valencia, Fernando Alonso slowed down his Ferrari to collect, from an exuberant marshal, a Spanish flag to wave as he completed his lap of honour.
Sporting victories and flags, these things matter. Maybe they should not, but they do.
Here in Barcelona we know that very well. Those who seek independence for Catalunya display Catalan flags from their balconies and make a flamboyant display of supporting Barcelona Football Club. Spanish unionists tend to keep quiet.
It is noticeable that the better that Barcelona FC is doing, the more shrill the cries for independence become. Recently, as it has become apparent that there will be a rather paltry harvest of silverware heading for Camp Nou this year, the clamour for autonomy has become less strident. And something else interesting is happening: Spanish flags have started appearing about the place.
The Spanish national team is having a successful run in the European ball kicking championships, and while some Catalans still adopt the ABS (anyone but Spain) mentality, others have discovered their inner Spaniard. “Spain is not all bad” they now say, “we don’t necessarily want full independence, just autonomy and the freedom to express our own culture”. Meanwhile, many Spanish unionists have become more inclined to show their colours.
Bill Clinton once said: “It’s the economy, stupid.” That may well be true in mature mainstream political arenas, but when it comes to small time regional agitation, it is all about flags and football.
Flags have a profound emotional impact on people; research has shown that displays of flags evoke feelings of loyalty and identity. The proud and plentiful display of the Union flag during the Queen’s jubilee celebrations clearly did much to rekindle a feeling of Britishness across the nation.
Kings, emperors, pretenders and dictators throughout history have instinctively known the power of flags. One of today’s most enthusiastic flag wavers is the EU, currently threatening to fine the UK for not flying enough circles of golden stars outside British government buildings. The EU gets very ratty indeed if you do not fly its flag when Brussels says you must.
Flags have long been a source of controversy in Northern Ireland. Nationalists and republicans, often with the support of the equality industry, have long been agitating for the removal of the Union flag from public buildings in Northern Ireland, and anywhere else they can find a malcontent to have a whine. A blind man on a galloping horse can see that this has often has nothing to do with equality and everything to do with a political campaign to undermine the British ethos and identity in Northern Ireland.
Similarly the ongoing nationalist calls for an all-island football team have nothing to do with pragmatism or potential sporting achievements and everything to do with politics. Remember how the all island rugby team has continually trampled over unionist sensitivities.
The extent to which the national and equality agenda has taken root can be seen in reports that while the Union flag will be featured on driving licences in the rest of the UK, drivers in Northern Ireland will be obliged to put up with the ubiquitous European flag.
Given the endless assaults against our national flag, and the failure of unionist politicians to make a stand for the flag, it is perhaps understandable that some people take matters into their own hands and organise displays of Union flags themselves. If it were the case that the flags were flown with due dignity and respect that would be fine, but draping bits of cheap cloth around lamp posts is the wrong thing to do.
Look at the pictures of the Union flags along the Royal Mall during the jubilee and then look at the Lisburn Road. See the difference?
Displaying the Union flag in such a disrespectful manner is plain unsightly, insulting to the flag and to Britain. It is counter-productive as it antagonises and undermines people’s identification with Britain rather than engendering national pride. Few people really want the flags all over the place in this manner, but few dare remove them due to the fear of retaliation by yobs claiming loyalty.
Equally, deliberately removing the Union flag from an official document in one region of the UK to sate the desires of a small noisy minority, is a provocative, offensive and divisive act. That the British government should even have considered such a move shows just how disconnected unionism has become from Westminster.
We need better leadership from unionist politicians to ensure that the Union flag is flown prominently and proudly where it is fit and proper to do so, and also to help the police and local residents prevent it being flown in an inappropriate and disrespectful manner.