Wednesday, 14 January 2015

Doomed to fail

Clearly, flags and other symbols have a great deal of significance to many people.  Were that not the case, the UK Government would not have found it necessary to exempt the six counties of Northern Ireland from its decision to put the union flag on UK driving licences.  That exemption does, of course, underline that there’s no real need to have a flag there at all; the government could simply have decided to carry on with things as they were.  But no, they’ve decided to spend an unnecessary £188,000, at a time of cuts in more essential spending, on adding a flag to all UK mainland driving licences.
I don’t know how much more it would cost to vary the flag by country.  As far as I’m aware, although they’ve used the extra cost as part of their argument against doing that, they haven’t actually revealed what the extra cost would be.  But given the apparent low level of cost of including a flag in the first place, I can’t believe that it would be very much at all; certainly not the prohibitive amount of extra cost suggested by their response.  It’s the cost of giving people the option which they’re baulking at; the cost of merely varying the flag according to place of residence would be minimal.
The second quoted reason for rejecting the idea is probably the more important to them.  It would, said the Welsh Office Minister “strengthen the UK’s sense of national identity”; and of course, if that’s the objective, then offering anyone a choice would completely undermine it.  That second argument automatically renders the cost argument irrelevant anyway.  The whole point of the exercise is precisely that people do not have a choice in the matter.
But will it actually work?  For those who already consider themselves British, having their ‘national’ flag on their driving licence may, I suppose, have an almost imperceptible or subliminal effect on strengthening that feeling.  But it’s not as if the driving licence is something any of us look at daily; to have the desired effect, the flag would have to start appearing in a lot of other places as well. 
Maybe that’s their plan.  But if it is, they should also consider the effect on those who do not consider themselves primarily British.  For such people, being obliged to carry documents bearing a flag with which they feel no particularly strong sense of identity (and knowing that it’s been put there to try and make them feel more British)  will only serve as a reminder that they are citizens in a state which seeks to impose one particular sense of nationality upon them.  And I would have thought that would turn out to be counter-productive for supporters of the UK in both Wales and Scotland.
Perhaps it isn’t such a bad decision after all.
Actually, I can understand why the UK state would seek to try and strengthen the feeling of identity which its citizens have with it.  And I don’t doubt that the governments of an independent Wales or Scotland would seek to do the same.  It’s a common theme across the world, not least because for most countries, identity with the state post-dates rather than pre-dates the establishment of state boundaries.  Most boundaries reflect the results of conflict rather than older national or more local identity; preserving those boundaries requires states to try and build an identity around them.
Whether ‘preserving those boundaries’ is the right thing to do is another matter entirely, but it’s not a matter for this post.  The problem which the UK state has is that those in charge know that they want to do it, they know that they need to rebuild a UK identity in order to achieve it, but they haven’t really got much of a clue about how to do it.  And in thrashing around looking for a way forward, one of the very best ideas that they can come up with is forcing all drivers to carry a licence with a union jack on it.  But if that’s the best they can do, their efforts are doomed to failure.
As I say, perhaps it isn’t such a bad decision after all…

4 comments:

Gareth said...

I've sent an FoI request in for their assessment of the extra costs for offering a Welsh flag.

David Humphreys said...

In my opinion this illustrates the fragility of the British state. Identity by imposition is doomed to failure and even the most ardent "Britnat" must be cringing at this clumsy attempt. As you so rightly say if this is their best attempt at shoring up "Britishness" it will fail miserably

Cai Larsen said...

Dwi'n credu mai'r rheswm am y gwahaniaeth efo Gogledd Iwerddon ydi bod y mater wedi ei ddatganoli. Cenedlaetholwr ydi'r gweinidog sy'n gyfrifol.

Spirit of BME said...

The cost of putting different flags must be massive, if you compare it at items HMG is prepared to spend on other items. Example, the main RAF base in Afghanistan had the taxiways resurfaced at a cost to the tax payer of £70 million six months before they were “pulled out”