WEARING a Union flag T-shirt in Barcelona, Bordeaux or Berlin is considered quite cool, but in Basingstoke, you might have some self-righteous Fair Trade enthusiast with a bad haircut denouncing you as a racist, in Belfast the garment would be considered offensive to the sensitivities of those who make a profession of being offended, and in Braemar, it would likely earn you a head-butt.
The British flag, we are relentlessly told, is a hated symbol of isolationism, colonialism and intolerance. It is a theme exploited by Irish nationalists, who have a flamboyant fit of the vapours every time the Union flag is run up a flagpole.
However, if you wander down any city in Europe you will see plenty of young people walking past in clothes emblazoned with the Union flag. In the shops you will find it decorating many household items.
I have seen this enthusiasm for the British flag in Spain, France, Germany and elsewhere. At first I thought it was because people just liked the design, but when I ask further I always get the same answer, people like and admire Britain; the specifics may be vague, but there is a broad brush positive perception, filtered through time and distance.
The abiding European interest in Britishness is an amalgam of many things, including history, heritage, culture and attitude. They consider Britain to be a little apart, a little dangerous, and that is attractive.
No other country has delivered so many instantly, internationally recognised and contrasting icons of popular culture: Shakespeare and Monty Python, The Beatles and The Sex Pistols, the Mini and Rolls Royce, Beefeaters and punks, the Titanic and Stonehenge, Oxford University and Manchester United, the Houses of Parliament and curry sauce, to name but a few.
In all these aspects most European countries can boast a few equivalents, but only Britain boasts such a wide range. Britain is widely seen as one of the most welcoming countries to visit, even if the weather is bad and we are lousy at languages.
Militarism may be unfashionable this weather, but Britain has a consistent role in the defeat of dictators including Napoleon, The Kaiser and Hitler, in a way no other nation has. The Battle of Britain, the Western Front, and D-Day are military actions unmatched in modern European history.
It may be politically incorrect to boast about it nowadays but the British Empire, unmatched in the modern era, is still quietly admired abroad. That we maintain good links with many former colonies through the Commonwealth is considered quite clever. People in Germany, France and Spain have all asked me why Britain bothers with the EU when it has got the Commonwealth. A good question.
Britain is also seen a symbol of diversity, tolerance and a place of refuge for fleeing totalitarian regimes, though the recent upsurge in Islamic fundamentalism in the UK is doing real damage to that honourable reputation.
While British liberals wring their hands when our politicians refuse to kowtow to Brussels, Europeans quietly cheer them on, wishing that their own passive politicians were made of sterner stuff and who would similarly stand up for their own.
“We need our own Margaret Thatcher” is a common refrain across the continent.
Europeans are also intrigued by the ability to maintain the distinctive regional identities, including the fascinating British-Indian culture, while also presenting a united British face to the world. At the same time Britons tend to be the most individualistic of Europeans.
Britain is admired also as the philosophical birthplace to both socialism and capitalism: Karl Marx wrote Das Kapital in London, Adam Smith penned The Wealth of Nations in Edinburgh.
While Brits are generally seen as friendly and approachable, even the football hooligan adds a hint of danger to the British brand.
For younger people, Britain is seen as the global breeding ground for youth and pop culture, starting with the swinging sixties and continuing with heavy metal, punk, ska, and latterly, Britpop.
Older people still see Britishness has a symbol of quality, an association that advertisers are all too keen to exploit. In Milan recently the ‘British style’ tweed and brogues were all the rage.
Interest in the British Royal family, the highest profile constitutional monarchy in the world, continues unabated around the world and with a Jubilee in the offing and William and Kate performing well, interest will continue to grow. At the same time Britons are admired for refusing to be too deferential. There is not a teenage girl in the continent that does not have a crush on a British posh boy. Prince Harry mostly.
The Europeans still think Britain is great, so why don’t the British?