When I was a kid, the Union fleg was only regularly seen flying on Orange Walks. As a Catholic wean from a family that was partly of Irish descent, it was a flag that said that people like me were not welcome, that we were excluded, that we were regarded as aliens in the land of my birth and my parents’ birth. It was a symbol of hate and sectarian bigotry. It was the flag that the Orange marchers flaunted as they stood outside the church were I made my first communion as a small child, while we cowered within in fear. It was a flag that said that we were powerless, and which was used to assert and reinforce the lower position on the social hierarchy of part of the Scottish population. It was a flag that ruled over the divide and rule of the British state. It was not my flag. That was made very clear to everyone in Scotland who was of Irish Catholic heritage. It was the flag that told us that we did not belong. It was the flag that told us to be silent, to acquiesce in our lower status, the flag that said you are here on sufferance.
During the independence referendum, the red white and blue became the symbol of a No campaign which accused independence supporters of politicising the Saltire. The Union flag added a new layer of exclusion to its existing associations with sectarianism and bigotry. Now it was also the flag that told Scotland that it was not to govern itself, the flag that told the half of this land who support independence that Scotland must content itself with a subordinate position. It’s the flag that says no, the flag that lectures us on what we can’t do. It’s the flag of limited horizons and pursed lips. It is now an overtly political symbol in a highly politicised Scotland, the symbol of that part of the Scottish population which doesn’t want independence.
Decades later, the Union fleg is still not my flag, it’s still not the flag of hundreds of thousands of people in Scotland, but it has spread all over public spaces like a nasty rash. It is imposed on us all as we are branded as Brits whether we like it or not. It has spread into shops and onto driving licences and in public spaces without any consideration, or even awareness, that not everyone in this country of Scotland has had a positive experience of it. You can’t buy a bag of potatoes without the Union flag staring out at you, reminding you that even your tatties have been colonised. It’s the politicisation of chips.
The spread of the red white and blue is due in part to marketing decisions made in offices in Slough and Reading, in London and Bristol by managers who have no experience of Scotland and who have no reason to be interested. It’s spread is a symptom of Scotland’s economic and political powerlessness. It reminds us on a daily basis that all the decisions which affect us are made elsewhere by people who don’t feel any need to consult us.
The Union fleg is the flag that tells us that Scottish sensibilities count for nothing, that our experiences can be ignored, that our political views can be crushed. To at least half the population of Scotland, it’s not a flag that speaks of unity and common purpose. It’s not a symbol which creates a cosy sense of belonging. The Union flag is the flag of triumphalism and the gloating ignorance of the British establishment. It’s the flag that tells Scotland to get back into its red white and blue shortbread tin. It’s the flag which rubs the faces of hundreds of thousands of Scots in our own powerlessness to determine our own future.
The Union flag is the flag that erases us. It’s the flag that tells the world that typically Scottish products are British, British whisky, British shortbread, British tweed. And to the rest of the planet, that means English. Britishness doesn’t permit Scotland to punch above its weight, whatever that cant means. Britishness makes Scotland invisible in a world where Spanish speakers talk of el gobierno inglés when they mean the British government. Scotland doesn’t figure in their imaginations. British means that Scotland no longer exists, that it has no presence, no place in the world. It’s the reduction of what is supposed to be a family of nations to a monolithic entity whose character is determined by its largest and most powerful part.
The spread of Union flags is exactly like a rash. I suffer from psoriasis, which flares up during times of stress and uncertainty. It covers my body in unsightly lesions. It irritates and annoys. The recent rash of Union flags flaring up in our supermarkets and public spaces is a symptom of the stress and uncertainty of the British state. It irritates and annoys us, but it’s a sign that the British body politic is weak and under stress. The grip of Britishness is slipping, that’s why it’s important that we are not silent about this erasure of Scotland’s identity and distinctiveness.
The erasure of Scotland is dangerous when Scotland is a part of a state which regularly denies Scotland’s voice and Scotland’s distinctiveness and is dragging Scotland out of the EU without Scotland having any say in the matter. Scottish products are being subsumed into Britishness, losing their distinctiveness, a distinctiveness that speaks of quality and tells consumers that they are quality premium products. What makes this even more dangerous is that once Scotland is hauled out of the EU, Scottish products will lose their protected status. Cheap American grain whiskies can be branded as Scotch, anyone with a cow or sheep whose ancestors once ate some grass in Scotland could brand their beef or lamb as Scottish.
When you don’t complain, it’s taken as compliance. So complain. Occupy the time of customer service departments of shopping chains. Complain on social media to supermarkets about their Union fleggery on carrots, potatoes, raspberries. Buy Saltire stickers to cover the Union flag on your driving licence. Let those who unthinkingly plaster Union flags on our produce know that we don’t have the same opinions or sensibilities as they do. Let them know that Scotland is not a region, and we will not be made invisible. If Scottish products must have a flag on them, that flag must be a Scottish one.
And most of all, support Scotland the Brand. http://www.keepscotlandthebrand.scot/ Unlike psoriasis, there is a cure for the spreading rash of unionjackery. That cure is independence.
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