U.K. Government, Sensing an Opportunity, Wraps Itself in the Flag

LONDON — It started last week when the host of the BBC’s morning show mocked a cabinet minister, Robert Jenrick, for the Union Jack hanging conspicuously behind him, next to a portrait of Queen Elizabeth II. The flag, the host cracked, was not “up to standard-size government interview measurements.”

The host, Charlie Stayt, and his co-host, Naga Munchetty, who chuckled along, were quickly in hot water. After the BBC came under fire for disrespecting the British flag, both were reprimanded. Ms. Munchetty apologized for liking “offensive” Twitter posts that joined in the mockery of the minister’s flag.

Never one to duck a culture-war skirmish, the Conservative government of Prime Minister Boris Johnson has seized on the flag flap to try to keep opponents on the defensive and the dissolution of the United Kingdom at bay.

On Wednesday, it decreed that, henceforth, the Union Jack should fly on all government buildings every day of the year, rather than simply on designated days. The only exception will be regional holidays when, say, the Scottish flag, the Saltire, would fly in Scotland on St. Andrew’s Day.

revised guidance on flags, noted that in the United States, the Stars and Stripes flies year-round, not just on federal buildings but also at schools and in front of polling places. Likewise in Australia, the national flag can be flown every day of the year from federal and state parliaments.

Britons tend to be less demonstrative about their flag than the citizens of their former colonies. Unlike Americans, they rarely hang it in front of their homes. The Union Jack arouses ambivalent emotions among some on the left, who associate it with Britain’s imperial past, and in parts of the United Kingdom, particularly Scotland, where pro-independence feelings run strong.

That, of course, is precisely the point for a government that is desperate to avert another referendum on independence for Scotland after elections there in May in which the Scottish National Party is expected to win a strong mandate.

was taken to task by a Conservative lawmaker, James Wild, for not publishing an image of the Union Jack in the broadcaster’s 268-page annual report.

“Do you find that surprising?” Mr. Wild asked, to which Mr. Davie replied, “No, I think that’s a strange metric.”

A former marketing executive who was chosen because of his ability to get along with the government, Mr. Davie pointed out that the BBC promotes Britain worldwide. The Union Jack, he said, flew proudly from its London headquarters.

Critics on Twitter lost no time lampooning the new reverence for the flag. They coined an off-color hashtag and attributed it to unhealthy nationalism, post-Brexit insecurity or cynical politics.

“This may be very ‘20th Century’ of me,” posted Simon Fraser, formerly the senior civil servant at the Foreign Office, “but I do worry when politicians start getting obsessive about flags.”

he posted.

Clare Hepworth, a trade unionist, quoted Bill Moyers, a broadcaster and former aide to President Lyndon B. Johnson, who once said of politicians who brandish flags, “They’re counting on your patriotism to distract you from their plunder.”

And, of course, it was another Johnson, Samuel, who in the 18th century famously said, “patriotism is the last refuge of the scoundrel.”

At a time when the government is winning broad public support for its coronavirus vaccine rollout — the country’s largest mass mobilization since World War II — a manufactured row over flags might seem unnecessary.

proposing to air two beloved patriotic songs without their lyrics because they evoked a colonial past that is at odds with the values of the Black Lives Matter movement.

outfitted at a reported cost of 2.6 million pounds, or about $3.5 million. He will be flanked by no fewer than four Union Jacks.

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Johnson Hopes Vaccine Success Can Inoculate Him Against Brexit Critics

LONDON — Britain’s rapid rollout of coronavirus vaccines has revived the political fortunes of Prime Minister Boris Johnson. Now, Mr. Johnson’s allies hope the stark disparity between Britain’s performance and the European Union’s will do something perhaps even more challenging: vindicate their larger Brexit project.

Pro-Brexit politicians and commentators are casting Britain’s vaccine deployment, which ranks among the fastest in the world, as an example of risk-taking and entrepreneurial pluck that comes from not being shackled to the collective decision-making of the 27 member states of the European Union.

With vaccination rates that are a fraction of Britain’s, threats of export bans on vaccines produced on the continent and churlish statements about British-made vaccines by leaders like President Emmanuel Macron of France, the European Union has seemingly done all it can to make it look like Britain picked the right time to leave.

“It is the first serious test that the U.K. state has faced since Brexit,” said Matthew Goodwin, a professor of politics at the University of Kent who studies the British right. “Boris Johnson is going to have a vaccine dividend, and that will give him a whole new narrative for the summer and beyond.”

the costs of Brexit since Britain severed itself from the European Union in January — damaging disruptions to cross-channel trade and businesses choking on reams of red tape, among other headaches. And it conveniently ignores the harrowing experience many Britons had with the virus before the first vaccine “jabs” arrived last December.

according to a new survey conducted by Ipsos MORI for the E.U.-U.K. Forum, an organization that promotes cross-Channel dialogue. Only 12 percent said they thought Britain had performed worse while 14 percent thought both had handled things equally well.

For all its early stumbles, said Kelly Beaver, managing director of Public Affairs at Ipsos MORI, “the British public feel that overall, the government has done well compared to its E.U. counterparts, no doubt a halo effect of the vaccination program that has, to date, been incredibly successful.”

Significantly, a slight plurality of those surveyed — 40 percent — said they thought Brexit had helped improve Britain’s handling of the pandemic, while 14 percent said it had made it worse, and 38 percent thought it had made no difference.

Overall, the survey shows that the strength of feeling over Brexit has faded somewhat although a majority expect it to increase food prices and make European vacations more difficult. And Britons remain sharply divided, not just over E.U. membership but also on other issues like crime, British values and political correctness.

Mr. Johnson’s vaccine bounce, analysts point out, could be fleeting if a new variant emerges or if the economy does not recover swiftly.

But Mr. Goodwin said one consequence of the vaccine success is that there are few signs of significant numbers of people rethinking the wisdom of Brexit or suffering the acute regret — or as he called it, “Bregret” — that some expected.

The British media has understandably given more coverage to the 28 million people who have been inoculated than to the post-Brexit trade disruptions that have afflicted some British food and seafood exports and left supermarket shelves in Northern Ireland empty.

The monthslong shutdown of much of Britain’s economy will also complicate the task of identifying the negative effects of Brexit, since they are likely to be lost in a sea of red ink. And long before the pandemic, economists predicted that Brexit’s biggest cost would be to dampen economic expansion, an effect that would compound almost imperceptibly over many years, rather than create a sudden shock.

In any event, the vaccine rollout has helped the government to hone a separate and distinct argument for Brexit, one that emphasizes responsibility and accountability over economic costs or benefits.

David Frost, a former diplomat who negotiated the Brexit trade agreement for Mr. Johnson and is now a cabinet minister, articulated this case earlier this month when he said Britain’s membership in the European Union had stifled its initiative, producing “a kind of institutional paralysis.”

Britain faced problems “which we seemed to find very difficult to summon up the will to resolve, and I do think E.U membership had a kind sapping quality to our ability to take decisions,” he said at the Policy Exchange, a research institute.

“Brexit doesn’t solve those problems,” Mr. Frost added, “but it does give us means to solve them, to move on, to get a grip but also to reform our attitudes and become a country that can deal with problems again.”

Britain, officials point out, made risky bets on multiple vaccine candidates and aggressively locked up supplies in advance — characteristics, they say, that were conspicuously lacking in the European Union’s plodding, lockstep, risk-averse approach.

But critics argue that Britain could have done much of what it did as an active member of the European Union. The British medical regulator always had the right to approve vaccines, on an emergency basis, faster than the rest of the bloc — as it did last December — and the government always had the freedom to buy doses separately from the bloc, as some other E.U. countries have since done.

The strengths of Britain’s rollout, these critics said, are rooted in its robust scientific establishment, which developed the AstraZeneca-University of Oxford vaccine, and its widely revered National Health Service, which has delivered the doses. Neither of those were strengthened by leaving the European Union.

Britain cut its own deal with AstraZeneca, an Anglo-Swedish company, which is at the heart of its clash with the European Union, which was slower to make such purchases. Brussels has accused the company of giving Britain preferential treatment at the expense of the bloc.

European leaders will be weighing a plan this week to halt vaccine exports temporarily as a way to demand reciprocity with Britain and other countries, and that could leave Britain — and Mr. Johnson — badly exposed. The country relies heavily on vaccines manufactured in factories in Belgium and other European countries to keep the pace of its inoculations going.

“What Brexit changes is Britain’s ability to protect the overseas parts of its supply chains,” said Mark Malloch Brown, a diplomat and former Labour government minister who chaired an anti-Brexit group, Best for Britain. “The crisis, looked at from the other end, exposes Britain’s vulnerability.”

Britain’s reliance on the European Union goes beyond a steady supply of vaccines. It is by far Britain’s largest trading partner, and the two sides have close links in security and law enforcement. While Mr. Johnson himself has avoided using overtly provocative language against Brussels, he has overseen a rapid deterioration in relations since Britain officially cast off on Jan. 1.

“I’m worried that they’re getting so carried away by the evidence that Brexit was a good thing, that they’re going to carry on dissing Europe,” said Jonathan Powell, who served as chief of staff to Prime Minister Tony Blair. “Then the next time we need them for something, it’s going to backfire on us.”

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As Europe’s Lockdowns Drag on, Police and Protesters Clash More

LONDON — In Bristol, an English college town where the pubs are usually packed with students, there were fiery clashes between police and protesters. In Kassel, a German city known for its ambitious contemporary art festival, the police unleashed pepper spray and water cannons on anti-lockdown marchers.

A year after European leaders ordered people into their homes to curb a deadly pandemic, thousands are pouring into streets and squares. Often, they are met by batons and shields, raising questions about the tactics and role of police in societies where personal liberties have already given way to public health concerns.

From Spain and Denmark to Austria and Romania, frustrated people are lashing out at the restrictions on their daily lives. With much of Europe facing a third wave of infections that could keep these stifling lockdowns in place weeks or even months longer, analysts warn that tensions on the streets are likely to escalate.

In Britain, where the rapid pace of vaccinations has raised hopes for a faster opening of the economy than the government is willing to countenance, frustration over recent police conduct has swelled into a national debate over the legitimacy of the police — one that carries distant echoes of the Black Lives Matter movement in the United States.

sense of outrage is the case of Sarah Everard, a 33-year-old woman who was abducted and killed, allegedly by a police officer, while walking home in London. The Metropolitan Police then roughly broke up a vigil for Ms. Everard on the grounds that the participants were violating coronavirus rules on social distancing.

The potential for more such confrontations is high, Mr. Stott said, citing “the warmer weather, duration of the lockdown and increasing dissatisfaction among sections of the community about the imposition of control measures.”

a crowd pulled down the statue of a 17th century slave trader, Edward Colston, and dumped it into Bristol Harbor.

This time, however, he fears that the images of shattered windows and burned police vehicles will help Prime Minister Boris Johnson pass the police law, which has already cleared two key hurdles in Parliament.

“The consequences of what they’ve done is to increase the likelihood of that bill winning support,” Mr. Rees said.

For many in Britain, that would be a bitter irony, given that the pandemic has already led to the greatest restriction of civil liberties in recent memory. Coronavirus regulations that were expected to last no more than a few months have now been in place for a year, causing tensions between police and the public not just at protests, but also at house parties and even with those meeting outside for coffee.

Early in the pandemic, one local police force used drones to shame a couple walking a dog on a lonely path. The owners of gyms and sports clubs were raided by police when they opened against the regulations.

An earlier version of the government’s coronavirus regulations contained a provision that allowed nonviolent protests. But that was removed from a later version, leaving the right to peaceful assembly in a kind of legal limbo. Under the latest draft of the rules, issued on Monday, protests would be allowed under limited circumstances, starting next Monday.

These emergency laws were rushed through Parliament without the scrutiny normally applied to legislation. Lacking a written constitution, Britons who want to take to the streets have to rely on the less clear-cut protection of a human rights act.

By contrast, Germany’s Federal Constitutional Court last year upheld the right of its citizens to protest, provided that they adhered to social distancing rules.

“This pandemic has exposed the weaknesses of our unwritten constitution when it comes to certain rights,” said Adam Wagner, a human rights lawyer and expert on the coronavirus rules. “If you take representative democracy from the process of lawmaking, you miss out on key voices.”

The government makes other arguments for the policing bill. Cabinet ministers note, for example, that the security costs of protecting a new high-speed rail link from environmental protesters has been 50 million pounds, or $69 million.

Priti Patel, the home secretary, condemned the clashes in Bristol has “thuggery and disorder” and said protecting the police was the government’s top priority — though not, she added, of some members of the opposition.

“We have been clear that to save lives and fight this pandemic, people must not currently hold large gatherings,” she said in a statement to Parliament. “Too many this weekend selfishly decided that this did not apply to them.”

Further raising the political temperature, the policing bill is moving through Parliament at the same moment as the government’s renewal of its coronavirus regulations, which also drew fire from the libertarian right.

“The Coronavirus Act contains some of the most draconian detention powers in modern British legal history,” said Mark Harper, who chairs the Covid Recovery Group, a caucus of Conservative lawmakers critical of the lockdown rules.

While many say the debate on the role of the police in Britain is overdue, some sympathize with the plight of the officers. They are caught between politicians and the public, with a nebulous constitutional status and a shifting set of rules to enforce, particularly during a public health emergency.

“It’s not the fault of the police that the coronavirus regulations are in part necessarily draconian and in parts unnecessarily draconian,” said Shami Chakrabarti, an expert in civil liberties and a Labour Party politician.

The bigger problem, she said, is that Britain tends to conduct debates about the role of the police after wrenching episodes like a police shooting, the killing of Ms. Everard or the violent clashes in Bristol. This inflames public opinion in one direction or the other, she says, but can get in the way of a thoughtful debate.

“We almost only ever have this discussion in moments of crisis,” Ms. Chakrabarti said, “not in peacetime.”

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