About a decade ago there was a row involving an SNP researcher which I remember finding baffling.

Basically, someone working for Sandra White MSP distributed a press release describing the Union flag as a “butcher’s apron”, the then Chancellor Gordon Brown having called for households across the UK to fly it in their gardens.

The row hinged upon whether or not Ms White had approved certain paragraphs in the press release, some of which were pretty pungent, for instance the (questionable) claim that the Union flag was somehow symbolically responsible for everything from the world’s first concentration camps to the Highland Clearances.

I was baffled because for me flags don’t tend to produce any sort of reaction, either positive or negative, yet for a lot of Nationalists (and I’ve had several conversations since that confirm this), the Union flag – a composite of the Irish, English and Scottish emblems – appears to provoke a visceral reaction.

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Thus the Union flags lining the streets of London for the Queen’s 90th birthday celebrations attracted adverse comments on Twitter, as did The Herald’s recent story about Conservative ministers considering plans to “brand” tax letters, passport offices and job centres with the Union flag (or the words “UK Government”).

This appears to be an (arguably belated) effort to remind Scottish voters that there exist, as a spokesman put it, “two governments working hard on their behalf”, something Westminster clearly believes needs (literally) flagged up given the additional powers coming to Holyrood next year.


My response to this was fair enough. It’s simply axiomatic that a lot of voters aren’t fully aware of the division of powers between reserved UK and devolved Scottish governments, but then it was ever thus. Anyone who remembers campaigning in the old regional and district local authority elections will remember spending a lot of time explaining to voters which council handled rubbish and which looked after buses.

But of course the UK Government’s thinking clearly goes deeper than mere public information. “This is about defining the peace,” one source told The Herald a few days ago. “But it is a long-term project, a four-year project, if not longer than that.” With talk of a second independence referendum diminished but not completely off the table, Unionists are clearly thinking strategically.

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And about time too. The Scottish Government has been very good at giving the impression it controls more than it actually does (Boris Johnson as London Mayor did much the same thing), you might call it independence by stealth, and the UK Government appears to be playing catch-up. A Saltire forms part of Scottish Government branding, so why not the Union flag for the UK equivalent?

Using flags in this way is also nothing new. The sociologist Michael Billig memorably identified something called “banal nationalism”, the way in which governments – particularly that in the United States – continually “flag” the nation through visual emblems such as the stars and stripes. He called it “banal” because the act was so widespread that it wasn’t even commonly acknowledged as nationalism.

Now all governments, devolved or reserved, do this to some degree. I was in Andalusia early last week and flags were clearly (and ostentatiously) used to indicate the demarcation between that “autonomous community” and central government in Madrid. Elsewhere in Spain this becomes even more important, not least in Catalonia and the Basque Country.

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Writing in The National recently, the independence campaigner Robin McAlpine expressed his frustration that Scotland and the Scots haven’t reached the level of “cultural confidence” achieved by other sub-state nations. “Catalonians wave a flag unashamedly, we do not,” he wrote, going on to chastise the official Yes campaign for having repeatedly distanced its arguments from “flags and identity”.

Now my first thought on reading this was that Mr McAlpine must have experienced a very different referendum from me, for I remember a great deal of flag-waving between 2012 and 2014, not to mention a great deal of identity politics, for example references to “Scottish values” and other largely invented traditions of moral and political superiority over our significant “other”, i.e. England.

Naturally, Mr McAlpine was clear as to who was to blame. Unionists, he added, were “engaged in an ongoing attempt to undermine Scotland’s confidence economically, culturally and politically”, although the only evidence of this scary-sounding “constant, low-level cultural war” were Union Jacks on driving licenses (I don’t have one, so clearly haven’t been targeted) and “the devolution of contorted tax powers which are difficult to use”. That’s right folks, the UK Government is purposefully undermining Scottish confidence by giving it more autonomy.

Now of course Mr McAlpine does not represent the whole National Movement, and certainly not the SNP, but his paranoia on this front is shared by other supporters of independence, a belief that a 215-year-old flag wields some sort of mystical and malign power, and of course power intended to do Scotland down, which is even more bizarre when you remember that the Saltire forms an inextricable part of that flag.

And, to return to my initial point, it’s just a flag, a flag that happens to represent a decidedly odd country comprising three and a half nations, three legal systems and a head of state who changes her religion when she comes north of the border. Of course that flag has history, but that much is true of most countries, particularly former imperial powers. I’m not aware, for example, that the Spanish flag provokes such strong reactions.

Indeed, travel beyond Europe and you’ll soon see the Union flag flown not from buildings (except UK embassies) but worn as a brand; even those living in former British colonies, territories or mandates don’t appear to share the Nationalists’ distaste for the red, white and blue, a distaste which leads senior SNP figures to refer to “these islands” rather than the dreaded terms “Britain” or “British”.

Of course the flag of the European Union (which isn’t even a country) produces no such qualms. The other week a BBC documentary on Scotland and Europe included some archive footage of “Madame Ecosse”, Winnie Ewing, telling an SNP conference that she’d prefer a European passport to her UK one, and would “prefer not to have the flag of the Union Jack, which is now a symbol of hooliganism internationally”, but “a European flag”.

At the weekend, however, it was the English flag I saw draped over the shoulders of rioting football fans in Marseille rather than the Union Jack, but the distaste generated by that television footage had more to do with the mindless violence than the St George’s Cross.

Outside the Scottish Parliament fly three flags – Scottish, UK and European – but to my eyes they symbolise little more than the constitutional status quo, a devolved Scotland within a UK that is, for the time being at least, part of the EU. Flags are just flags, and a lot of people would do well to focus their ire on something more substantial.