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Flags, hypocrisy and propaganda

SOME of the things you couldn't take to a Commonwealth Games venue:

drugs, booze, weapons, big cameras, big umbrellas, animals, vuvuzelas, skateboards, fireworks, "light-emitting" devices, "small unmanned aircraft" and flags or banners "associated with (i) countries not participating in the Games or (ii) causes, affiliations or organisations".

Had you decided on a wee hurl at the Sir Chris Hoy Velodrome while drunk in charge of a skateboard and towing a French tricolour, therefore, you would have found yourself, in the patois of the host city, lifted. The Games now drawing to a close might have belonged to Glasgow, but the organisers were a private company with strict rules.

They even had rules to cover the rules. Thus, entry would be refused to anyone "causing disruption or a risk to the safety or security or enjoyment of a session by others". You could manage this by being drunk. You could also achieve it by breaching ticketing terms and conditions or venue regulations. If you bought a ticket, you agreed to all terms and conditions. These, in turn, constituted "legally binding obligations".

In short, they could call the cops. They would certainly call the cops, as one woman discovered, if you carried a Saltire bearing the word "Yes" while trying to watch the swimming. Whether other audience members at the Tollcross centre enjoyed the sight of police officers acting as private security is debatable. The organisers made their point: associating Team Scotland with Yes Scotland, or one use of the Saltire with another, would not be tolerated.

The UK was OK, however. Or rather, the Union flag had an access-all-areas pass despite the fact, as many people observed after the Tollcross incident, that Great Britain was not - specifically not - represented in competition. The claim that the Union flag is also the Scottish - or Welsh, Northern Irish or English - flag is as much of an irrelevance as the reminder that the Commonwealth was once the British Commonwealth. There was no Britain on the medals table.

That fact did not prevent organisers telling the BBC beforehand that there would be no objection to Union flags being waved. It did not hinder the distribution (and waving) of curious double-sided Saltire/Union flags which, though apparently not sanctioned by Better Together, just happened to further the "affiliation" the organisation exists to preserve. That many Scots wouldn't thank you for such a souvenir was not considered relevant.

No-one objected to red, white and blue at a Glasgow Green "Live Zone" event, meanwhile, but security guards ordered the removal of Yes badges, reportedly, because the objects were deemed to represent "protest". Those officious individuals, plainly under orders, should have been around when John Maclean was staging anti-war rallies on the Green. Glasgow's cherished parkland has a history where free speech is concerned.

These were trivial incidents, no doubt. It is a mistake, in any case, to imagine that every thought you ever had about a historic national decision, for or against, can be wrapped up in a flag. Those are ambiguous things, sometimes dangerous things. A devotion to flags for their own sake should be left to vexillologists. No flag ever clinched an argument, but blind allegiance to emblems has caused plenty of mayhem.

The cross of St Andrew does not stir me much. I'm a little dubious about the saint, for starters. I also doubt that everything I think or feel about the country sits easily with every use to which the Saltire has ever been put. As symbols, flags are crude. But for the self-same reasons, I object - just a bit - when someone claims the right to prescribe or proscribe the uses of the upended cross.

It's fatuous. This weekend, thanks to the Games, there are lots of Saltires and Union flags around. Come September, thanks to the referendum, there will be lots of Saltires and Union flags around. If a sports event wants to protect its sponsors' brands and steer clear of "politics", in the hypocritical style of these big international events, it first needs to acquire a little political understanding. Seeming to acquiesce to one side of an argument while suppressing the other side's chosen emblem is not the way to do it.

One convoluted argument holds that, while Scotland could compete in the Games under its own flag, it as yet has no membership of the Commonwealth in its own right. That's Britain's prerogative. Therefore, the Union flag is fine for all occasions, but the Scottish flag is a contestable "political" symbol amid a referendum campaign. If some Scots are demanding independent membership of the formerly British Commonwealth, they exhibit an allegiance to "a cause". You follow?

Personally, I could live without the strange little club of former colonies, but that's another story. The Games organisers have been clear enough in their brand loyalties. A Saltire with a Yes attached has been treated like a Coke logo at a Pepsi-sponsored event. No such circumspection has been attached to the Union flag. Given the choice of which host to insult, the organisers have not hesitated.

It could almost make you wonder why the Red Arrows were allowed to blow red and white and blue smoke up and down Glasgow during the opening ceremonials. A participating country? A cause? An affiliation? The Ministry of Defence and its minister, Michael Fallon, insisted on that one, we were told, on the grounds that the Arrows "always" spout only red, white and blue. Besides, "a UK military asset" was flying around to welcome the Queen. The blue and white of the Saltire was unthinkable.

That fib must have amused anyone who was on the streets of Edinburgh on July 1, 1999 when herself arrived to re-open the Scottish Parliament. Reporting on the event that day, I have a clear memory of the Arrows escorting Concorde while trailing only blue and white. Perhaps they ran out of red, but I doubt it. No-one objected. All present thought it a nice gesture.

Fifteen years on, I don't doubt that Fallon and his department engineered a little political gesture of their own to inflict on Glasgow. "Showing the flag", they used to call it. This time it was done against a puerile chorus of demands that no-one - meaning no Yes campaigner - should "politicise" the event. Weirdly, the Union's backers feared the ambiguous, fleeting power of emblems and were silly enough to believe that sporting contests pitting Scotland against England could have proper political consequences.

Still, for form's sake we really should keep score. The Red Arrows lie; the Tollcross incident; the two-faced flags; that bit of censorship on Glasgow Green: these acts of petty propaganda and small-minded authoritarianism can't be pinned on Yes campaigners. Only two of the four can even be traced to the Games organisers and their terms and conditions. Flags don't matter much to me, but this sort of thing could make me change my mind.

The contrast with the 2012 Olympics remains entertaining still. Which Unionist politician didn't use those games to spread the gospel of Better Together at every opportunity and assail anyone who dared to disagree? Then as now, they were dashed unsporting.

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251997