A man who lived over the road from me in the UK was branded a racist by some, and those who passed his house often remarked on him being a bit of an oddity. Maybe he exuded this trait because of his military background, his lack of higher education, or his working class roots. He was after all, a stocky and rather hard looking guy with a shaven head and tattoos down each arm, so the fact that many deduced that his character erred on the side of xenophobia might seem mildly understandable, even if a little unfair and loosely based on a few tired stereotypes.
The reality is though, it was none of these things that earned him this title. It was an action that has become a symbol of aggressive and uncouth nationalism in my country, an action which out of the context of everyday UK life, here in Estonia, seems quite normal. He flew the British Union Jack flag from the side of his house…. that’s it.
To an Estonian this may seem very odd. Why would such an action draw such criticism and scorn? You must then understand that the union jack, like many things in UK society, has an appropriate time and place. Unfortunately, those acceptable times and places are becoming significantly reduced. Whilst Estonia celebrated Europe Day this weekend with a national flag on every building, the UK was nursing the hangover of an election that produced quite a surprising result.
Polls suggested that the two major parties would be neck and neck, resulting in the closest fought election of all time. Samantha Cameron, our Prime Minister’s wife, began clearing out their family’s flat at Number 10 Downing Street to make way for the next tenants, whilst Ed Miliband, the Labour leader and contender for that very position, was confidently planning the layout of his next kitchen. But it didn’t go his way, the Conservatives won to everyone’s surprise. What does this have to do with the appropriate use of a flag you say? Everything.
Let’s dispel any myths about the British Conservatives. They are a centre-right party, which is pretty left wing compared to centre right parties around Europe, Estonia included. David Cameron the leader and UK prime minister is an incredibly well-educated and well-connected man, he’s privileged whether we like it or not and appears to be doing a fairly good job so far. They have their fair share of rebellious backbenchers who lean a little further to the right, but they’re generally kept in check by the rest of the party.
However, the party suffers from the same plight as our flag; people are afraid to admit they quite like them. When questioned by pollsters about their voting preferences a significant percentage of people said they were undecided. Virtually the same percentage by which the Conservatives lept ahead on the day of the election. People of Britain are ashamed of their support for the Conservatives like they’re ashamed or afraid to fly their own country’s flag.
Here in Estonia there appears to be a responsible and positive approach to nationalism. Pride in your country does not necessarily translate into disdain for others, and although a wariness does exist (if a little obsessively sometimes), it doesn’t come across aggressively. You are actively encouraged to love your country, celebrate the achievements of Estonia and fellow Estonians, pay homage to the brave of history to which you owe your freedoms.
If we British want to do these kinds of things we have to involve the Royals, giving us a safe window in which we may display the British flag in the streets and around our homes. I now even find myself wanting distance from any nationalist leanings, as those types of people are often everything the man down my road is said to be. This is where the problem lies.
Having spent a couple of years in Russia before arriving here, I have to say that I saw more British flags on a daily basis there than ever in the UK, even here in Estonia they are more widespread than back home. On bags, t-shirts, smartphone covers, even furniture! If people around the world can love my country, why do I feel so uncomfortable doing the same thing?
I watch the Estonians proudly flying their flag on special days with feelings of envy and frustration, emotions roused by nostalgia for a lost time, a time when the Union Jack united people, instead of dividing them. Our flag is in danger of being hijacked by the extreme far right, who are winding up the uneducated and ignorant into an anti-immigration frenzy. We’re losing the ability to responsibly love our country and all the symbolism that goes with it.
One of the things that make Britain great is the diversity within our society, a society made up of many ethnic groups who generally live happily alongside one another. The use of the nations flag to push hate and history in the faces of established and settled groups with every right to be there is wrong, as a nation we need to stand up to the far right and reclaim our national symbols.
I’m proud of my country, but for quite different reasons to those who abuse the notion of patriotism. My pride comes from the contrasts of culture, from the tolerance of right thinking people and from the lesson we often give to the rest of the world in how those who choose to live in another country, for whatever reasons, should be treated.
Estonians are a very proud nation, but as far as I’ve seen they take pleasure from involving others in their nationalism. Their pride and their history shared and celebrated with foreigners seems to give them the ultimate pleasure; a small country with a big heart.
David Cameron now has a responsibility to nurture these kinds of feelings in the UK, so we like the Estonians, can love our country ethically, inclusively and without prejudice. He would be a fool to turn his back on this, as it forms the very cornerstone of a modern British Conservative party.
First published in Postimees, Saturday 23rd May 2015