An erstwhile editor of mine was wont to opine: “Let’s run it up the flagpole and see who salutes.”
By this, he meant that we were free to take a bit of a risk with an item.
Trite, I know. Perhaps he’d seen Citizen Kane as a youth and never quite recovered. He’d have worn a green eyeshade if he thought he could get away with it.
However, I remember this particular editor with notable fondness. (I am, of course, harking back to the days when newspaper content was driven by editors and not the current marketing fad.)
I thought of him when I pondered the minor controversy over Caledonian flag-flying.
Fresh from leave (Crete, very warm, thanks for asking), I thought I’d investigate which flag we should run up our official flagpoles - and who might be inclined to salute.
Flags, apparently, are devolved. Holyrood rules on standards, woven and behavioural. Which means the SNP executive can issue guidance on which banner, with or without a strange device, should be flown – and when.
If, that is, they’re all that bothered.
There is a distinct lassitude on this issue in the environs on the first minister.
That is, of course, deliberate. (A Salmond doesn’t do coincidence or accident.)
Mr Salmond, of course, wants to furl the Union Flag once and for all in Scotland. He is against the Union.
Consequently, he is against its emblems.
However, he has calculated that you do not haul down a flag by fretting about the banner itself.
Politically, you focus on substance, not symbol.
Hence, the signals from St Andrews House are that ministers aren’t all that concerned.
They’ll fly the Saltire on government buildings, of course in line with guidance introduced by Jack McConnell.
They’ll fly the Union Flag on 18 designated days, mostly connected with the Royal Family - again in line with established guidance.
They’ll look again at whether the Union Flag should take precedence over the Saltire on such days. (Apparently, that simply means which flag is on the left as you look at the front of a building.)
They point out, further, that this issue was prompted by Gordon Brown’s desire to enhance the visibility of the Union Flag.
It was not, in short, an issue raised by Nationalists.
Of course, they protest - or, rather, demur - too much. For substantial swathes of the SNP, symbols matter greatly. Nationalist ministers are sensitive to that.
However, they’re equally sensitive to their external image.
They don’t want to be painted into a petty and petulant row, not of their making, over woven cloth, however historically and emotionally significant.
Run this issue up the flagpole, by all means. But don’t expect Alex Salmond to salute.