Saturday, January 14, 2006

Rudyard Kipling answers Gordon Brown

Britain should have a day to celebrate its national identity, says Gordon Brown. He has urged Labour supporters to "embrace the Union flag".

The BBC report adds:

"What is our equivalent for a national celebration of who we are and what we stand for?" Mr Brown said.

"And what is our equivalent of the national symbolism of a flag in the United States in every garden?"

Isn't there something very unBritish about these sorts of display? Isn't our reticence, our lack of swagger, one of the most appealing things about us Britons? At the very least, isn't that how we like to think of ourselves?

The whole point of out national myth - the Arthurian legends - is that is something indistinct and only half remembered.

Rudyard Kipling understood this. One of his Stalky & Co school stories deals with the boys' outrage when a visiting speaker browbeats them about mysteries that an upright fellow just does not talk about:

And so he worked towards his peroration - which, by the way, he used later with overwhelming success at a meeting of electors - while they sat, flushed and uneasy, in sour disgust. After many many words, he reached for the cloth-wrapped stick and thrust one hand in his bosom. This - this was the concrete symbol of their land - worthy of all honour and reverence! Let no boy look on this flag who did not purpose to worthily add to its imperishable lustre. He shook it before them - a large calico Union Jack, staring in all three colours, and waited for the thunder of applause that should crown his effort.

They looked in silence. They had certainly seen the thing before - down at the coastguard station, or through a telescope, half-mast high when a brig went ashore on Braunton sands; above the roof of the Golf Club, and in Keyte's window, where a certain kind of striped sweetmeat bore it in paper on each box. But the College never displayed it; it was no part of the scheme of their lives; the Head had never alluded to it; their fathers had not declared it unto them. It was a matter shut up, sacred and apart. What, in the name of everything caddish, was he driving at, who waved that horror before their eyes? Happy thought! Perhaps he was drunk...

They discussed the speech in the dormitories. There was not one dissentient voice. Mr. Raymond Martin, beyond question, was born in a gutter, and bred in a Board-school, where they played marbles. He was further (I give the barest handful from great store) a Flopshus Cad, an Outrageous Stinker, a Jelly-bellied Flag-flapper (this was Stalky's contribution), and several other things which it is not seemly to put down.

The snobbery is hateful, but you can see that Kipling - the poet of Empire would have no sympathy for Gordon Brown's idea. It would make Brown, in Stalky's language, "a Jelly-bellied Flag-flapper".

That idea stems from Brown's love of all things American, from New Labour's anxiety about the multiracial society it professes to celebrate and from their socialist desire to police our emotions.

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