A black day if New Zealanders confuse fervour with patriotism in flag referendum

To base a nation's flag on a sports team is clearly a sentimental blunder. A black flag is a bad idea.

New Zealanders are to vote in a referendum on keeping their flag, with its Union Jack and Southern Cross, or adopting a new one - a silver frond of ponga on black, perhaps.

A ponga is a tree fern and has figured on All Blacks' jerseys since the 19th century. The full insignia of the team includes the words ''All Blacks'' in capital letters with a wee ® after it. It is not clear whether the referendum would include a reference to this registered trademark symbol.

One thing is certain. A black flag is a bad idea. ''Black Flag has killed more insects than any other insecticide,'' claims an American company founded in 1833.

That's not the worst connotation of black flags. Whether or not Mohammed flew a black flag, some people seem to think that the advent of the Mahdi will be ushered in by one before the Day of Judgment. As it is, some jihadists show off a black flag inscribed with writing, such as the shahada, the Muslim declaration of belief.

The contrary to that is as bad: the black flag of anarchism, which declares belief in nothing much. If it has father or mother it is probably the Jolly Roger skull and crossbones of the 18th-century pirates. It seems unlikely that our cousins the New Zealanders will vote en masse to align themselves with jihadism, anarchy and piracy. Still, you never know.

Why drop the Union Jack in the upper hoist canton of their flag? For, between you and me, most other countries' flags aren't up to much. A flag should be possible to stitch together at short notice (to fly above a hasty barricade). That is impossible if the flag has a picture of some animal on. In the middle of the flag of Mexico (a proud and dignified nation), is depicted a complete nature ramble: a flowering cactus perched on by an eagle (or a quebrantahuesos, a bone-smashing vulture) flailing a snake around. Only a regiment of vexillological seamstresses saved General Santa Anna from being late at the Alamo and letting Davy Crockett and Jim Bowie survive to skin a thousand more racoons.


Without the flora and fauna, the Mexican flag looks worryingly like the flag of Italy. This is the other reason for most flags being feeble.

Each country proudly knows its own flag, and is a little confused about everyone else's.

The blue, yellow and red of Romania is identical to Chad's, unless you have a Pantone colour chart ready to hand. And are you confident that you can distinguish the horizontal red and white of Monaco from that of Indonesia?

So Britain is more than blessed in having a flag, which, if a little jazzy, is like no other. While in America schoolchildren sing songs to the flag, in Britain it is cheerily put on coffee mugs and knickers, and no one thinks anything of it. Yet it goes without saying than any British woman or man would die for the country - at least it used to go without saying.

I do not think New Zealanders will become more patriotic by adopting a flag based on sporting colours. Sports fans may think they experience the same feelings wrapped in the team strip or scarf as they would if they beheld the country's flag - flying maybe at half mast - or if they rallied to the nation's colours in the chaos of battle. This is a pernicious confusion begotten of sentimentalism. A sporting victory may bring a tear to the eye. But even England's little flags of St George (too often printed idiotically with the word ''England'') only turn sport into a weak metaphor for patriotism. You choose to support a team. You do not choose a country to support. It chooses you. If Britain slips down the world rankings, you do not jump ship to support Turkey, say.

The Queen is queen of New Zealand. That country might decide to become a republic, with an ephemeral president to die for, as commander-in-chief. Until then, it would devalue its patriotic capacity by aping sports fanaticism.

Telegraph, London