There are two councillors in Stirling who want the Saltire that flies over the council headquarters to be taken down and replaced with the Union flag.
I would happily lend a hand if they want me to because, even though I'm a Scot, the Saltire makes me cringe. Every time I see a crowd of people waving it above their heads, I feel embarrassed for them - the crudeness of the gesture offends me - and I also have a problem with the flag's role in the debate on independence. The fact that Yes campaigners have been shamelessly fluttering the Saltire about the place while Better Together have been shamefacedly shoving the Union Flag to the back of a drawer is starting to get on my nerves.
Clearly, there is always going to be a danger here of reducing a debate about identity (among other things) to one about flags and symbols - and we have seen the violent consequences of that in Northern Ireland - but if Nationalists are going to be allowed to use the Saltire for political ends, then all of us need to talk about the place of such symbols in our national consciousness and specifically the Union flag.
The organisers of the Better Together campaign do not want such a conversation - they believe the Union Flag could lose the argument for them - but, at the moment, there is a one-sidedness to the relative positions of the flags that is disturbing. This is probably because many Scots feel negatively towards the Union flag; they find it discomfiting and associate it either with organisations such as The English Defence League or Ukip or see it as symbolic of the British Empire, slavery or war, which may explain why in the most recent census fewer than one-fifth of Scots described themselves as both Scottish and British.
My emotional relationship with the Union flag is different. When I see it at some national event - the Olympics, for example, or The Proms - I feel warmly positive towards it because I feel positive towards the modern United Kingdom. To link the Union flag only with negative historic events such as empire-building or warmongering is to deny the modern role of the UK as well as our more positive history: the industrial revolution, the great reformers, artists, inventors. Besides, if the Union flag has negative historical associations so does the Saltire, which has been flown at the front of many an invader's army. If the Union flag is blood-stained, so is the Saltire.
What is much more important than these historical associations is the modern position of the flags and it is here that you can see the real difference between the two and the reason why the Saltire makes me cringe. It does so because that apparently benign cross of white on blue, and in particular the way it is being used by supporters of independence, represents a narrowing of perspective, a separation, a reduction of identity from a large friendly group of nations to a single small one.
The merged colours of the Union flag, on the other hand, are much more positive; by definition they are about coming together and demonstrate that the red, white and blue flag, however bad its reputation, can represent something positive in the way other flags do. On the wall of my bathroom at home, for example, I have the flag of Vietnam, a souvenir of my trip there a few years ago. You could regard that flag as a symbol of aggressive nationalism - after all, the Vietnamese kicked out the Japanese, the French and the Americans - but it actually represents something different. Vietnam is a united country and its positive sense of nationalism, symbolised by its beloved king, impressed me when I was there. If we were less embarrassed by the Union flag, less discomfited by its long-ago history, there is no reason why it could not represent similar feelings.
The problem is that the leaders of Better Together are never going to accept this because they fret about the flag's negative connotations (which is why it is pretty much nowhere to be seen on their website). In private, they are also horrified by the actions of the councillors in Stirling. But such shyness - shame even - has to change if we are to put the flags in their proper place. We should fly the Union Flag without shame - we should wring the poison out of it. Then, perhaps, it can take its place next to, and occasionally in place of, the Saltire.
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