Scottish independence: Both sides of the debate need to realise 'you can't eat a flag' – Joyce McMillan

It was the late, great John Hume, architect of the Good Friday/Belfast Agreement and Nobel Peace Prize winner, who once memorably pointed out – remembering some advice from his own father – that you can’t eat flags.

Hume was an Irish nationalist, of course; his party, the Social Democratic and Labour Party, supported and still supports the principle of a united Ireland.

In practice, though – back in the 1990s – he and his main Ulster Unionist negotiating partner, David Trimble, understood that there could be no peace or social progress for Northern Ireland unless the two opposing communities lowered their flags a little, and formally recognised each other’s presence, and fundamental right to exist, within a framework guaranteed not just by the British government, but also by the Irish government and the international community.

It was a moment, in other words, that could hardly be further in mood from the recent trajectory of British politics, now led by a generation of Conservative politicians whose first recourse, when the going gets tough, is to reach for the kind of flag-wrapped patriotism – nationalism by another name – that the great Dr Samuel Johnson once described as the last refuge of a scoundrel.

The backdrop to the growing Union Jackery of the Tory party over the last six years is of course the increasingly evident failure of their long-term economic project. As austerity hit and real wages flatlined, after 2010, they certainly needed something to distract the ordinary people of Britain from harsh economic realities; and that something came in the shape of Brexit, fully acknowledged by Tory leadership candidate Liz Truss, in a recent leaked tape, to be a fake panacea for Britain’s economic ills.

There was no pursuing Brexit, though, without an avalanche of flag-wrapped, retro-British propaganda, devoid of any coherent vision for the future, and riddled with nostalgia for a long-gone imperial past; and this embrace of retro-nationalist attitudes at the top level of British government has not, sadly, stopped at Brexit.

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Ugly scenes outside Tory party leadership hustings in Scotland should concern us...

On immigration policy, human rights, environmental protection, and of course Northern Ireland, the post-Brexit British government is increasingly minded to abandon international laws, agreements, and norms in favour of a militantly sovereigntist view; and the current generation of Conservatives are also so riled by the devolution reforms of the 1990s that they have already – by encouraging extreme DUP positions on Brexit – effectively disabled the Northern Ireland assembly, and are now openly talking of rolling back devolved powers, and exercising more rigid Westminster scrutiny over the governments of Scotland and Wales.

Mass displays of identical flags can have ugly historical resonances (Picture: Andy Buchanan/AFP via Getty Images)

All of which should be sweet music to the ears of Scotland’s SNP-Green government, as the two candidates for the Tory leadership and premiership continue to mouth free-market mantras that could hardly be less relevant to the current economic situation, while embracing a form of British nationalism that is intrinsically incapable of treating Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland, and their hard-won new institutions, with any respect at all.

The truth, though, is that the movement for Scottish independence has its flag-wavers too; and the events outside the Tory hustings in Perth this week have made it obvious how much damage they can do, in alienating undecided voters.

Simply by turning up in Perth with many Saltires and a hate-filled banner, and abusing a respected BBC journalist, a few hundred pro-independence extremists long dissociated from the SNP provided a massive new stockpile of propaganda for those who want to suggest that the movement for Scottish independence is all about hatred, negativity, and the same kind of exclusive and nostalgic national vision that drove Britain’s disastrous decision to leave the EU.

In reality, of course, that claim has little basis. On all the matters of policy mentioned above – immigration, international law, the European Convention on Human Rights, EU membership, environmental protection, and the Good Friday/Belfast Agreement itself – the SNP leadership and the Scottish Government take a different view from the UK Government, and a vastly more progressive one; and many of those in Scotland who now support independence do so because they desperately wish, in these threatening times, to live in a country where those values of peace, co-operation, and respect for persons and the planet are steadily affirmed, rather than frequently undermined.

Yet it remains true that the national identity and symbols of any nation can be used for good or ill; and many of those noisy pro-independence extremists who appeared in Perth on Tuesday, and who hang around on Twitter directing most of their venom at Nicola Sturgeon, actually share the reactionary social and constitutional attitudes of the Tories they claim to oppose.

“Real politics shouldn’t be about waving a flag. It should be about developing the standard of living of all sections of your people,” said John Hume, in that same speech back in 1998. He was an Irish nationalist, in other words, clearly acknowledging the limits of nationalism, as a useful force in human politics.

And if the current Tory leadership candidates are too far gone in the politics of flag-wrapped deception and delusion to heed his words, Nicola Sturgeon – who has rightly condemned the scenes in Perth, and wants to continue to win the support of all those Scots who seek a progressive future – should always remember them.

For in the end, most ordinary citizens have little time for flags of any colour – and particularly for mass displays of identical flags, with their ugly historical resonances – because they know that they cannot eat them; and instead look to leaders like her, who aspire to be progressive social democrats, to use every means, whether it involves constitutional change or not, to ensure that they can afford to put real food on their tables this winter, and every winter to come.

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