What was your first reaction when you saw them, all those England flags fluttering from the windows of cars and vans in the first week of June? Against the backdrop of elections in which the British National Party (BNP) was threatening to do well, you could have been forgiven for being concerned. Was this flag-waving the herald of a wave of xenophobia about to sweep the country? Was the belligerent nationalism of the football terraces about to manifest itself at the ballot box? Did these thousands of St George's flags represent a rejection of multiculturalism in favour of a narrow English identity?
These questions could have been answered by looking at the occupants of cars adorned with the England flag. They seemed largely made up of families with kids who had pestered Mum or Dad to let them show their support for the national football team. Yes, they flew from white vans, but some of those vans were driven by black guys. There were even a few Asian drivers flying the flag for the team.
I would have been much more concerned if there had been a spate of cars flying the Union Jack. In their campaigns for the elections, the BNP and the UK Independence Party (Ukip) used the British flag to represent everything that they stand for: an inward-looking, white society, angry at the present, fearful of the future, clinging to the past. There is an ugly xenophobia out there, but it's waving the Union Jack.
Friends of mine argue that the same connotations are inherent in the flag of St George. They also point to its association with the violence and racism that follows the England football team when it travels abroad. Surely, flying the English flag is an endorsement of that belligerent nationalism? Those of us who support England look with envy at the way the Scots were able to transform themselves from one of the most feared groups of football fans into some of the most popular supporters to be found at international tournaments.
By making a conscious effort to isolate the hooligan element, the England fans are, at last, beginning to change too. Travel bans have played a part in this, but it has been initiatives undertaken by the fans themselves that have improved the atmosphere. Concerned that their reputation was preceding them, the fans have organised trips into local schools in places where their team is playing.
During Euro 2004 a group of England fans visited the Nuno Goncalves Secondary School in the poor Sapadores district of Lisbon. Around 30 fans, some wearing T-shirts emblazoned with the word obrigado (Portuguese for "thank you") gave up their morning to help the pupils practise their spoken English.
While the genuine fans were doing their best to make a good impression where England were playing, hundreds of miles away from the football it was all going off in Albufeira. Guess which event got the most coverage? Genuine fans were furious, pointing out that Albufeira is a well-known trouble spot where drunken, violent Brits are arrested every weekend. Back at the matches, the behaviour of England fans was exemplary. More arrests were made at Glastonbury Festival than in Lisbon on the night that England were knocked out of Euro 2004 by Portugal.
England's travelling support is changing. The fans themselves are making a real effort to join in the celebrations at international tournaments. The new atmosphere that they are creating is starting to produce results. In Portugal, the policing of fans was much more low-key, allowing the supporters to have a good time without them being constantly harassed by riot police looking for confrontation. For the first time groups of black and Asian fans were present, wearing the England shirt with pride. And why shouldn't they? Take a look at the 11 men who wear that shirt on the pitch. They are a visible representation of what England is: a multicultural society in which the right to play for the national team is not decided by race, but by talent.
Far from representing a narrow definition of English identity, those thousands of St George's flags could be seen as an endorsement of this idea, in which the right to be English is accessible to anyone, no matter what their background. This notion was best illustrated by a group that I saw crossing the Thames via Westminster Bridge on the day that England played Switzerland. Two Muslim women, dressed in full-length black burkas, were holding the hands
of two boys aged maybe five or six who may well have been their sons. The two boys were wearing identical red shirts, on which the word "BECKHAM" was emblazoned in Olde English script. Underneath was a small flag of St George.
I am concerned that as those kids grow up they will come under pressure to make a choice between being either a Muslim or an England supporter. Clearly the two are not mutually exclusive, yet reactionary forces within both Islam and English nationalism share a vested interest in enforcing an exclusionary view of society. Shouldn't we on the left oppose this by working to create an inclusive sense of English identity that is open to everyone?
I am well aware that this is a difficult subject. Over the years the left has declined to contest this ground with the far right. Unfortunately, this has had the effect of allowing the racists to define who is and who is not English. Our approach to this issue needs to change because, whether we like it or not, the rise of Ukip has put nationalism on the agenda. When the working classes raise the flag of St George to express their identity, have we nothing to say to them except to condemn them as bigots?
Over the next few years, as Ukip continues to define its idea of society in terms of what it doesn't like, a space will open up in which to create an alternative identity that exemplifies the things that we do like about ourselves. Just as our Scottish and Welsh neighbours have always defined themselves against the negative aspects of their big neighbour, we now have an opportunity to do something similar.
In Scotland minority political parties have already embraced a new sense of nationalism to draw voters away from the big three parties in support of progressive ideas. The Scottish Socialist Party sees no contradiction in being both nationalist and internationalist. Compare the anti-racist nationalism of the Scottish National Party to the very different position taken by the BNP.
Could a similar transformation occur in England? Obviously, it is a larger country than Scotland and has a far higher degree of multi-ethnicity. On purely demographic terms, the English identity is highly diverse; this is a historical fact that gives us something to build on.
Because of our diversity, it is impossible to imagine a contemporary vision of England that does not reflect the multicultural nature of our society. Equally, we have to accept that multiculturalism, by its very nature, must make room for everyone to express their culture, including the English.
There can be no coercion here, no list of tastes and traits that define "the English". Identity is a very personal thing, and some will feel that they just do not belong within such designations. But think again of that Muslim family on Westminster Bridge. I want those two little boys to feel that they can be part of the English community if they so choose.
I believe that the events of recent months have put the flag of St George in a neutral position within our culture. It no longer automatically represents a belligerent nationalism spoiling for a fight. It has become one of a number of symbols that we use to identify ourselves at international sporting celebrations. As Ukip reduces Britishness to little more than Ulster Unionism without the sense of humour, let's bring the flag of St George home and reclaim it as one of the symbols that we use to express an alternative identity that is diverse, outward-looking and inclusive.