Brian Wilson: Politics is not a 'battle of the flags'

Boris Johnson’s fondness for Union Jacks is as shallow as the annexation of the Saltire as a nationalist symbol. Scotland might be better off if there were no flags at all, writes Brian Wilson.
Flags should not be used to lead us down the dead end road of defining division, argues Brian Wilson. PIC: TSPL/Phil WilkinsonFlags should not be used to lead us down the dead end road of defining division, argues Brian Wilson. PIC: TSPL/Phil Wilkinson
Flags should not be used to lead us down the dead end road of defining division, argues Brian Wilson. PIC: TSPL/Phil Wilkinson

We need not look far to learn where the politics of competing flags leads. Symbols reinforce differences and become easy substitutes for rationality. Check out the gable ends in Belfast and Derry.

There are plenty in Scotland who would love to see a battle of flags as our own critical political dichotomy. Indeed, some might claim they are well on the way to succeeding.

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The Saltire has been hijacked by independence supporters who then wish to set the Union Jack up as its nemesis, fully aware of the territory that impinges upon, not least because of proximity to Ireland.

This flag culture is quite recent and a true Scottish democrat could have nipped it in the bud with the message: “The Saltire belongs to all of Scotland and should not be used as a symbol for any political faction.”

Such an act of statesmanship would not have done them any harm but there was zero prospect of it passing the lips of Alex Salmond or Nicola Sturgeon, probably because they do not believe it. Fusion of nation with party is endemic to all Nationalisms.

This week, Boris Johnson responded in kind. He wants Union Jacks plastered on everything in Scotland attributable to the UK Government, specifically, at next year’s big climate change conference in Glasgow, “I don’t mind seeing a Saltire or two but I want to see the Union flag”.

That is equally depressing. There is indeed an issue about how the UK Government secures recognition for its positive inputs into Scotland – they do exist – which the current Scottish Government, with its mighty media operation, works overtime to obscure.

However, that is a challenge which will not be met by hoisting more Union Jacks. Their message-bearers should get out of bed earlier, communicate more effectively and be less naïve about dealings with Edinburgh which is adept at taking sweeties off the weans without saying thank you.

In an ideal world, the two governments would work together for the common good. I have long argued for this in the field of trade where Scottish business and jobs benefit from the dual identity as all major Scottish exporting sectors will confirm.

There are actually some signs of progress on this which are scarcely going to be nurtured by Johnson adopting the playbook of competing flags and identities.

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Everyone in Europe, maybe the world, has at least two identities. We are not unique. The problem only arises when political forces try to make us uncomfortable about one identity in order to reject it. That is a divisive and destructive form of politics.

Neither I nor those I worked with over decades came into politics to be “unionists”. We believed, rightly or wrongly, that the British Labour movement which had given our generation so many opportunities remained the best vehicle for advancing the society in which our children will live.

The constitutional framework within which these objectives are pursued is entirely secondary. There are respectable arguments in all directions but they are on grounds of shared experience and interests, economics, ties that do or do not bind.

Flags only become relevant if we allow them to define divisions. That is a dead-end which Scotland needs to turn back from, regardless of obsessive Saltire-annexers or the shallowness of Boris Johnson’s counter-bid.

How ironic that the event he highlighted is about climate change – the most fundamental challenge facing the world. Of course it would not be coming to Glasgow without support from the UK Government. I guess Scottish Government officials will also have been closely involved.

And let’s not forget decades of work by politicians and public servants to make Glasgow an acclaimed host city for events of this scale. All of these interests are entitled to feel offended by this advance trivialisation into a battle of flags.

It might be better to have no flags there at all or heed the advice of the Turkish writer Mehmet Murat Ildan: “There is no flag on Earth that is more beautiful than the flag with only the picture of the Earth on it.” Amen to that.