Brexit flag row helps explain why symbols really do matter – Christine Grahame

The EU flag flies outside the Scottish Parliament (Picture: AFP/Getty)
The EU flag flies outside the Scottish Parliament (Picture: AFP/Getty)
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The debate over removing the EU flag from outside the Holyrood Parliament laid bare the real issues about what such symbols mean for a nation’s standing, writes Christine Grahame MSP.

There was a bit of a stooshie at parliament to do with 31 January and exiting the European Union. It had been decided by our Corporate Body, cross-party and by no means unanimously, that on 31 January the EU flag would come down from the flag poles, of which there are three, one being for the Union flag and the other the Saltire.

Well, that didn’t go down well with those who not only object to Scotland being taken out of the EU, despite having voted 62 per cent Remain, but because it is also the flag of the European Council of which the UK remains (that word again) a member.

The upshot is that the Parliament voted by a majority to direct that the flag remain flying, where it does even today.

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Now, I had the odd objection to why time should be spent debating a flag, though the debate took only 30 minutes in a week where hours were spent not only on debating domestic issues but in having ministers answer questions. Put that into the context of three years of Brexit debates at Westminster, when English domestic issues and international issues were on the ­backburner, and there’s not much to complain about.

A way to say ‘we are a nation’

Of course, the objections were not about the time taken but about the principle. When the UK says you’re out, take it down, we should do as we are told, or so it used to be. It’s the same with a second independence referendum – you’ll have had your indyref then in 2014. It’s “once in a generation”.

Aye, but we were told that if we voted Yes, we’d be thrown out of the EU. OK, we’ve not been thrown out, just dragged out. Forty-seven plus one MPs and the Tories with their six, well, you’ll have had your democracy then.

This brings me back to flags. The very dugs in the street know that flags are at the essence of saying, “we are a nation”.

At the United Nations, 193 flags fly, 192 nations plus one for the UN itself. How did Boris de Pfeffel Johnson ­celebrate Brexit day? Why, by bedecking Downing Street with Union flags.

When emerging countries reclaim their independence, down comes the imperialist flag, be it the Union flag over India, or the flag of the Soviet Union replaced by the flags of Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania.

When Al-Qaida is defeated, the black flag is removed. In extremes, flags are burned and trampled to ­symbolise hatred for that country.

Reminded of our place

So that stooshie had real meaning. It meant the Scottish Parliament, democratically elected, had every right to keep the EU flag flying, just as it has voted for a second referendum on the future of Scotland.

Are we to be constrained, and indeed only permitted as a nation to fly our Saltire at international rugby or football matches or Commonwealth games? I’m afraid that if we accept that, if we accept a permanent veto on Scotland’s future, then we cannot call ourselves a nation.

Brexit has reminded us of our place, not to get above ourselves.

If we allow eight Tory MPs to dictate who we are, what our priorities will be, what nuclear weapons we must have, then a nation we are not, not until there are 194 flags flying outside that UN building,

Christine Grahame is the SNP MP for Midlothian South, Tweeddale and Lauderdale.