Tom Peterkin: Flags rows can turn into spats over Charles and Di mugs

A Union flag and a Saltire fly happily side by side (Picture: PA)
A Union flag and a Saltire fly happily side by side (Picture: PA)
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Obsessing over whether to fly the Union flag or Saltire distracts from running the country, writes Tom Peterkin.

Things have come to a pretty pass when Scottish politics is reduced to a wailing and gnashing of teeth on the subject of flags.

To most people trying to get on with life in the real world, the minutiae of what flag should fly over which building no doubt seems utterly trivial.

But politicians would do well to remember that when it comes to stoking the fires of division there is nothing like a good old-fashioned flag row.

For harrowing evidence of that one needs look no further than Northern Ireland where the Union flags bedecking the Shankill Road and the Irish Tricolours on the Falls Road speak to a bitterly divided society.

Thankfully Scotland is no Ulster. But rows like the one which erupted yesterday over Scottish Government guidance strictly limiting the flying of the Union flag over public buildings do not bode well.

Heaven forbid that Scotland should descend into the depressing state of affairs across the Irish Sea where it often appears that municipal politics (and Stormont politics) are defined by flags.

Stushies over how many days the Union flag should be allowed to fly above a particular town hall are meat and drink to Northern Irish politicians. They are also destructive, distract from far more important issues and do little other than entrench tribal loyalties.

On the latter subject, the trivia to which such tribalism can descend to can often be quite breath-taking.

Around a decade ago, Sinn Fein councillors in Limavady, County Londonderry, wanted to remove a Charles and Diana royal wedding coffee mug from local authority premises. The rationale of the Irish republicans was that the mug symbolised British culture. Yesterday’s Scottish row over Union flag-flying may not have plumbed such depths – yet – but it is the nature of these things to arouse very strong emotions indeed.

Despite Nicola Sturgeon’s Twitter protestations that changing the flag-flying guidance was merely reflecting “long-standing practice”, the fact of the matter is that Scottish Government guidelines have just been changed to recommend that the Union flag should only be flown from public buildings on one day a year. That compares with 2017 guidelines which suggested the Union flag could be flown on no fewer than 15 occasions, including Royal birthdays and anniversaries.

It didn’t take long for that fervent monarchist Alex Salmond to wade into the row, claiming that it was at his behest that the Union flag was replaced by the Lion Rampant (the Royal Standard of Scotland or Royal Banner) back in 2010.

The former First Minister claimed he introduced the change after a cosy chat with the Queen at Balmoral in which he reassured her that the Lion Rampant was a very popular flag in Scotland.

Students of heraldry will tell you that Mr Salmond was quite entitled to fly the Lion Rampant. When he was First Minster, he was also the Keeper of the Great Seal of Scotland. In that capacity, he may fly the Royal Standard of Scotland.

But in many ways discussion of the Lion Rampant happens to be a bit of a distraction from the crux of this story.

As the Scottish Government guidance makes clear, the Lion Rampant and the Saltire may be flown at St Andrews House on royal occasions because it is the seat of Scottish Government.

It may also be flown on those occasions in a Scottish Government building if the First Minister happens to be present. So it is not as if the Lion Rampant has been run up flagpoles on Government buildings far and wide instead of the Union flag. What appears to have happened is there has been a move to reduce Scottish exposure to the Union flag. This, of course, will warm the hearts of avowed republicans. It will also put a spring in the step of independence supporters who rallied under the Saltire during the 2014 referendum.

It is true to say that there are many SNP politicians and independence supporters who believe getting into a lather about flags is counter-productive. But within the independence movement there is a more fanatical constituency who will describe the Union flag as the “Butcher’s Apron”, regarding it as a symbol of imperial excess. Others of different political persuasions will find the whole thing intensely irritating. The Yes movement’s use of the Saltire upset many No-voting Scots who felt their flag had been appropriated for political means.

Any perception of diminution of the Union flag will be seen as unnecessarily churlish by those who are happy to accept the Union of 1707 and the vote against independence three-and-a-bit years ago.

These are the people who are happy with their dual British and Scottish identity and are happy to exist beneath the Saltire and the Union flag.

These are the people who will see this flag row as another SNP attempt to undermine Britishness and will regard this whole thing with total dismay.

Caught inbetween, there is another constituency – those happy individuals who are ambivalent about the political significance of flags and wouldn’t give two hoots if a pair of knickers were to fly from the roof of St Andrews House.

Needless-to-say these people are always drowned out by the sound and the fury. As are those who just wish politicians would stop attaching too much significance to flags and get on with the business of running the country.