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 Flags, more flags, everyone’s flags – except our own

Flags, more flags, everyone’s flags – except our own

by Jill Stephenson
article from Tuesday 23, February, 2021

FLAGS have long been emotive emblems. From 1789 and throughout the nineteenth century, the warring sides in France were recognisable by their respective flags, the fleur-de-lys for conservative, clerical monarchists and the blue-white-red tricolour for liberals and republicans. In Germany, too, the black-red-gold tricolour of liberals and nationalists, first raised in 1848, vied with the black-white-red of the Prussian and Imperial Hohenzollerns, until a new black-white-red eclipsed both in 1933, with the ubiquity for twelve years of the swastika flag.  

The red flag was a symbol of dissent, of working-class opposition to the capitalist system, and, adorned with a hammer and sickle, became the flag of the Soviet Union after 1917. The battle of the flags was evident when the communist regimes in eastern Europe were crumbling in the late 1980s. An abiding image from 1989 came from Romania, where opponents of the Ceausescu regime raised Romanian tricolour flags with a hole in the middle, where the emblem of the ‘socialist republic of Romania’ had been excised.  

The American stars and stripes was first used as a symbol of the unity of the United States during the Civil War of the early 1860s. There are strict rules about its use and display. In some states, the Confederate flag still has some currency, but is widely discredited. By contrast, the Union flag of the United Kingdom, commonly called the Union Jack, is used widely, on commercial packaging, for example (to the fury of some Scottish nationalists). There was a brief ‘I’m backing Britain’ campaign in early 1968, when the Union Jack became ubiquitous on merchandise, with mugs and tea-towels bearing the Union Jack and Lord Kitchener’s face, with his exhortation from the First World War: ‘Your country needs you’. 

More recently, the Union Jack has become an object of loathing on the part of Scottish nationalists. This flag is routinely known to nationalists disrespectfully as ‘the butcher’s apron’ – because it is blue and white, with red – allegedly for blood. I thought I would find much discussion of this term on Google, but almost all that I found was items about… butchers’ aprons. Three sites are, however, devoted to the pejorative version, with much overlap of material between them, including, in the first two, the claim that the countries colonised by ‘Great Britain’ include ‘Ireland, Scotland, Wales’. I think we know where they are coming from. These sites are:

The first two open their diatribes against the UK with: “The vast majority of people who make it to the UK, seeking asylum come from former British Colonies.” Yes, British rule was so awful and the UK such a dreadful place that refugees and others from places that experienced British rule make strenuous efforts to get here.

I had imagined that the ‘butcher’s apron’ sobriquet might have derived from nationalist struggles in Ireland, but the websites above associate it with reactions to colonial rule. The most recent manifestations of its use and of desecration of the Union Jack have, however, been in Scotland, where setting fire to it has been a virility test for some parts of the ‘nationalist movement’. That is a test that was memorably flunked by Sean Clerkin of the risible ‘Scottish Resistance’, when he had to ask for help when trying to set the flag alight. You can watch this entertainment here.

On 26 January 2018, Glasgow SNP Councillor Mhairi Hunter, who is close to Nicola Sturgeon, asked: “Why do they [Tories] want to make flags a thing in Scottish politics?” 

This bemused many who had watched with puzzlement and increasing irritation as, at least from 2014, the SNP and its supporters had made flags “a thing in Scottish politics”. Indeed, Nicola Sturgeon tweeted herself about flags twenty-four times in two days, in late January 2018. We had already watched in disbelief in July 2013 when Alex Salmond produced from his wife’s handbag a very large saltire flag in the moment of Andy Murray’s triumph at Wimbledon, and waved it about, in violation of Wimbledon’s rules. This was Salmond’s way of claiming Andy Murray’s victory, that was Murray’s own personal triumph, for ‘his’ Scotland.  

When Theresa May paid Ms Sturgeon the courtesy of visiting her in Edinburgh on the morrow of her appointment as Prime Minister in 2016, how did Ms Sturgeon greet her? Ms Sturgeon’s normal form with a visiting dignitary is to arrange a photo call in Bute House with herself and her guest posed in front of the flags of both their countries – a saltire and a German flag when the German ambassador visited, for example. For Mrs May’s visit, Ms Sturgeon delivered a clearly calculated insult by arranging the seating in front of two saltires, not a saltire and a Union Jack, as protocol would have required. Her hatred of the Union Jack runs deep. 

During the referendum campaign in 2014, nationalists claimed the saltire as their own – no longer the flag of Scotland, but the flag of separatism – namely a St Andrew’s cross, defaced with the word ‘yes’. Thousands of these disfigured saltires were waved at rallies and on marches. More recently, there has been the bizarre nationalist practice of small groups of separatists (the self-styled ‘Bridges for Indy’ people) occupying some bridges across Scotland and waving their defaced flags from them, to no apparent purpose, other than to distract drivers. To borrow a term used recently by Nicola Sturgeon in the Scottish parliament, they are merely attention-seekers. 

What was predictably dubbed ‘flaggate’ raised its head in late January 2018. New guidelines were issued in January 2018 by the Scottish Executive which restricted the flying of the Union Jack on public buildings to one occasion a year, Remembrance Day. There was argument about whose initiative this was and when the policy of downgrading the Union Jack became the rule in Scotland. Ms Sturgeon was enraged by claims that she was responsible for it, demanding apologies from newspapers that made those claims. The change in policy, asserted Alex Salmond, had been in place since 2010, when he had discussed with Her Majesty flying the Royal Standard instead of the Union Jack on the Queen’s birthday. The commentator Iain McWhirter adds “the Queen is not at liberty to confirm [this], but we’ve no reason to disbelieve the former First Minister”. Ahem. As John McEnroe used to say, ‘You cannot be serious’. And who was Deputy First Minister in 2010? Nicola Sturgeon. Was she kept in the dark about this policy?  Is she dissociating herself from her former leader’s policy? No. She merely takes the Pontius Pilate approach to it.

Whatever the truth is about decisions to reduce the number of occasions on which the Union Jack is flown on official buildings in Scotland, and about who took them, one thing is certain: under SNP rule, the flying of the flag of the United Kingdom in Scotland has been and is being reduced to a very rare sight. Whatever the Queen may – or, more likely, may not – have said to Alex Salmond in 2010, and whatever Nicola Sturgeon’s role, or absence of one in this is, the end result is that there is now only one occasion in the year, Remembrance Day, on which the Union Jack is to be flown on government buildings in Scotland. 

That decision was a measure of the SNP’s contempt for the UK, its citizens and its supporters. It is an indication of the wider truth that the SNP’s determination to erase ‘British’ and ‘UK’ from Scotland is absolute.

Having disposed of the Union Jack, the latest sally in this saga has been Sturgeon’s order that the EU flag should be flown from Scottish public buildings. This order is not merely pro-EU; it is explicitly anti-UK. Ms Sturgeon may, however, not have considered the EU’s own conditions for the use of its flag: 

The use of the European emblem and/or any of its elements is allowed, irrespective of whether the use is of a non-profit or commercial nature, unless:  

  • the use creates the incorrect impression or assumption that there is a connection between the user and any of the institutions, bodies, offices, agencies and organs of the European Union or the Council of Europe;  
  • the use leads the public to believe erroneously that the user benefits from the support, sponsorship, approval or consent of any of the institutions, bodies, offices, agencies and organs of the European Union or the Council of Europe;  
  • the use is in connection with any objective or activity which is incompatible with the aims and principles of the European Union or of the Council of Europe, or which would be otherwise unlawful.  

The European Research Council adds another condition: that the use of the flag should not be ‘likely to create confusion between the user and the European Union or the Council of Europe’.  There may be some tenuous connection that justifies the flying of the EU flag routinely in Scotland. On the other hand, there may not.

Scotticising the whole of life in Scotland and banishing all traces of the UK from it is the single-minded mission of the SNP. There have been various examples. In 2012, the Scottish executive intervened in the planning of the new secondary schools’ English curriculum to require Scottish literature to be a compulsory part of it. More recently, primary teaching has included classes on the Scots dialect. The sorry saga of the SNP’s determination to absorb the Scottish element of the British Transport Police into the troubled Police Scotland force dragged on, against the advice of experts and the wishes of BTP itself, until its idiocy became apparent even to the SNP and it was kicked into the long grass. 

The SNP’s aim is to so disaggregate Scotland from the UK that it becomes ‘independent’ for all practical purposes – apart, of course, from that massive fiscal transfer that Scotland receives from Westminster every year. Oh, and the vaccines that Scots have been receiving before most other people in the world, thanks to the British Government’s foresight.

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Jill Stephenson is a former Professor of Modern German History at the University of Edinburgh.  

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