Brexit: EU flag will fly at Holyrood after Brexit, after government overturns decision of impartial parliament body

The Scottish Government was accused of "political interference" in the running of the Scottish Parliament today after it won a vote which overturned the decision of Holyrood's impartial corporate body to lower the EU flag after Brexit.
MSPs voted to overturn an earlier decision. Picture: Andy BuchananMSPs voted to overturn an earlier decision. Picture: Andy Buchanan
MSPs voted to overturn an earlier decision. Picture: Andy Buchanan

SNP and Scottish Green MSPs united to ensure the EU flag will continue to fly at Holyrood - in an unprecedented move which reversed the decision of the Scottish Parliament Corporate Body.

MSPs voted by 63 votes to 54 - with one abstention - to keep the flag flying and Presiding Officer Ken Macintosh who chairs the SPCB, said it would alter its flag-flying policy with "immediate effect".

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The vote came after a decision was made last week by the SPCB to lower the flag, as the UK would no longer be a member of the European Union.

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Mr Macintosh said: “The Parliament has resolved to direct the SPCB to continue to fly the European flag daily from Holyrood, and I can confirm the SPCB will amend its flag flying policy with immediate effect.”

The SPCB - which consists of MSPs elected to it by the parliament - operates as a non-political body as it makes decisions on a wide range of issues on the running of Holyrood including finance, staffing, accommodation and security. Last week the body decided the flag should be removed at 11pm on Friday, January 31.

The move provoked a backlash from SNP and Scottish Green MSPs who said the blue and yellow starred flag should remain to show "solidarity" with EU citizens in Scotland.

Today in Holyrood, Europe Minister Fiona Hyslop launched the ultimately successful government bid to overturn the decision of the SPCB, saying that keeping the flag flying would be a "practical demonstration on the sense of loss" felt in leaving the EU.

In a heated half-hour debate which was branded as "bizarre" and "a waste of time" by opposition MSPs, she said that those who argued that parliamentary debate time should focus on education or health instead of flags "forget that EU citizens are our teachers, our doctors, our nurses, they build our houses and care for our vulnerable".

She admitted that attempting to change the decision of the SPCB was not one "taken lightly" but suggested there was precedent as Holyrood had advised the corporate body to establish the Calman Commission in 2007.

However the Calman Commission motion was Parliament endorsing the SPCB’s authority to provide resources to the commission - not changing an SPCB decision.

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Ms Hyslop also said keeping the flag flying would send a "simple message to the EU citizens in Scotland that we want you to stay, Scotland is your home as it is ours, and we want you to feel welcome."

She added: "The government has always accepted that the decision was made with the aim of being non-political, however I don't believe the decision reflects the views of parliament as a whole and neither do I believe the action can be non-political."

However Liz Smith, speaking on behalf of the Scottish Conservatives said that overturning an SPCB decision would set a "dangerous precedent".

She apologised to a group of carers whom she was due to meet until the flag debate was scheduled and added: "Those of us who are committed Europeans would rather the flag was flying along with Scottish and UK flags but we lost that argument... however the UK voted to leave the EU and that is important in relation to the decision made by the corporate body."

She said the SPCB made impartial decisions on behalf of the institution of the Scottish Parliament, not the Scottish Government, and it was "vital there was full trust and confidence" in it. For the government to direct the SPCB was, she added, "a dangerous precedent which could undermine the relationship between the corporate body and the rest of parliament."

"This debate is not about what we think about the withdrawal of the UK from the EU but about whether members of this parliament are prepared to undermine the corporate body and allow the Scottish Government to over turn its decision because it can get sufficient support," she said. "And I don't believe for a minute that the public wants us or expects us to debate flags flying outside this building."

Scottish Labour's Neil Findlay, raised a point of order with the deputy presiding officer, Linda Fabiani, asking if MSPs voted in favour of overturning the SPCB's decision it would be a vote of no confidence in the corporate body, and what the MSPs sitting on it would do in that event. He was instructed to write to the Presiding Officer, and she went on to rebuke MSPs for "rudeness from the benches".

His colleague Claire Baker said the debate was wrongly being framed as a test of how committed MSPs and parties are to EU citizens in Scotland, that they needed reassurance but "in a meaningful way."

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She added it was about the governance of the parliament, and could set a precendent that a narrow vote could overturn a decision of the SPCB creating a "clear risk" of politicising it in the future. She said the parliament flied the flags of bodies which the parliament was a member of, and as of Friday it would no longer be a member of the EU.

"We should respect the independence of the corporate body and the decision of its members, which was unanimous until it became a political football. This is not about a government building or a building owned by one political party which can exert its will over parliament. Neutrality of the institution is important."

However Scottish Green MSP Ross Greer said while he appreciated the decisions of the SPCB should not be politicised, the flag "is a political symbol and what we - the democratic voice of Scotland - do with it has significant symbolic meaning. It sends a message."

He was interrupted by Conservative MSP Liam Kerr who demanded to know why a debate about flags was more important than a ministerial statement he had asked for from the Justice Secretary about "the state" of Police Scotland. "It was refused for lack of time, instead we're debating flags and symbolism - does he feel any sense of shame that he feels this is more important," said Mr Kerr.

Mr Greer accused Mr Kerr of self-indulgence in his question and accused the Conservatives of hypocrisy. He said the flag was "originally and remains the flag of the Council of Europe, which we remain a part of. That organisation predates the EU and plays an important role in relation to the Convention of Human Rights, something the Conservative party often suggest we just get rid of. We might be leaving the EU but we're not leaving the Council of Europe."

He added: "The Scottish Government rightly opens itself up to criticism in bringing this debate without having brought a single debate on our schools for two years but we should be honest here, the Tories are delighted this debate is taking place and they reckon they'll stand to benefit politically from a failed attempt to make the European flag come down. Just as the Greens and SNP will likely come out of this well with those who feel a strong sense of European identity.

"The only real losers here are the Liberal Democrats, the party of Europe, who are set to vote with the Conservatives to bring the flag down."

Lib Dem MSP Liam McArthur, who has been on the SPCB since 2011, hit back, and said: "It is a matter of deep regret to me that this parliament is having this debate on this motion and has just had to listen to that contribution from Ross Greer.

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"This motion is not about the Council of Europe or the European family of nations, this parliament has flown the flag since 2004 to reflect our membership of the EU - removing the flag does not make the parliament anti-European, just as leaving it up does not make us pro-European. the flags are a statement of legal fact not of political desire."

He said the SPCB takes decisions "with the aim of protecting the political neutrality of the SPCB and of the parliament as an institution, it's for that reason we agreed to lower the flag - reflecting the legal position that Scotland as part of the UK is no longer a member of the EU. Does that fill me with joy - absolutely not.

"Meantime with everything else going on in Scotland at present the spectacle of this parliament debating flag policy will strike many as bizarre. But it's more serious than that, by seeking to direct the SPCB this government is moving into unchartered territory, and sending a dangerous message about the length it's prepared to go to to get it's own way."