‘What is the matter with these people?’ is probably the reaction of many in Great Britain when observing the escalating violence in Northern Ireland in relation to – well – just a flag.
Although it is true that it is currently unlikely that there would be mass demonstrations on English streets over what flag was flown over the town hall and when, it is remarkable how few councillors really pause to think about the symbols used in their own councils and the potential effects on the people they aim to represent.
I did a quick audit of the two councils which put up with me as a member: one (a district) hangs the local St Albans flag in its council chamber alongside the union flag (it used to be the EU flag under the Lib Dems). There are pictures of the royal family on the walls, even though none has a particular local connection.
The other (a county) flies the county flag most days and the union flag every day: the latter is a recent innovation stemming from the moment when the then Tory leader discovered to his irritation that the council had been instructed to add to its designated days (days, as we learn from Belfast, when you are required to fly the union flag) the birthday of the Countess of Wessex. Daily flag-flying was a neat Tory rebellion – obey the rules but utterly undermine them.
There is also a rather nice picture of the Queen Mother, who does have a particular connection with part of the county.
This is normal England: so what? Start from the other end. If you were designing from scratch a new elected body tasked with making decisions about supplying local services and raising the appropriate revenues, what would it look like?
Would it have any of its members in fancy dress (eg fur-lined robes)? Would its members avoid using first names even when meeting in private? Would someone be employed to carry around an ornate metal object in front of the new organisation’s chairman?
And, dare I say it, would there be compulsory Christian prayers at the beginning of key meetings?
The answer is obviously no. Nor would issues like where to locate the flagpole and what to fly on it be high on your “to do” list.
But surely this doesn’t matter in England, Scotland or Wales? The danger, of course, is that we don’t notice how it matters. It matters if there is no reaching out to an area’s ethnic minorities because it tells them that the council is not really very interested in their existence, culture or ultimately opinions.
It also matters if a council does not reach out to the rest of its population: meetings conducted with ritual aggression, flamboyant language and fancy dress just say to the public: ‘We are not like you. We are grand and you are not.’
A dose of twenty-first century modernity is needed throughout this United Kingdom.
* Chris White is a Hertfordshire County Councillor and Deputy Leader (Policy) of the Liberal Democrat Group at the Local Government Association