I felt a lump forming in my throat when I first saw the images of the newly-elected Scottish Nationalist MPs arriving at Westminster for the first time a few weeks ago. It didn’t bother me that they spent the first days of the new session rollicking about the place like teenagers on a school trip, picking fights with beleaguered Labour folk over the seating arrangements. This was only to be expected – a party that told its supporters it was going to ‘shake up Westminster’ has every right to follow through with its promises. That is, after all, what political parties are supposed to do. But what I did object to was the prompt erection of a large Saltire outside the one of the grand doors of Westminster Palace. The new MPs, fifty six of them in all, took to Twitter. ‘The Scots are here’, they proclaimed.
Correction: it is not the Scots, but the Scot Nats that have arrived – there is an important distinction to be made. The Scots have in fact been coming to Westminster for quite a while. To take just one example, the most recent ex-Prime Minister, Gordon Brown, was born and raised north of the border, and had his seat in the bustling Fife community of Kirkcaldy for over thirty years. Kirkcaldy, incidentally, is the birthplace of the social philosopher Adam Smith, whose book ‘The Wealth of Nations’ is still studied by all serious economists. Consider also the number of ex-party leaders, chancellors and other senior figures from history that have hailed from north of the border, and you can never again say that Scotland’s influence at Westminster is paltry or ineffectual. However, I digress.
The events down in London reminded me of scenes in Glasgow last year, when hundreds of people young and old flocked to the city’s George Square (or ‘Freedom Square’, as some of the more pompous ones like to call it) to campaign noisily for a Yes vote in the independence referendum. Nothing bad about this: in fact some of us found it quite invigorating to see so many young people getting involved in politics. However, there was one small objection to be made. The now highly-charged word ‘Yes’ was plastered all over the vast blue Saltires they were waving, as if somehow the national flag of Scotland had become nothing but an emblem of the independence movement.
A flag, especially a national flag, is the property of all the citizens it represents, whether they choose to parade it in the streets or not. No political symbols should be imposed upon it, nor should political parties – left-wing, right-wing, nationalist or otherwise – seek to claim the flag as their own. This is an extension of a reactionary and deeply divisive principle, a belief in the spurious idea that all citizens of a certain geographical area are bound by common ideas and objectives.
Nothing divides Scotland and England apart from an arbitrary line on a map that was drawn-up several centuries ago, and nothing will divide the two nations except those who claim they are divided. You may now have guessed my own feelings on the issue, but they do not matter. Whatever your political leanings, it is wrong to cynically exploit love of a country for political purposes. The SNP’s flagrant use of the Saltire has allowed them to claim that they alone speak for the Scottish people, and that any party that dare criticise them is in turn attacking or betraying the country. After Scotland quite wisely repudiated independence last year, union flags were set alight in the centre of Scotland’s largest city.
In one sense, this was just silly, as it is the Saltire that gives us in the blue in the union flag, so technically any pro-independence folk taking a lighter to the ultimate symbol of Britishness is covertly destroying their own emblem along with it. But it was sinister in the sense that it reminded me of old footage of ‘The Troubles’ that dogged Northern Ireland for several decades, claiming countless innocent lives. The people there had to suffer through a great deal of hatred and violence over an issue that could be quite easily summarised as a conflict between two flags: the Red Hand of Ulster, much flaunted by bigots like the late Revd. Ian Paisley, and the green, white and orange of the independent Irish Republic.
And this is by no means just a problem for the British Isles. Last week the former French president Nicolas Sarkozy found himself in controversy after changing his party’s name from the bland ‘Union for a Popular Movement’ (UMP) to ‘The Republicans’. France, as any half-decent historian will tell you, saw off its monarchy long ago, so it seems Sarkozy is quite evidently attempting to associate himself as closely as he can with French national identity in the hope of accruing votes for his election bid in 2017. Love of one’s country is, after all, almost always popular.
Scotland, dedicated as it is to the deeply tribal sports of football and rugby, is a fiercely patriotic nation – and it has every right to be. But there is a fine line between patriotism and it’s ugly sister, nationalism. Scottish MPs have been going to Westminster for centuries. Before now they never had to raise a flag in order to proclaim their identity, or do their job. What’s more, it’s unsettling enough to see the desecration of flags in Middle Eastern hell-holes let alone in your own neighbourhood. I say this because in recent times it seems citizens of the UK are being increasingly divided by their nationality, and as the future of Scotland’s place in the union and Britain’s place in the EU are continually questioned, the importance of renouncing flag-waving nationalism is more important than ever.