Scottish election 2021: Tories' Union Jack flag obsession will backfire on unionists – Joyce McMillan

It was the late, great John Hume, one of the architects of the Northern Ireland peace process, who once memorably remarked – to a province notoriously obsessed with the symbols of competing nationhoods – that “you can’t eat a flag”.

The politics of flags with not save the Union, says Joyce McMillan (Picture: Niklas Halle'n/AFP via Getty Images)

As a founder member and eventual leader of Northern Ireland’s Social Democratic and Labour Party – an Irish nationalist grouping with a strong social justice agenda – Hume was well placed to observe the tension between the politics of nationhood, and the politics of social democracy; and his conclusion was that while nationhood and even national independence may be necessary to provide the cohesive framework for effective politics, nationalist thinking soon becomes toxic if it begins to take priority over the fundamental social well-being of the people, and their hopes of a secure and decent future.

Here in Scotland, a version of this debate still runs through the SNP as it faces this year’s Holyrood elections; the party includes some fundamentalist nationalists, who believe any sacrifice is worthwhile for the prize of national freedom, and many more who are essentially pragmatic in their approach to Scotland’s constitutional future.

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Insofar as Scotland remains a nation of broadly social democratic instincts, though, the SNP tends to do better when it seems to be furthering social-democratic values, and less well when it becomes too closely associated with flag-wavers and face-painters; and the truth that people can’t eat flags seems to pretty well ingrained in the thinking of a nation that has always, in modern times, had to make pragmatic decisions about the limits of national sovereignty, and the need for economic and social progress.

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All of which helps to explain why the current Conservative government is making such a profound category mistake, in trying to fight the SNP and the wider independence movement through the language of symbols – notably the now ubiquitous Union flag – and emotional patriotism.

Earlier this week, the former Secretary of State David Mundell was to be heard once again rolling out his argument that the economic case for the Union is not enough to defeat the SNP, and that unionists must not be afraid to campaign in emotional terms; and his comments were followed, on Wednesday, by a bizarre circular from UK Culture, Sports and Media Secretary Oliver Dowden, declaring that the Union flag must now be flown at all times from government buildings, and that while other flags may be flown with it, the Union flag must always be in the “superior position”.

Dowden’s edict comes after a period of bizarre flag inflation at Westminster, in which UK ministers making official appearances are flanked by ever-increasing numbers of Union flags, and even MPs appearing from home seem to feel obliged to have a large Union Jack in shot.

This week, in a Commons committee hearing, one forelock-tugging Tory MP even upbraided the impeccably conservative new BBC Director General for not having enough Union Jacks in his annual report; and of course, the crazed Union Jackery adapted by most major supermarkets after Brexit continues apace, with every potato and pat of butter, regardless of origin, absurdly plastered with the red, white and blue.

Yet for the vast majority of Scots, it seems that this new mood of aggressive symbolic patriotism in British government, and among its allies, appears at best laughable, and at worst downright sinister.

Among many others in the UK, a majority of Scots view the Brexit debacle with contempt precisely because it placed this Union Jack dreaming above the welfare, well-being and opportunities of ordinary people across the UK; and while it may suit the Tories’ metropolitan book to write off support for Scottish independence as some kind of emotional madness, in fact, for the majority of SNP voters, their decision – like their opposition to Brexit – generally seems based on fairly careful assessment of the likely best future for their children and grandchildren.

It follows, in other words, that if the Conservatives want to restore support for the Union in Scotland, then they need to ditch the flags immediately, along with the patronising assumptions about the Scottish independence movement that underpin their use, and start the serious political work of offering Scottish voters a future in the UK that actually meets their basic needs and priorities, including their profound wish to live in harmony and co-operation with their European neighbours.

And there is one further dimension to the Tories’ hopeless misreading of the current state of Scottish politics: the high risk that if they continue to blunder around the scene in their current ill-judged manner, they will lose their position as the Scottish Parliament’s second party and official opposition.

After 14 years of SNP government, the key debate of substance in Scottish politics, beyond the constitution, is the one between the SNP and its critics on the left, about whether Scotland’s government is truly delivering on the social-democratic and green priorities it claims as its own.

Now, Scottish Labour has a new leader, in Anas Sarwar, who has signalled his preference for focusing on those vital social issues, rather than on joining the Tories in a constant barrage of anti-SNP hatred; and that positioning must give him a fighting chance of emerging from the coming Scottish Parliament election as Scotland’s opposition leader.

After years of opposition led by a party with nothing to offer but its diehard unionism, in other words, Scotland may be about to move on to a period when part of the national debate, at least, centres on those aspects of politics which should always be more important than flags; and on the key question of whether there is any future UK that might deliver on the social priorities of Scottish voters – or whether the path to independence is now the only viable way forward.

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