In recent months, union flags have been popping up every time some minor British government minister makes an announcement. Tory ministers seem to have more flags than a shoe fetishist has size twelve Manolo Blahniks. One of them, Housing minister Robert Jenrick, didn’t just have a large Union flag on display in the corner of his living room when he made an appearance last week via zoom on the BBC Breakfast Show, he also had a large and conspicuously positioned photie of the queen, just in case anyone thought that his flag wasn’t staunch enough by itself.
This recent outbreak of flag-shagging is apparently one of the bright ideas of the British government’s so-called Union unit. The reason that Scotland is increasingly being attracted to the idea of independence is apparently because we don’t have enough union flags, and if only the British Government can successfully channel the interior design ethic of a flute band hall in Livingston then Scotland will decide that this whole independence lark is maybe not such a good idea after all.
So we are to get union flags on our driving licences and car licence plates. There are to be union flags plastered over all the infrastructure projects directly chosen and funded by the UK government as part of their campaign to wrest powers away from Holyrood and subvert devolution. The UK Government hub in Edinburgh, the building from which the British government will coduct its shameless evisceration of the devolution is already branded with an outsize union flag design which wouldn’t look out of place in a Tory cabinet minister’s zoom call. No doubt they have something similar in mind for the new offices that they have planned for Glasgow.
Naturally the flag is prominently on display in the new press briefing room in 10 Downing Street, which reportedly cost £2.6 million for some sheets of MDF, and a few tins of Tory blue paint. There’s that Conservative procurement policy for you. Ministers even tried to brand the Astra-Zeneca vaccine with union flags despite the fact that the team developing it included Turkish residents of Germany, the company is owned by an Anglo-Swedish consortium with a French chief executive, and one of the major production sites is in Belgium.
The Tories are very keen to plaster union flags on everything because they imagine them to be a symbol of unity. This only goes to show just how out of touch with Scotland they really are. The most recent display of union flags in Scotland was when Rangers fans went on a rampage of vandalism in George Square. The centre of Glasgow has also witnessed such other symbols of union flag unity when red white and blue bedecked right wing thugs ostensibly “defending” statues that no one intended to attack embarked upon an orgy of violence, assaulting peaceful protestors standing up for fair and decent treatment for asylum seekers and migrants. The union flag symbol of unity was also prominently on display when those right wing British nationalist boot boys attacked peaceful independence supporters in the aftermath of the independence referendum in 2014, an incident which the BBC quite disgustingly, with a hypocritical false moral equivalence described as “clashes between supporters and opponents of independence. Every year on the streets of towns and cities of the west of Scotland we see the “unity” that the union flag symbolises in triumphalist sectarian parades that tell Scots from a catholic family background that the union flag wavers will never fully accept them.
In Scotland we are well aware of the “unity” that the union flag represents. It’s the unity that comes after your opponents have been battered into submission, with kicks and punches if necessary. That’s the only kind of unity that the Conservatives understand. For them the union flag is a symbol of their total victory.
This recent plague of flag-shagging represents yet another instance of the historic reversal of a pattern that always infuriated Scots, that of politicians and other public figures referring to England when they meant Britain. The use of the union flag is an example of the Conservatives saying Britain when they really mean England. The Conservatives have come to represent a decidedly English right wing nationalism. The Brexit that they espouse is a creature of English nationalist obsessions and resentments and a peculiarly English sense of exceptionalism. Scotland rejected Brexit at the ballot box, and has repeatedly and consistently rejected the Conservative party which is not only hell bent on imposing the most harsh form of Brexit on all of us, it is also using that Brexit as an excuse to weaken and undermine a devolution settlement that Scotland did give overwhelming support to at the ballot box.
Scotland is not suddenly about to become reconciled to any of this because Tory Government ministers have taken to wrapping themselves in union flags and insisting that it’s a symbol of unity. It’s not symbols we are looking for, it’s substance, and it’s in substance that the Conservatives are lacking when it comes to taking Scotland’s desires and interests into account. What the current plague of union flags symbolises isn’t unity, it’s weakness and desperation. It’s a symbol of political opportunism and a British goverment which has nothing constructive to offer Scotland beyond empty and meaningless platitudes about a precious union and a partnership of nations.
The union flags which this government is hell bent on plastering all over our public life are a last desperate attempt to disguise the fact that the union as it was once understood is over. It’s not a symbol of strength and confidence. It’s a symbol of weakness and hollowness. The real tragedy for supporters of the UK and the union between Scotland and England is that this is all that they have left to offer.
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