Patriotism is back. The major political parties are vying over which is the most patriotic. The Runnymede Trust report on the future of multi-ethnic Britain published in October grapples with relevant issues. The naming of a Swede as the new England football manager aroused it in bucketloads. And the image of Olympic Gold Champion Denise Lewis wrapping herself in the Union Jack has become the most enduring image of the Sydney games in the hearts and minds of British people of all political persuasions.
So when Julian Blackwell, president of Blackwell's Bookshops, first had the idea two years ago of launching an essay competition on the subject of patriotism, he was a step ahead of the early 21st-century Zeitgeist. Not that he knew it or particularly cared. For Mr Blackwell, who is the fifth generation in his family to run the 150-year-old, multi-million pound book empire, it was more of a personal venture. A war veteran in a long line of war veterans, he is "about as English as they come". But, he insists, he is not fixated on patriotism. "I'm just proud to be British and want young people to be thinking about what it means to them."
The 50 or so sixth-form students who submitted essays on "what patriotism means to me" all had different thoughts on the subject. Some thought patriotism was a scourge, leading to nationalism, xenophobia and racism. Others saw it as a positive component of nationhood, drawing people together in a common vision. But all saw it as here to stay, although what patriotism precisely is was difficult to pinpoint.
I was delighted to be asked to join the panel of five judges whose job it was to pore over a shortlisted selection of 20 essays and choose eight prize winners, who will receive their awards later this month. It was fascinating reading. Some were earnest, others more light-hearted; some had highly polished writing skills, others struggled but persevered to say what they had to say.
Sarah Batley of Haberdahers' Aske's girls' school in Hertfordshire, who called her essay "Patriotism: a sleeping dragon or raging British bulldog?" won first prize for her original slant on the subject.
In her paper, she questions the notion of a long-gone golden age of British patriotism, noting that while the idea of a united Europe is gaining ground and the notion of the monarchy - in the minds of many - is losing it, you need only go to the last night of the Proms, or watch the Olympics, World Cup and Wimbledon to see "British people united in their national pride".
But she asks whether that is a good thing. Patriotism and nationalism have become the standard-bearers of the extreme Right, creating a "fine line between being proud to be British and believing that all those who are not are somehow inferior". She concludes, though, by asserting that "in its purest form, it encourages all people to put aside their selfish desires and work together for the common good".
Chloe Barton comes to a similar conclusion from a different angle. At the beginning of her essay, the joint second-prize winner from Ipswich high school admits that she is "simply not bothered" about Britain and being British.
She cringes at the last night of the Proms, even as she dabs her eyes with everybody else. "As my West Indian grandfather is fond of telling me," she says, "how can people in a multicultural, multi-ethnic society swallow the absurdities of Rule Britannia and Land of Hope and Glory?" But Chloe is visited by a muse in the shape of beer-bellied lorry drivers just as she begins to lose hope of finding a shred of patriotism within her. "A gift from the gods was placed before me on a silver platter. The fuel crisis. All of a sudden, being British has acquired a certain notoriety. Yes, we are standing up to the power that rules us and no, we will not be moved!" This, she concludes, is "a worthier type of patriotism altogether".
The Julian Blackwell Essay Prize is supported by The TES. The subject of the second competition will be announced in the new year.