The Power of Flags

Flags. They’re so 14th Century. I mean, they’re not really relevant in this one, surely?

We can all give ourselves a pat on the back and stick our well fed noses in the air. We’ve moved on from all that dull tribalism. Who rallies round a flag these days? I don’t anticipate another Bannockburn any time soon and the Jacobite uprisings are now thankfully consigned to history. The Stuart’s were a rum lot anyway. The ‘Lords of Misrule’ as old Nigel Tranter called them. And if we pause for a minute to think why we had a flag in the first place, identification with a chief, or a clan or a tribe, it all feels so…primitive and a bit…unsophisticated. Embarrassing even.

We’ve moved on a bit haven’t we? Such a complex and technologically advanced society, with 3000 years accumulated knowledge at our fingertips, via a neat wee wi-fi router and a 50Mbs broadband supplier. Not so much identifying with country as with brand. The Apple logo, much more in keeping with who we think we are these days. We’ll rally round the stock market instead. Or Netflix. Or Fcbk. Or Vodafone. Or Manchester City plc.

Really. What place is there for a piece of brightly coloured cloth, hoisted up a wooden pole, amongst the white heat of modernity and the globalisation of our world. We’re all in it together surely? The larger family of humankind.

And nationalism, that weird by-product of 18th Century enlightened romantic liberalism. It’s such a sticky, dirty word. Look at all those despotic rulers who hoodwinked their peoples under the pretext of banner waving common identity and the myth of blood and soil. Tawdry. Tyrannical. Facist.

So why the fuss? What does it matter whose flag flies above the Bank of Scotland on the Mound. Or yer cooncil building in Annan, or its equivalent in Stornaway? Or any other civic or significant building the length and breadth of this ancient country?

The answer lies, as with everything else in life, in the detail.

Perhaps not all symbols are born equal. The flags of 20th Century facists, or the romantic nationalists of the 19th Century, were idealised creations intended to suit a purpose. A re-invention of a long forgotten, or in some cases, completely fictional past. It is from these guys that the distaste in flags arose and persists to this day.

But many are benign. Heroic even. For some nations, they are a justifiable symbol of a freedom hard won. Of liberty and equality. A national and civic reminder of pride in sacrifices made and of great human achievement.

Some flags have an ancient lineage. Born of a time when nationhood was a vague concept, when monarchical acquisition was the big game in town and geographical boundaries seemed a more natural delineation of identity than language, ethnicity, or culture. In some nations the flag morphed in meaning as that nation was tested and its people endured common hardship. Over a few centuries it came to mean something deeper. And when other people tried to take it away, it finally cemented that people in a common bond and their flag meant more than kingship or dynastic ambition. It became much more than that. It finally belonged to its people and not their monarch.

But, that is so yesterday. So why the fuss?

Last week, some of our political leaders and the vast majority of our mainstream media went over the top on the issue of a mere rectangle of tightly woven coloured cotton. The Union Jack is no longer given the prominence it had before 2010 on national days of commemoration. The Saltire and the Royal Standard between them are the main flags of identity in Scotland now. That it all slipped by unnoticed at the time seems to be neither here nor there. When it came sharply into focus last week, the language was bitter and riven with caustic accusation. But why? Surely there isn’t much at stake these days…

The truth is, it matters very much. And it matters that we all understand why it matters very much.

There’s a pretty fine dance being executed by both sides of the independence debate. Identity is everything. The unionist cause has to do that difficult thing of persuading us that yes, they are all patriotic Scots, but this must be within the context of the United Kingdom. It’s just that they are British first. And they will say that the Saltire is their flag too. And so it is. To a point…

It all gets rather tenuous when these claims go silent in the context of the wider ambitions of the United Kingdom, as badged by the Union Jack. Take the recent developments in how Scottish industrial and agriculture products are marketed. The use of the Union Jack to supplant the Saltire. From strawberries to whisky. Haggis to salmon. No storm of protest there from those with a unionist bent. In a global world where your commerce is part of your identity, the erasure of the Saltire should worry us. Remember that bit about human achievement I mentioned earlier? Well, what we make and grow and trade are all part of Scotland’s achievements. Our identification by the rest of the world as a country that produces high quality goods really matters.

And when it comes to trade agreements and the protection of those goods from counterfeiting or mimicry, it helps that they are readily identified as being particular Scottish in origin. Think Harris Tweed for example. That unionists sat on their hands when Tesco, M&S et al happily stuck a Union Jack on Scottish produce should cause us to think a little harder why that Saltire should matter. And when recent trade negotiations fail to protect that peculiarly Scottish status we should be deeply concerned.

Especially since the hostile reaction to the Saltire’s adoption as the prime symbol of our national and civic identity. And the civic bit is significant. The symbolism of the Saltire is potent. From the appearance of the St Andrews cross in the sky over 9th Century Athelstaneford to the adoption of that cross in the national flag in the 1300’s it has a long history. But. As ancient as that flag is, it’s a symbol of something more contemporary. A modern European nation with a sense of community and communal identity. One where the civic realm is to be supported and protected. One where blood and soil nationalism is rejected and where you are Scots whether you were born here, or made your home here. It’s a symbolism much stronger than that conveyed by the Union Jack. For the Union Jack has become a symbol of another part of the UK. The part in thrall to free market economics, individualism and the promotion of privatisation over the value of public service. The part that seems to hanker for the days of empire, class snobbery and the suspicion of foreigners. It’s a flag stuck in aspic. It symbolises a nation going backwards, not forwards.

As Tom Devine remarks in his wonderful book, “Scotland’s Past and Scotland’s Present”, the Act of Union was not greeted with any fanfare. But. As a nation we undoubtedly went on to benefit from the union and we can rightly take pride, if not in our colonial contributions, in our sacrifices during two world wars. In fact disproportionately so. In that vein we should consider we have paid our way in more than oil, or any other form of transient wealth. Far from being spongers, as the far right would have us believe, right now it’s honours even.

And during those past three centuries something has endured. Folk memory, language, culture and song. And that persistent little flag. A flag that symbolises a forward looking nation. One that has a deep rooted ancient past but doesn’t need to hark back to it. One that has survived and endured a union with a bigger more dominant neighbour. A flag that is flown by a people who should go out and embrace the world on its own terms. Make friends and alliances unburdened by the leaden feet of Union Jack Britain. We should be proud to see it fly. It’s a nation that rejects isolationism. It still believes in the value of public service and rejects the race to the bottom consequences of privatisation.

The Saltire. Is it still relevant? You better believe it. Those with a Unionist point of view clearly fear it. The tsunami of bile in response to what flag flies where,and when, is evidence of that. Who would have thought that fluttering remnant from a different age could still provoke such emotions?

Or that the very people who cry ‘it’s our flag too’ should turn against it so quickly…

For all the sophistication and complexities of the modern age, our saltire has a singular relevance. That is its strength. That is why it endures. And it is why each of us should carry it aloft with pride and confidence. Wherever we go in the world. More than ever we should make it visible in our daily lives, for there are those who would wish it subsumed and relegated.

The Saltire is not the past.

It’s the future…

© Brian Cook and The Absentminded Scribe Blog, 2018. Unauthorised use and/or duplication of this material without express and written permission from this site’s author and/or owner is strictly prohibited. Excerpts and links may be used, provided that full and clear credit is given to Brian Cook and The Absent Minded Scribe Blog with appropriate and specific direction to the original content.

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