You may have seen the news that the UK Government has spent £163,000 on union flags in two years. You may also have seen the story about the row between neighbours in Ayrshire over a saltire. And you may have seen – although this is less likely – the street behind my aunt’s house in Dumfries. All of it is part of a trend that is unpleasant, pointless, and, it turns out, expensive as well.

The level of the spending on union jacks was revealed thanks to a freedom of information request by The Guardian and some of it is pretty eyebrow-raising (£54,420 in one year at the Department of Culture and Sport) and some of it is pretty shoulder-shrugging (£3.25 in a year for a table-top union jack at the Treasury). But more interesting than the money itself is why it is being spent and the thinking of the people who are spending it.

READ MORE: UK Government spends £163,000 on Union flags in two years in bid to 'boost pride in the symbol'

It seems to me that there are three possible explanations and all of them could apply to some extent. The first is Brexit, and the British and English nationalism it relied on and encouraged. The second is the arguments over Black Lives Matter, statues, British history and the other “culture war” issues. And the third is devolution and Scottish nationalism. The cultural historian Robert Colls told The Guardian that what we are seeing from the UK government is a “kind of pushback against devolution and threats to the union”.

Tommy Sheppard, the SNP’s spokesman for constitutional affairs appears to agree with Professor Colls – to absolutely no one’s surprise. Mr Sheppard said people would find it odd that spending on flags was increasing in the middle of a public health crisis. The spending, he said, was a “deliberate ploy by the government to use the union flag to promote its political ends” and that “patriotism is the last refuge of the scoundrel”.

Now, we should probably pause here and let Mr Sheppard’s remarks sink in because they are extraordinary for their lack of self-awareness. Mr Sheppard is right that the UK Government is using flags for political ends. But the Scottish Government does too, doesn’t it? He’s also right that the Tories are trying to exploit patriotism. But the SNP does too, doesn’t it? Who pays for all the Scottish Government’s saltires and EU flags? What we have here is a classic example of the cognitive dissonance of the nationalist (Scottish or British): your flag is bad, ours is good.

The cognitive dissonance may also explain why both the UK and Scottish Governments think more flags and nationalism is an appropriate response to lots of flags and nationalism. Before 2014, Scotland was a pretty flag-free place compared to many other countries, probably because many Scots find naked patriotism, and flags, a bit unsophisticated and embarrassing. But the 2014 referendum led to more people using and displaying flags, and the 2016 Brexit referendum did pretty much the same thing.

This is all perfectly fine if you’re a flaggy type person, but it can lead to problems, like the row between the neighbours in Ayrshire and the situation in the street behind my aunt’s house in Dumfries.

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What happened in Ayrshire was that a man in Dundonald put up a 5m flagpole in his garden and the neighbours objected and in the end the council decided it was OK. As for the street near my aunt’s house, it tells its own story: there are three houses in a row and all of them have flagpoles in front of them. In the middle is a saltire and on either side of it are union jacks.

If you’ve even glanced at politics in the last ten years, you will know how we got to this point. Before 2014, it was pretty much unknown for people to erect flagpoles in their garden – in fact, if someone did, you’d have put them down as a person to avoid. But since 2014 it has become an increasingly common sight. And as soon as one flag goes up, someone may react against it and put up a flag of their own. Hence the street in Dumfries. Hence flags here. And there. And there. Hence £163,000 on union jacks.

There are some who think the trend is benign. I spoke to Philip Tibbetts, for instance, who’s a vexillologist at the Court of the Lord Lyon and his view of saltires and union jacks was upbeat. The saltire, he said, was positive and he encouraged everyone to use it and he felt the same about the union jack: it’s alive and well, he said, and has never been so positively used. (By the way, “union jack” is a perfectly correct term and that comes straight from the mouth of the Court of the Lord Lyon so don’t write in).

However, with respect to Mr Tibbetts and the likes of Nick Groom, writer and author of The Union Jack, who says the flag is a unifying design classic, the effects of national flags don’t look all that benign to me. First, they reflect the negative influences that led to Brexit and threaten the United Kingdom. Second, flags lead to flagflation (i.e. more flags). And third, flags generally only speak to nationalistic minorities (and at the extremes, the kind of insecure people who put flagpoles up in their garden).

It is this final factor – the fact that flag-flying doesn’t really chime with most reasonable people – that exposes the ultimate ineffectiveness of governments in the UK using flags or spending £163,000 to create more of them. Professor Robert Colls said the spending on flags was a pushback against threats to the union, but, more importantly, he expressed doubts about whether the pushback would actually be effective. “Most people are not political in the way that politicians or commentators are,” he said, “and they tend to see flag flying in the same way.”

I think this is the critical point. Some people put flags in their social-media profiles. Some people put flags up in their gardens. Some people care about flags a lot. But they are only some people, thank goodness. Most people in Scotland probably feel some sense of identity linked to their nationality, and they may occasionally feel pride when they see flags at national or sporting occasions or whatever. But most people in Scotland keep the feeling in proportion; indeed, they have a healthy scepticism about it. And if they see politicians – Scottish, British, or both – using flags for political ends, they are likely to react against it.

I would suggest, therefore, that governments spending thousands on flags is not only a waste of time, in this country it will probably be counter-productive because of the way most Scots think. So just for the record, if you live next to me and decide to put a flag-pole in your garden, I will not erect a flag-pole of my own in retaliation. Instead – like most Scots I think – I will just look across the garden wall at you and think: how unpleasant, how pointless, and what a terrible waste of money.

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