Flags and Symbols Aren't Everything, But they Still Matter

March 25, 2016



Ever since the rise of the SNP, Scotland has been witnessing a cultural war of attrition, although only one side is fighting it. The nationalist movement has fully harnessed the power of language and symbolism and their role in reinforcing national identity; unionism by contrast has shied away from such emotive things, focusing instead on more dry matters of everyday governance. That unionism focuses on more substantial matters is to its credit, however it would be wrong in this new era of identity politics to neglect issues of national identity. Unionism's weakness in this regard is something that unionists must seek to rectify.


Since the advent of devolution, the SNP have waged a concerted campaign to make us feel more Scottish and less British, removing any sort of British symbols or names from public institutions and replacing them with new Scottish counterparts. The mainstream unionist parties, in part due to half-heartedness and part due to considering themselves to be aloof from such things, have allowed the SNP to go unchallenged on these matters. At times, they have positively supported the SNP in this cultural campaign.


One example is the logo of the Scottish Government itself. Styled from 1999 until 2007 as the Scottish Executive, it was represented by the Scottish Royal Coat of Arms, itself bearing the heraldry of England and Ireland as well as Scotland. From 2007, this was replaced with a blander Saltire and the Scottish Executive became known as the Scottish Government. This badge now appears on many publicly-funded materials, often alongside a similar EU logo without any accompanying British imagery, even when the British Government has also been responsible for its funding. In 2003, under a Labour administration, the very Saltire itself was changed to a new lighter shade of blue, a pointless re-branding exercise that did nothing other than to make Scotland’s position in the Union Jack seem out of place. Again, it was under a Labour government that the Gaelic Language Act of 2005 was introduced, which declared Gaelic to be an official language of Scotland. This language, spoken by less than 1% of the Scottish population, has been increasingly pushed under SNP administrations to forge a Scottish identity that makes us feel different from our fellow Britons. 


This bolstering of all things Scottish has been accompanied by an erosion of all things British. The Union Jack rarely flies any more from council buildings, save on a few special occasions; the Saltire is now the default flag to be flown from any civic building. From the next budget, even income tax will cease to be British and become federalised, and Scottish taxpayers can look forward to paying the new Scottish Rate of Income Tax. If the SNP get their way, we will lose the British Six O’Clock News and get a new ‘Scottish Six’ in its place. The British Transport Police, one of the few institutions remaining in Scotland to retain the term ‘British’ in its title, is due to be merged into Police Scotland. All this is perhaps something that goes deeper than the separatism of the SNP: British Rail, British Coal, British Steel and so many other iconic British institutions have been long lost to privatisation, casualties of the new neoliberal order and its globalising world in which national borders seem ever less relevant (except to the SNP of course).


In any case, we have not just witnessed an erosion of British names and imagery, but local also: regional police and fire services were lost in 2013 to the monolithic Police Scotland and Fire & Rescue Scotland, each using a thistle in their logo just so we can be sure that they are sufficiently Scottish. The key trend is clear: all the local, regional and British layers of our identity are being suffocated by an overarching Scottish level of political life, one around which almost all civic institutions seem to increasingly revolve. A new generation that is beginning to vote has been brought up in this de-Britishised Scotland, and it is little wonder that they consistently identify as more Scottish and less British than older generations.


But why should we care about how Scottish or British people feel? The answer is simply that if unionism loses the battle over identity, then it loses the heart-based case for the Union. And this isn’t just conjecture – there is a strong correlation between national identity and support for separation or for Union. According to the 2012 Social Attitudes Survey, a strong majority of those who identify as “Scottish not British” support independence; by contrast, only one in five of those who say they are “equally Scottish and British” and one in six of those who say they are “mainly or only British” support it [1]. Amongst those who say that they feel “strongly Scottish and strongly British”, the figure is around one in four. Following the referendum, almost a third of No voters stated that they voted that way because they regard themselves as British and believe in the Union [2]. All this should be obvious and hardly need stating, but it seems that the mainstream unionist parties must be reminded that the Union will not be safe so long as they abandon the identity question and rely solely on GERS figures and Barnett consequentials alone. Unionism must win hearts as well as heads.


Why unionism avoids the politics of flags, symbols and identity is significant. Firstly, it should be noted that the two main unionist parties have always revolved around class, rather than national politics. They are parties of the Left or Right, viewpoints which transcend national boundaries, often explicitly so on ideological grounds. By contrast, the SNP’s raison d’etre is fundamentally about nationhood and national identity. It is equipped for the new Scottish politics of nationalism and unionism – Labour and the Conservatives are not.


At the individual level, some unionists are indifferent to the identity question; a minority will even regard themselves purely as Scots who support the Union only out of pragmatism. Then there are those unionists who, in reaction to the flag-waving excesses of the SNP, explicitly reject the idea that any sense of national identity should influence their politics, and think it a virtue to vote based on the cold facts of economics alone. After all, aren’t we as unionists above the petty identity politics of the SNP?


Undoubtedly, serious matters like the economy, trade and national defence should dominate any independence debate. But it would be wrong to dismiss the importance of identity and all its accompanying language and symbolism. Nor should we only recognise it on a pragmatic level as some sort of cynical electoral concern, because in doing so we would do a great disservice to the ordinary unionist who feels proud to be British.


This is because we need to challenge the received wisdom: the wisdom that states that things like national identity are just silly feelings that need to be separated from the cold hard facts of budgets and economics. On face value that sort of thinking might appear sensible, it has a certain appeal to those of a no-nonsense mentality who think that government ought to get on with the hard realities of governance, and not waste time or resources on such intangible things as identity or superficial things like flags, names and symbols.


The problem is that such thinking is not as solid as it first seems. The truth is that a common sense of national identity is the very foundation on which modern political systems rest. The tax and spend that allows for social justice and national infrastructure can only take place when a group of people feel that they have enough in common to pool and share their resources together for their common good. Our governments derive their legitimacy to govern through the trust that people place in national institutions that they can identify with, and all the history and custom that underpins them. Most people probably like to think that they would work together with anybody for a common purpose, but this is rarely true, at least to the point of joining together into a single nation. Even the most ardent supporter of the EU is unlikely to support outright political union with any of the European countries: this is because we lack the same sense of common purpose, political values or trust in particular political institutions with Frenchmen or Germans that we share with fellow Britons. Before you can tackle the real political issues, you need to have a group of people who feel that they have enough in common to tackle them together. For unionists, Britain is the level at which that common identity and common purpose exists.


What is particularly worrying from a unionist perspective is that this sense of a common British purpose and identity is being fractured by the strains of nationalism, not just within Scotland but throughout the whole UK. The rise of Scottish nationalism has removed Scotland from the mainstream of British politics, and rather than working together for a common British good, Holyrood is now increasingly pitted against Westminster, the latter viewed with contempt by many nationalist Scots. There is no desire to work to make the UK better, only to remove Scotland from it. The asymmetries of devolution and the preferential treatment it gives to Scotland has fuelled resentment amongst English voters, a large number of whom would be quite happy to see Scotland leave. Our common British purpose is being lost, institutionally as well as symbolically.


Unionism must respond to these developments, and seek to rebuild a common sense of Britishness throughout both Scotland and England, as well of course as Wales and Northern Ireland. Flags, symbols, logos and the names of our institutions are the most visible, if sometimes mundane ways in which national identity is expressed. Every time we walk past a government building flying a Union Jack, it reinforces our sense that we are part of a British political nation, one that provides services and pools and shares resources at the British level. The same is true also of the Saltire. It is all too easy nowadays to walk through a Scottish town and feel like you are in an independent Scotland already – often every courthouse, council and government building will have a Saltire flying over it. Britain seems far removed from our thoughts.


And yet we are still a core part of what is fundamentally a British state, and every time we visit a GP or send our kids to school, we enjoy the fruits of British services funded by a British public. In terms of public spending, Scots benefit disproportionally to the tune of £1,400 a year per head of population according to the latest GERS figures [3]. It seems only appropriate then that a Union Jack – the British flag – should fly from government buildings in Scotland, as it does anywhere else in the UK. For too long, we have been forgetting, at times even been conditioned to think that we are not British. It will be difficult to recapture that feeling so long as a sense of Scottish separateness is so visually and institutionally reinforced.


None of this is to say that we should show the same excess of flag-waving nationalist rallies. There is no need for huge crowds taking to the streets waving Union Flags, or for them to be plastered on the backs of our cars, flown from our garden sheds or draped from tenement windows in the manner in which we have become accustomed to seeing Saltires, often defaced with the logo of the Yes campaign, displayed. But it would surely be beneficial from a pro-UK perspective to see a return to the quiet yet assured ways in which we used to express our Britishness, and a good goal in this respect would be to see the Union Flag flown once again from all government and council buildings in Scotland. Whatever is done, unionism has to provide a response on these issues, and challenge the SNP’s cultural campaign against all things British. It is clear that none of the mainstream so-called unionist parties are going to do that. And yet it is only by doing this that we can provide a real opposition to nationalism that goes beyond debating economic figures to tackle the identity question, and stick up for Britishness in Scotland.





[1] http://blog.whatscotlandthinks.org/2013/08/scottish-or-british-does-national-identity-matter/

[2] http://www.telegraph.co.uk/news/uknews/scotland/scottish-politics/11497348/The-vow-of-more-devolution-made-little-difference-to-outcome-of-independence-referendum.html

[3] http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/uk-scotland-scotland-business-35766076

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