MSPs yesterday nailed their colours to the mast by specifying the precise colour of the saltire flag.

The white diagonal cross of St Andrew should be set against an azure background - and not just any old azure, but Pantone 300 in the international colour code.

The recommendation came after a short debate yesterday on a subject which has been shuttling between Holyrood committees, the Scottish Executive and other official bodies for nearly three years.

The decision, which still has to be confirmed by Jim Wallace, the justice minister, would be a personal triumph for George Reid, a retired accountant and serial petitioner of the Scottish Parliament.

From the earliest days of the parliament, Mr Reid has pushed for an official colour to be laid down for the saltire - not to ban flags of other hues, but to give guidance for those who wanted to know the correct shade.

After several knock-backs, he won the unanimous ap-proval of the parliament's education, culture and sport committee yesterday for the blue in the saltire to be recommended as Pantone 300.

Apparently this was simpler than the shade already laid down by the Royal Navy, which opted for the rival hue, Pantone 549C8771B - although the MSPs in making their recommendation stressed their view was purely advisory and not binding.

''We should not try to restrict the flags that are flown at football or rugby matches, but there is a suggested colour, Pantone 300, and we should accept that is the correct colour,'' said Karen Gillon, committee convener and Labour MSP for Clydesdale

But what was the newly agreed shade like, Mr Reid was asked yesterday after he had sat in the public seating area as the matter was finally settled.

''It is what you would have seen if you had raised your eyes to the heavens today,'' he replied.

For Mr Reid, yesterday was a fine, azure-sky day, winning a war after several battles. He had been told by ministers that the colour did not matter, that it faded on the flagpole anyway, that it would be wrong to lay down a shade because it would create more difficulties than it would solve, even that it was a reserved power or would be contrary to heraldic practice.

Gil Paterson, the SNP MSP, said: ''There are 300 colours described as azure from almost black to almost white.

''The logo of the Scottish Parliament, in a shade of purple, has 13 pages of rulings prescribed about it, yet the national flag has no colour laid down. The petitioners never wanted an act of parliament, or a change of law or a debate.

''They just wanted a recommendation. There was never any suggestion that a flag of a different colour be taken down, but ours is the only flag in the world without a specific colour laid down.''

Mr Reid added: ''Jim Wallace, the justice minister, has been pretty obdurate until now, but I would like to think he will now give in gracefully,''

Mr Reid's point about the blue of the saltire being like the sky over Scotland yesterday is appropriate.

The flag is said to date to the battle of Athelstaneford, in East Lothian in 832 when Pictish and Scottish warriors under Angus MacFergus defeated a far larger force of conquerors from the south, on a day when the white clouds formed a cross on the azure sky.