Sunday, May 08, 2011

The (Not-So) Great Flag Debate

Coalition partners at odds over EU flag

In 1964, Canadian politicians struggled with what would turn out to be a pivotal question: should Canada adopt its own flag? And, if so, what should it be?

Then-Prime Minister Lester Pearson and the Liberal Party captured the imaginations of many Canadians -- particularly the country's youth -- by standing in favour of a uniquely Canadian flag. Then-Leader of the Opposition John Diefenbaker and the Conservative Party stood in favour of continuing to use the Red Ensign -- featuring the iconic Union Jack.

History does not look particularly fondly on Diefenbaker's position on the great flag debate. The Liberals would go on to govern uninterrupted for another 15 years. The brief Tory interegnum, led by Joe Clark, would last a mere nine months before the Liberals would govern for another four.

The debate being waged within Britain's governing coalition of the Conservative Party and the Liberal Democratic Party may not seem nearly as definitive as Canada's 1964 debate. Yet it will have political consequences nonetheless.

In Europe, May 9 is known as Europe Day. It specifically celebrates the creation of the European Union.

The European Union may be one of the most divisive issues within Britain's coalition government. The Conservatives tend to favour a stand-offish approach to the EU, while the Lib Dems prefer to embrace it.

Within the government, this division can be seen in the differing approaches to whether or not the flag of the European Union is being flown on Europe Day. Department for Business Minister Vince Cable will be flying the EU flag over his ministerial offices.

Foreign Affairs Minister William Hague will not.

The Tories haven't always been stridently opposed to the European Union. Britain's membership in the European Union was the doing of Tory Prime Minister Edward Heath, who led Britain into the European Economic Community in 1973.

It was Heath's intention that Britain would enjoy economic benefits from its membership, but few Conservatives could have predicted that the EEC would steadily grow in scope, expand the political authority it intended to exercise over member states.

During its time in office, the Cameron government has made it clear that it would not allow any laws passed by the European Parliament to take effect in Britain without strict ratification by the British Parliament.

This eye on Britain's sovereignty has characterized British public opinion on the European Union. Britons have been tremendously skeptical about the EU. That the Tony Blair government declined to replace Pounds Sterling with the Euro as the currency of the UK was largely a function of public opinion on the issue.

As William Hague and the Tories refuse to fly the flag of the European Union on Europe Day, they're likely well in line with public opinion on the matter.

Vince Cable flying the EU flag is hardly on outrage, but it seems to demonstrate a disconnect from British public opinion on this issue; one that could further trouble his already-troubled party.

It was a similiar disconnect from public sentiment that likely finalized John Diefenbaker's departure from the Prime Minister's office, and that allowed the Liberal Party to eventually transition to Pierre Trudeau's leadership without initially breaking a sweat (although there would be some tense moments in 1972).

The Liberal Democrats could hardly be accused of repeating Diefenbaker's mistake in its fullest scope. But they may come to regret their repudiation of public sentiment on the European Union. Gordon Brown arguably did.

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