Thursday 5 September 2013

Of flags and feelings

A political statement
As someone with a bit of a passion for live music, one of the highlights of my year is Perth's annual Southern Fried Festival - a superb celebration of American roots music over the course of what, for me, is now a lost weekend every July. I love it! But there was one incident this year which caused me some consternation.

The occasion was a show at Perth Concert Hall where Darrell Scott was opening for Patty Griffin. I arrived a bit late and, preoccupied with finding a seat and greeting friends, I paid no heed to the stage and so it wasn't until the lights came up that I noticed the large flag draped over the grand piano. More precisely, two flags, as it was a banner combining America's "Stars 'n' Stripes" and the British union flag.

To say that I was irked would be an understatement. In fact, I was quite taken aback by the strength of my reaction. I muttered something unprintable, but which is commonly abbreviated to "WTF".

I am not someone who is given to powerful emotional responses. I tend to be, if anything, overly analytical. So I was rather perplexed by what was, for me, an uncommonly visceral reaction. Throughout the first half of the show I was constantly distracted by this flag and a nagging annoyance that was all the more irritating for being as unfamiliar as it was inexplicable.

And it wasn't only me. During the interval, the flag was the topic of every conversation I was part of or overheard. The tenor of these exchanges being along the lines of, "Great show! But what's with that flag?".

I spoke briefly with the manager of the venue and one of the people involved in organising the festival, simply pointing out that some people might consider the flag inappropriate. The former listened to what I had to say and assured me that he would look into it. The latter dismissed my observations saying that the flag(s) were "non-political". A remark of such magnificent silliness that he had walked away before I had overcome my astonishment sufficiently to point out to him that a national flag is nothing else but a political statement. All that changes is the nature of the statement as determined by the context.

Evidently, I was not the only one to make representations about the banner as it had been removed when the show restarted. I don't for one minute imagine this was done simply on my account. I enjoyed the rest of the performance. But I was left wondering about why the display of the union flag in this context caused such aggravation to me and others. I have been wondering about it ever since.

All this occurred shortly after the incident in which Alex Salmond waved a saltire in celebration of Andy Murray's Wimbledon win and the ridiculous fuss that was made about this in the media. So I was naturally prompted to reflect upon possible comparisons between the two incidents. Was my irritation at the display of the union flag in any way akin to the outrage among unionists at the First Minister waving Scotland's flag? And if not, what was the difference?

What I have come to realise is that it was not the flag itself that caused me such irritation but the thoughtlessness of displaying it. What was annoying was the disregard for the political context of the independence referendum and the failure to appreciate how such a display might be interpreted in that context.

Which leaves the question of whether the display of the saltire at Wimbledon was similarly inappropriate. I don't think it was. The reason being that the saltire represents the nation and people of Scotland - nothing more. It is, in any context, a simple statement of identity. The union flag, on the other hand, does not represent either a nation or a people. It represents a political construct. An artifice. A contrivance. It stands for the British state and, of necessity, the union that most people in Scotland want to end or, at least, drastically reform. Like it or not, the union flag is the emblem of a political cause - the cause of preserving the union.

Those who complained about Alex Salmond waving the saltire at Wimbledon did so largely because, whether they would admit it or not, they saw the saltire as a symbol of the nationalist movement. They were wrong! The saltire is quite deliberately not used in this way. But the union flag cannot be other than a token of the union and its display anywhere in Scotland during the referendum campaign cannot help but be viewed as signalling support for the anti-independence campaign. Those who would fly the union flag in Scotland should be aware of the fact that they are making a political statement on a contentious issue.

As an aside, in another flag-related incident, some week earlier I had attended a farewell party at my local for some English guys who had been up here working. The pub was decked with English flags and somebody remarked that I must find this offensive. I replied that did not find it in slightest bit offensive. I had no feelings about it at all. The reason being that, like the flag of St Andrew, the flag of St George represents a nation and people. In the context, it was perfectly appropriate.

Perhaps the most important thing that might be taken from all of this is the realisation that we are all human and subject to the vagaries of human emotions. For all the talk of facts and figures and clarity and certainty in the referendum campaign, when it comes to the vote, we will all be driven by the urging of our hearts as well as the calculating of our minds. There is absolutely nothing wrong with this. But it is wise to be alert to the fact that our emotions often send us garbled messages. By all means, follow your heart. But take a good look at where it's leading you first.

When it comes to flags and feelings, as they say in all the best romantic comedies, it's complicated.

First published in Aye! - Online magazine for Yes Clydesdale
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  1. You know, I have a similar reaction whenever I see that particular flag, and for a long time I didn't understand it - but I think it is very much for the same reason as yourself, that it is a symbol of the political union, not a nation. Most of the time, though, I only feel that sort of vague resentment when I see the union flag in a science fiction film set in the future, like Star Trek Into Darkness: it's an implicit suggestion that the union will persist long after next year's referendum even though I doubt most Hollywood filmmakers are even aware that the referendum is even a thing!

    The strange thing is I *thought* I would have an adverse reaction to St. George's flag for parochial reasons, but I don't: obviously not the same warm feelings I see looking on the Saltire, but nor do I feel that vague sense of hostility which I feel for the union flag.

    1. It seems our feelings on the matter are very similar.

  2. I have to say I feel exactly the same way, Peter. I think you've hit the nail on the head - when I see the Union flag flying in Scotland, it does seem very much like a political statement to me and looks a bit out of place when on display in Scotland. I always think, "What's that doing there?" Like you, I don't have this reaction to the English flag of St. George at all. But the Union flag in Scotland always seems to look out of context these days.

  3. Hi Peter! Great article, I couldn't agree more. I happened to be up at my doctor's surgery at Whitefriars earlier in the week and, as I was walking back down the town, happened to notice that they were flying that flag outside the Fire Station! I'd never actually noticed it before, so don't know if it's only gone up recently, but suspect it has as it's not the sort of thing I'd miss. I decided to email them when I got home and simply asked them when it was put up and if there was a reason for flying it. As of yet I haven't received a reply. Also a number of weeks ago, after noticing a tendency of the CATH charity shop in the High Street to deck their shop windows in the union flag, I emailed them to ask if there was a reason for it. Unfortunately they haven't even had the common courtesy to reply, which suggests to me that their reasons for displaying it so regularly are not exactly innocent. Slainte! Iain

  4. I don't like the Union Jack because of what it clearly represents. A dominant England over Scotland and Ireland and treating Wales as if it does not exist. I find all of those political assertions offensive.

    Until we get independence the flag of Scotland will never fly at the United Nations.

    The Union Jack harks back to an Empire which (thankfully) no longer exists. It's time for the political union to join that empire in the dustbin of history.

    I hope to see the flags of all countries within the Celtic isles including England (and Cornwall) one day fly at the United Nations. On that day we will all be equal and on that basis will have a much healthier relationship.

    Sharing a parliament when one country has 82% of the MP's makes no sense at all.

  5. Get yerselves to Bannoackburn to see the true history of the UNION FLAG. This pre-dates 1707 Act of Union, and is a symbol of the ROYAL UNION only!!!......This is often overlooked...An independent scotland will still be of a type of United the FLAG will remain as it is.
    Remember last weeks new on fishing rights.....Norway is backing the Independent Faro Isles - because they are part of the Kingdom of Norway.
    So, the Union Flag should never been seen as it is now.....BUT you visit Bannockburn, YOU WILL BA AMAZED AT SOME OF THE DESIGNS THAT WERE PROPOSED!!
    My favourite is the LIITLE WHITE CROSS in the middle of the Cross of St Geoege.....TINY!!!!....And perhaps an omen of times to come?

    1. Best check that one out with Denmark. The Faroe Islands have been under Danish control since 1388. The 1814 Treaty of Kiel terminated the Danish-Norwegian union. Just saying like.

  6. Dont need to check it...I saw the Danish Minister say it on the TV last week. Yes. the Danish Union has been over for a while....but it was Faro Isles in the story not Denmark.