FUNNY things, flags.
People who would otherwise object to being labelled can be quite insistent about their banner of choice. Some even believe an insult to a piece of cloth – if you can insult a piece of cloth – is an insult to them, too. Then they tell you they are prepared to die for a rectangle of fabric that is, furthermore, sacred. That's probably where my problems begin. According to vexillologists (my word of the week), flags were devised to optimise the rate of mass slaughter in battle-type situations. Supposedly they aided an armed patriot in his struggle to remember which side he was on lest he removed the head of one of his own lot in the latest bloodbath staged for God, king, country and ancestral hovel. What's not to revere?
As every child knows, meanwhile, our own piece of bunting contains symbolism that is still more mystical. The Saltire's X-shape marks the spot, iconographically, where a saint named Andrew, who had never heard of Scotland, far less been here, got nailed up to this crux decussata in Greece in the first century.
Tradition says Andrew requested this arrangement because he wasn't worthy to die in the same God-awful manner as Christ. Scotland is lucky he didn't pick a Z shape.
Sensible people will tell you, of course, that ancient origins have nothing to do with the modern meaning of flags. Then they complain that the Saltire is the wrong shade of blue, or that the Union flag is upside down, or that you can't string people up for setting light to the Stars and Stripes.
Then they fall to saluting, oath-taking, singing, weeping, wrapping themselves in flags at football matches, or arranging more mass slaughters in battle-type situations.
It's not the flag, you see, but "what it stands for". You can't have a proper surge of patriotism unless a flag is present. You and your country will lack a real identity if you don't have a flag. This strikes me as akin to having a name-tag stitched inside your jumper, but never mind. "What it stands for" never fails to bother me.
Given the option, I'll take the Saltire before the Union flag. In fact, if allowed the opportunity I won't take the red, white and blue at all.
As labels go, it is only accurate in an enforced, administrative sense. As symbolism, as a hand-stitched historical record, it will always be the butcher's apron. Before someone mentions heroic Scots and the empire, there's a one-word answer: precisely.
But will I be hoisting my Saltire from a wee pole in the front garden come the dawn? Where we live, there's (to me) a surprising amount of that. Perhaps the proximity of the Border has something to do with it. The flags you see are presumably meant to act as markers of sorts.
People get agitated because of flags: their ancient purpose endures. Edinburgh, for example, has been enjoying what is known as "a row" because adherents of two emblems have been arguing – I'm not making this up – over who should have the biggest pole. The Union flag has long flown at the highest point on the castle. Saltire enthusiasts have long said this is an outrage. It's not likely that my solution – take them both down, then – will be required. In a delicately-poised constitutional argument, the thing a flag "stands for" apparently matters more than it has for a long time. And this is odd.
Is someone more likely to vote for the proposition that independence will better protect the NHS because Edinburgh Castle is decked out in blue and white? Will Britain be saved from Alex Salmond if the Union flag still flutters from the battlements or, come to that, the "seasonal aisle" at Asda?
I'm not making that part up, either. Apparently the supermarket chain has emailed suppliers insisting that they dispatch no goods in Union flag trimmings to Scotland or Northern Ireland amid the great patriotic effort to sell as much stuff as possible during the Queen's Jubilee and the Olympics. Asda, it appears, fears adverse reactions. Northern Ireland I can understand: in some parts of the province the Union flag has a certain resonance, let's say, in all weathers. But Scotland in relation to HM Queen and the Olympics? If this is true, someone had better get on the phone to Salmond. The revolution has started and he's missing it.
Few things would make me happier than the thought that Asda has detected a trend. Living close to the Border, we sometimes shop in a supermarket on the other side. When England was attempting to land the World Cup I had a lot of fun explaining why a hereditary condition prevented me from signing the petition "backing the bid". When we get a refund on our £9 billion, meanwhile, they can have their Olympics.
The signs are, though, that a majority of my fellow Scots lack my simple wisdom. On previous form, we will not go overboard on street parties, but plenty will queue up to pronounce the Jubilee awfy nice. Even Salmond (or do I mean especially Salmond?) doesn't mess with the British monarchy. The SNP's notion of independence has no bearing on the Union of Crowns.
The Olympics, equally, will overwhelmingly be a red, white and blue affair: count on it. No doubt Scots will cheer a bit more for Chris Hoy than for certain others, but most viewers will be British, as usual, for the duration.
These tribal affairs have an odd subtext, in any case. If Salmond could recruit all the Scots who complain at having been wrapped in the wrong flag, he would win his referendum hands down. Yet that, strangely, is not what the Saltire "stands for". The version of identity it is supposed to represent does not translate straightforwardly into the political language of the SNP.
This might be because patriotism is more complicated than a single version of nationalism. It might be because flag-waving renders nationalism simplistic, reducing it to emblems, tribalism and mere gestures. It might just be that flags are a daft and atavistic way to express identity, the legacy of followers and cannon fodder.
On the A1, at the Border, they flap at one another across a stretch of tarmac, the flags of St George and St Andrew. One represents a wholly mythical figure, the other a poor Greek tortured to death 2000 years ago. These are, supposedly, symbols of who we are on the Atlantic's edge in the 21st century. I think I'll take that name tag for my jumper now.
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