Speech

Flag Institute spring meeting 2011

Draft text of the speech - may differ from the delivered version. Let me start by congratulating the Flag Institute on its first 40 years…


Draft text of the speech - may differ from the delivered version.

Let me start by congratulating the Flag Institute on its first 40 years. 40 years as a respected source of help and advice. Not only to the UK Government, but to the United Nations and other organisations around the world. 40 years of bringing together enthusiasts, educating the public, and spreading knowledge.

I wouldn’t, of course, claim to have anything like the expertise of your members. But it’s no secret that I share something of your enthusiasm.

Flags deserve respect:

  • they can exercise great power
  • rallying people behind a cause
  • inspiring pride

The power of flags to move people is written deep in our culture - everywhere from the Old Testament to Shakespeare.

And they matter as much as ever today. They give people a way of saying “we belong.” Whether it’s to their nation, or their county.

A flag is an object of pure joy. At the Royal Wedding, we saw flags in abundance. Flags representing the home countries of visitors from across the world. And our own flags. The Union Flag. The St George’s Cross. The Welsh dragon. The Saltire.

The display of our flags is a symbol of our shared union. Celebrating what makes the places we love distinct, and special, and unique. We shouldn’t be afraid of that sense of pride. We should join in the celebration.

Of course, not everyone agrees. Look at St George’s Day. Each year there are a small number of spoilsports in councils, and other public institutions, who don’t want to fly the St George’s Cross.

They say it’s health and safety: you’ll have someone’s eye out…

They say it’s cultural awareness and equality rules: someone, somewhere might be offended…

Well I’m not convinced by either of those explanations.

The real reason some are nervous is because some extreme groups have tried to wrap themselves up in the flag. Well I don’t think the answer is to wring our hands. To say: “take it away.” The answer is to say “that is ours. We’ll have it back, please.”

It would be disgraceful to leave the flag in the hands of people who want to put us asunder. When the fact is - our and local and national, flags unite people of every creed, class and colour. Community cohesion is strengthened - not undermined - by flying the flag.

That’s why in my Department we’ve stood up for common sense. We’ve made clear that at moments of national pride and celebration - the Royal Wedding, St George’s Day and the World Cup - people should feel free to celebrate by flying the flag. And public institutions should support them.

As well as being national symbols, flags can be a powerful way of celebrating local pride and identity. At my Department - we’ve made a point of flying the county flags of England. A different one every week. We’ve celebrated the astonishing variety of different English counties. From the bars of Northumberland, to the St Piran’s cross of Cornwall. And next week, we’ll be flying the flag of Middlesex.

Middlesex may be an historic county - and not a current unit of local government administration. But it retains its place in people’s memories and affections, despite attempts to wipe it off the map. That is hardly surprising, when the historic English counties are one of the oldest forms of local government in Western Europe. Their roots run deep. And no amount of administrative reshuffling can delete those longstanding and cherished local identities.

Neither Middlesex, nor the Ridings of Yorkshire - nor people’s sense of belonging to them - can be abolished by the stroke of a bureaucrat’s pen. In fact, we’re seeing interest in county flags grow. As you may know, Nottinghamshire held a poll last month on adopting a new county flag. That’s a symbol of the enduring strength of county’s identity.

Compare that with the so-called ‘government regions’. Supported by a complex and costly apparatus of regional bodies - Regional Development Agencies, Regional Assemblies, and Government Offices for the Regions. Unelected. Unaccountable. And striking very little chord with the people they were supposed to serve.

When asked, the case for regional government was overwhelmingly rejected by the people in the 2004 referendum on a North East assembly. Because people identify with their nation, town, city and county.

That’s why it is so worrying that, as part of its INTERREG programme, the European Union has invented ‘transnational regions’. One of these is the ‘Arc Manche’, designed to strengthen links between counties on the South coast of England and Departements in the North coast of France. A project on which millions of taxpayers’ money has been spent. This Government will be making very clear its opposition to the invention and promotion of artificial regions at public expense, be they European or home-grown.

It’s because they are powerful that flags deserve respect. And it’s right that we have rules setting out how and when different flags can be used. But today, I think it’s time to look again at some of those rules.

As you will know, there are a number of flags that can be flown without having to ask for express advertisement consent. These include national flags, county flags and the Commonwealth flag. To fly other flags, you have to apply for consent. This costs up to £335 a time.

But surely there are times when it might be appropriate to let people fly other flags, without requiring them to make an application.

…what about the Armed Forces Day flag?

…what about the school who want to celebrate the local regiment?

…what about the Australian pub who want to fly the Queensland flag in solidarity with people affected by floods?

…and what about the university who want to honour their foreign exchange guests by flying the flag of, say, Prague?

I intend to start a consultation, later this year, about whether - and how - we should extend the group of flags that can be flown without requiring consent. Making it easier for people to celebrate an identity or an organisation that means something to them.

There will be some important questions to think about. About how, exactly, we might extend the rules. About what it might mean for the councils who enforce them. And we would, of course, make sure that people would not be able to fly flags without the owners’ permission.

That’s why we will need a full debate. And I hope the Institute - with your wealth of expertise - will be able not just to play a full part in that debate, but to help us make sure we asking the right questions in the first place.

I began by saying that flags deserve respect.

The UK is very lucky in having - in the Institute - a group of dedicated and informed people who do a great deal to make sure that that respect is given.

In your first 40 years you have established your credentials not just in this country, but on the world stage. Over the next 40, there can be no doubt that you will continue to go from strength to strength.

I wish you every success, and look forward to the chance of continuing to talk with you over the months to come.