Union flags alone are not enough
Even vexed vexillologists know fighting separatism needs more than three colours
I like flags enough to collect them. From my teenage years I adopted a simple rule of trying to purchase the flag of any country I visited and when in the US I would buy the flag of any state I was travelling through. The collection is now quite a decent size and still growing. So you might think as a vexillologist politician I would be all for using flags in political campaigning, but I’m a sceptic. Yes, they can be helpful, but it’s not enough, it’s just not that simple.
I mention this because a minor stooshie has erupted on social media from separatists who are upset about the decision of the Scotland Office to identify projects supported by UK Government spending with a credit that uses the Union Flag. In turn this has led to apologists for Scottish nationalism to criticise the British Government as relying on flags to defend the Union. Such responses are a straw man argument.
Since the coming to power of the SNP the attempts to marginalise all things British have escalated to a terrifying degree
Let’s roll back a few decades. There was a time when nobody knew or cared about explaining who funded buildings, bridges or roads when they were being constructed. They just appeared, a royal appeared, the ribbon was cut, a commemorative plaque was unveiled, and everybody went about their business. Then, back in the seventies, information boards started to appear boasting who was responsible for financing new projects; initially collaborative affairs they eventually became tools for partisan politics. By the eighties Labour-run councils would take credit for projects without mentioning they were financed by Conservative-run central government departments.
Soon this communications circus was joined by the European Economic Community, and latterly the European Union, which liked to celebrate infrastructure projects it was funding, forgetting to mention the money was simply being recirculated from the billions going to Brussels from the UK Treasury.
Scottish Tory politicians – who felt they were being accused of parsimony when they were in fact generous in spending UK taxes – were especially irritated. In my professional life when pitching a communications strategy to the Scottish Office I proposed a branding exercise to cover UK supported projects to ensure credit was given where it was due. It was, however, already too late. The perception being driven wilfully by Labour’s proto-nationalists that Tories were anti-Scottish was beginning to stick, not least because the Conservative & Unionist Party would not support a devolved assembly or parliament.
Back then flags were not so ubiquitous. The Scottish Saltire would always be seen at sporting fixtures or flying alongside the Union Flag at public buildings, but it belonged to everyone in Scotland and rarely viewed as overtly partisan. Clever or torturous graphic adaptations of the St Andrews cross were often used by Scottish public authorities, but this was no different from the likes of British Airways or British Leyland adapting the Union Flag for commercial advantage.
It’s never enough to patriotically love your own country, you have to hate another too
Nothing much changed in the early years of devolution but since the coming to power of the SNP the attempts to marginalise all things British and to create grievance and division so that people are polarised to take one side against another have escalated to a terrifying degree. This political conditioning comes in two forms, the objections to the appearance of the Union Flag in places where it is entirely appropriate – from shortbread packaging or flying from public buildings, and even military fortresses like Edinburgh Castle – to the oppressive use of the Saltire Flag at secessionist marches and demonstrations as if taken out of some pre-war Konrad Henlein rally playbook. Were political demonstrators to march through English cities parading the flag of St George or the Union in their thousands the cries of “fascists” would never be off the media, but not so from Scotland’s SNP-compliant scribes and broadcasters. Or their incurious progressive admirers in safely distant England.
The most prejudiced of nationalists have sought quite intentionally to make the Saltire flag their own to the exclusion of Scots who value being British; most brazenly seen when xenophobic bigots wave Saltire flags at vehicles travelling north across the A1 border outside Berwick or on bridges over motorways. Meanwhile the same old trick of erasing the UK origin of HM Treasury’s life-supporting billions also coming north is practised by Nicola Sturgeon’s Scottish government.
It is to make clear where the money comes from for construction projects, economic initiatives and social welfare schemes that UK Ministers have decided to use the Union flag. The response from many nationalists has been all too typical – with screams of outrage and social media abuse targeting those who think this a perfectly reasonable approach to take. Hypocrisy klaxons should sound off as it’s those who traipsed Saltire and EU flags through Scottish high streets these last four years who take offence at their own country’s flag being displayed. At the very least, should they not be content with others doing what they themselves have done? But of course they’re not, and this is what gives nationalism its hideously universal quality: it’s never enough to patriotically love your own country, you have to hate another and its “butcher’s apron” too.
Obviously, intolerant Scottish nationalists deny the Union flag is theirs. But while that’s a view they are entitled to, they go far further and seek to stop other Scots – taken, let us remember, from the majority of Scotland’s pro-UK opinion – from displaying any vestige of support or loyalty for the family of British peoples. That’s a denial of freedom of expression and a route to the soft authoritarian state the SNP is travelling towards. In England, where most readers of this piece will inevitably be, you might roll your eyes at this, but come up here and try English accenting, never mind flying the flag of the country we Scots voted to stay in just six years ago.
This is where the weakness of using flags in political campaigning displays its limitations. It is perfectly reasonable and speaks the truth for the Union flag to identify British government involvement in economic and cultural activities. How could anyone sensibly object? To believe, however, that it will convert people to a cause, that somehow Scots who doubt the Union shall have an epiphany and start to oppose the harm of the SNP’s nationalism is a delusion.
The reason why is simple – flags represent a narrative, and it is the narrative that has to be championed, not flag itself. For the last thirteen years while in power the SNP administration has been chipping away at the narrative of what it is to be British, what the United Kingdom represents, while developing grievance after grievance about the conduct of “Westminster”, which it uses as a metaphor for England and English power. There will be children growing up in Scotland today who don’t know it’s possible for some politicians to pronounce either word without spitting them out.
We have also had for the last five years those who seek to elevate the European Union, and, for their own ideological needs, diminish Britain, deny the attributes and achievements of our country – including many in the British establishment itself. Even before that, during the Scottish independence referendum, the Better Together campaign refused to offer the positive case for remaining British, instead relying on its project fear about the economic cost that secession would bring. And for decades before, and still now, there are many useful idiots that suggest the best way to hold the UK together is to concede ground to nationalism rather than confront it head on – including hiding our flag from view.
That is why the Union flag is targeted and that’s why its use will be insufficient to change attitudes. The Prime Minister, Rishi Sunak, Michael Gove, Alister Jack and the Scottish Tories need to develop and champion the narrative of what is good about the UK – and why it is better to be Scottish and British than Scottish alone. Better still, Keir Starmer should get behind them: there’s never going to be a Labour again without Scottish Labour MPs, so he has self-interest as well as virtue to consider here.
Flags alone are not enough; they can only represent what we feel in our hearts. Without those that love being British speaking out at every opportunity, explaining why the benefits of social solidarity, shared history, common endeavour, and greater opportunity are best served by our Union then the flag stands for nothing. Worse, it will stand for those that demonise our country or deny it exists.
Employing the Union flag to mark out the good that is being done is our country’s right and is a start, but it is nowhere near enough: it means something more than marketing and cynicism. That’s the message pro-Union campaigners finally need to start getting across.
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