BBC BLOGS - Blether with Brian
« Previous | Main | Next »

Flagging it up

Brian Taylor | 15:21 UK time, Monday, 30 July 2007

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.


  • 1.
  • At 03:46 PM on 30 Jul 2007,
  • sandymac wrote:

Welcome back Brian, there was a lot of political news unreported in Scotland while you were gone. I am of the belief that a minority nationalist government should not take this decision over which flag to fly, surely this is for the people to decide, is it not? What's wrong with having both flags flying to satisfy us all?

  • 2.
  • At 04:54 PM on 30 Jul 2007,
  • Alan wrote:

Surely the government has more important matters to deal with rather than engaging in propoganda?

  • 3.
  • At 05:17 PM on 30 Jul 2007,
  • Dick wrote:

The SNP Govt didn't raise the issue. Gordon Brown is the antagonist here presumably hoping to get some reaction from Alex Salmond which he can use against him. Intelligently AS hasn't risen to the bait.

The problem with Brown is that he's playing with the wrong type of patriotism. Real patriotism includes supporting your country's economy yet the Chancellor recently told the FT that he doesn't believe in economic patriotism.

Sums up Labour perfectly. Their patriotism is all spin and no substance.

  • 4.
  • At 06:25 PM on 30 Jul 2007,
  • Alan North wrote:

Maybe in return Westminster could fly the EU flag more prominently than the Union Flag. We could start off with Napoleon's birthday and then add a few more based upon the public reaction.

  • 5.
  • At 07:33 PM on 30 Jul 2007,
  • Kendomacaroonbar wrote:

That "minority nationalist government" IS the GOVERNMENT, Sandymac ! and are perfectly entitled to make such a decision.

Given G Brown's enthusiasm for promoting all thing 'British' please explain why he doesn't think it neccessary to have a UK Central Bank, but stick with the Bank of England ! should the people decide this also or should Gordo have his way ?

  • 6.
  • At 08:54 PM on 30 Jul 2007,
  • Mark wrote:

Glad you enjoyed your holiday Brian.

I've always had a healthy suspicion of flags, and those who worry over whether to fly them and which to fly. I think it goes back to my studies of Franco-era Spain. To be honest, it's a pretty trivial matter to me, and I daresay to most of the people of Scotland.

I think that the UK and Scottish Governments should be concentrating on more convincing, concrete methods of creating a sense of community and identity.

  • 7.
  • At 08:58 PM on 30 Jul 2007,
  • A Scott wrote:

Indeed welcome back Brian. I missed your patter and common sense.I am of the belief that the nationalist government ..(with the party that won the most seats ) should indeed decide this devolved issue. And according to a poll published in one Sunday newspaper most people agree....

  • 8.
  • At 09:24 PM on 30 Jul 2007,
  • Ned Langer wrote:

At least you have some sort of choice (as a nation). As ans Englishman I would much prefer the Cross of St George to fly on government and public buildings in my country. Alas the prime minister denies my country exists.

  • 9.
  • At 10:41 PM on 30 Jul 2007,
  • Anne wrote:

Personally, I would rather just see the Saltire flying in Scotland. As a Scot first and foremost the Union Jack has not meaning for me. The problem I have with the Union Jack is that the only country flag visible is St. George's Cross, can see no sign of the Saltire or the Welsh flag.

  • 10.
  • At 11:12 PM on 30 Jul 2007,
  • Nick T wrote:

I just returned from a holiday in Spain including Catalonia. In Barcelona, they fly both the Catalonian flag and the Spanish flag over buildings belonging to the local government. Why can't Scotland do that with the Union Jack? It would be a fair compromise to use both flags. Yes it is only a flag, but it is an important expression of national identity and we should not let Salmond have it all his own way. Until Scotland votes for independance, the Union Jack should remain a visible symbol that the union still exists.

  • 11.
  • At 11:53 PM on 30 Jul 2007,
  • rab wrote:

Hi Brian this is my first comment and it wont be my last, anyway as an young SCOT
i would like to see Scotland get independence and i dont think alot of young people about my age care about a flag and escpecially the union jack as i dont like do call myself British as i am SCOTTISH.

  • 12.
  • At 12:39 AM on 31 Jul 2007,
  • Will wrote:

Flying both flags would be a very sensible idea. We could then finally prove that its possible to be both proud of Scotland & Britain.

Some SNP, erm, person will be offended by this. So I'll point out now, I'm half English, half Scottish and proud of both, and Britain.

Can't argue with that.

  • 13.
  • At 12:51 AM on 31 Jul 2007,
  • Jenson Button wrote:

Like the Scottish Government I cannot rouse interest in this. Actions not symbols matter.

  • 14.
  • At 12:59 AM on 31 Jul 2007,
  • Peter, Fife wrote:

Welcome back Brian, a lot went unsaid in your absence.

Saltire/Union flag; personally I think we should fly both together.

What about Jack scuttling off with his tail between his legs, truth or scare?

It must be noted that many of the 'English votes only for English MPs' are quoting Gordon Brown's Scotsman piece as a corner stone of their reasonining; crazy or what?

  • 15.
  • At 02:37 AM on 31 Jul 2007,
  • Jon MacDonald wrote:

Dear Brian,

Glad you enjoyed Crete. I just thought I would say that when you say things like 'A Salmond doesn't do coincidence or accident' that makes me inclined to support him. Much like when Brown was given his 'Stalinist' image - while holding people to account is extremely important, nice to have someone who is decisive.
Re the flags, as a pro-independent thinker I believe Salmond has got his tactics absolutely correct. Symbols are important, but if you change the substance, the symbols change as well.

  • 16.
  • At 06:52 AM on 31 Jul 2007,
  • Ross wrote:

We were bought and sold for english gold. No union jack will ever fly from my garden flagpole!!!

  • 17.
  • At 01:38 PM on 31 Jul 2007,
  • Stephen wrote:

Flag or no Flag or perhaps both Flags,Well I for one am pleased this is not being turned into a political issue, stupidly fighting over symbolism and wasting parliaments time. Alex S has got it right, The union exists and to show our part in its history on 18 out of 365 days a year we fly the union flag. The rest, our own flag, the Saltire is not a flag of independance it is the Scottish national flag from one of the four kingdoms in the uk. Wether or not we vote for independence (given the chance id like to think we would)Fly both flags with same priority. Independance or not enough Scots over the years have had a hand in the developement of the UK, the union will forever be a part of our history whatever our future holds

  • 18.
  • At 03:06 PM on 31 Jul 2007,
  • Tam wrote:

I think it is perfectly reasonable for the Saltire to fly over local government and Scottish Government buildings. however, what is increasingly ignored is the fact that many "Government" buildings in Scotland are national government departments, ie HM Revenue and Customs, DWP, DVLA and so on. As they are not under the control of the Scottish Government, they are free to fly the Union Jack should Gordon decree it. And as many of these buildings are in prominent city centre locations, Gordon can quite easily get his way in heightening the profile of Britain. personally, I would prefer the saltire to fly over these as well, but cannot see it happening

  • 19.
  • At 04:04 PM on 31 Jul 2007,
  • Rosemary Morton wrote:

Nationalism can be good and can be not good. Too often it is used as a weapon. I think the European, Union Jack and Saltire flags should be in use. The Saltire for local matters or only Scottish matters, the Union Jack for the matters of the whole country and the European one for global matters.

  • 20.
  • At 04:28 PM on 31 Jul 2007,
  • Ross wrote:

I'm not one to get too hung up on flags but why can't we fly both and indeed the European flag as well just as they do outside the Scottish Parliament? Granted the SNP do not want to be part of the UK and Euro-skeptics do not want to be part of the EU but there are many Scots (the majority if we go by the recent election results) who don't see these identities as being mutually exclusive and are happy to describe themselves as Scottish, British and European. The SNP need to learn that not all Scots are as parochial as they are.

Welcome back Brian ... coming soon The Scottish Regiments issue back on the agenda!!

More soon

  • 22.
  • At 06:19 PM on 31 Jul 2007,
  • Daniel wrote:

is there not an EU directive that states the EU flag must be flown alongside the national flag? one might also wonder why Glasgow city chamber fly a Commonwealth bid banner instead of any national or international flag?

  • 23.
  • At 07:04 PM on 31 Jul 2007,
  • Zabba wrote:

As you write, his is hardly a SNP started squabble but one begun by Pseudo-Prime-Minister Brown wrapping himself in the Union Flag.
I am very surprised to be informed by you that the SNP (Exec at least) are playing this matter down as you failed to mention the further petulance of the Master government in London insisting that the Union flag and Royal Standard must be placed at a superior elevation than the crux decussata whilst it is flown over any government Chattels? This was of course never, ever challenged by any Scottish congressman for reasons which I cannot fathom.

  • 24.
  • At 08:33 PM on 31 Jul 2007,
  • Simon wrote:

Underestimate the symbolic power of flags at your peril.

Originating from N.Ireland I am only too aware of how emotive an issue flags can be. You can still practically start a riot by flying the wrong flag at the wrong place & time in the Province.
And don't forget that our friends across the Atlantic are indoctrinated from a very early age to hold the Stars & Stripes in hallowed reverence.

The only reason this flags issue isn't as explosive as it could be in Scotland is because the Union Jack isn't regarded by the masses as quintessentially 'English' when compared to the cross of St George. Could you even begin to imagine the uproar if a Westminster government demanded the red cross took precedence over the Saltire on buildings in Scotland?

I believe it will take about a generation for the Union flag to be viewed just as negatively in Scotland as St Georges cross. The symbols of the union are slowly dying in Scotland, anyone can see that.

Flag's a flag's a flag ... isn't this a bit of non-story? A flag doesn't make a people who they are. Some support the union, some don't. The flags don't make a blind bit of a difference ... referendum's make the difference.

Give us choice (whatever the outcome) not flags ... the outcome isn't the fore-gone conclusion some on both sides would have us believe

  • 26.
  • At 11:03 PM on 31 Jul 2007,
  • Ken Mac wrote:

Welcome back. I enjoy your blog and balanced comment.

Bit of a storm in a teacup. AS playing it cleverly as usual. I think the present system is fine. Refering to an earlier comment I see no reason why the English don't fly the St Georges cross over public buildings apart from those that are 'British' like the Houses of Parliament.

p.s Please don't fall in to this modern corporate parlance refering to your hols as 'leave'. Makes it sound as if you're in the Army.

I have a wee saltire stuck on the back of my car and a BIG saltire looking for a flagpole!!

  • 28.
  • At 01:47 AM on 01 Aug 2007,
  • Michael McFarlane wrote:

Well Brian, I sincerely hope you enjoyed your holiday.

Other than your blog, we get very little chance to comment on Scottish issues via the BBC website.

While you were on holiday, the Scottish media reported the possibility of Jack McConnell being made a "Lord" if and when he stands down. They also named the three front-runners for his job. Personally I don't care what flag they want flying from our public buildings; they can fly the "Skull and Cross-bones" if they like.
I do however care about who the people are who decide our Laws.

As our media neglected to expand with any detail about their stories; I wondered if you might be able to explain the kind of logic that would reward, - the man who led Labour to it's worst election result in Scotland in over 40 years - with a seat in the House of Lords ?. I also wondered if you could tell us how the investigation into the recent Scottish election fiasco is proceeding, and why there is going to be a delay before we get the final results ?. Who made the decision to award the £4million-plus contract for counting machines, to `DRS`?,- an American company who supply advanced electronic technology to the military - How will I be assured in future that `who or what`counts the votes, is not cheating ?.

Do our MSP's have any plans for increasing their salary's or pension entitlements ?. And, if you must go away on holiday again, would you remind the BBC that not all of us have gone with you, some have stayed home and wish to comment.

Wellcome back.

  • 29.
  • At 09:44 AM on 01 Aug 2007,
  • Alexander Bisset wrote:

Anne wrote "The problem I have with the Union Jack is that the only country flag visible is St. George's Cross, can see no sign of the Saltire or the Welsh flag."

Hmmm, then what exactly is the blue background with a large white X through it? It's the Saltire, you then have a red cross inside the white X for Ireland and finally the horizontal & vertical cross that is the English flag.

See for historical details of this and variants of the flag.

The amusing thing is that when introduced the Union Flag was hated by the English who preferred their cross of St.George. Nowadays of course the Union Flag seems synonymous with England and those who cling to "little Englander" ideas.

That said I have always been suspicious of ANYONE who wraps themselves in a flag to proclaim their ideas. It always strikes me that there is a certain feeling of insecurity there when they feel the need to loudly proclaim their identity. Those of us who are secure in our identities feel no such need and somewhat resent those that seek to usurp our symbols for their own, usually narrow minded, ideologies.

  • 30.
  • At 09:53 AM on 01 Aug 2007,
  • William wrote:

Yes we live in Scotland, yes we are a proud nation. However, we do NOT pass into other countries with a Scotish passport, but a British one.
We are GREAT BRITAIN and the UNITED KINGDOM. We are Great and should be United. What happened in 1066 really should have no relevance to what is best for our countries future.

  • 31.
  • At 10:04 AM on 01 Aug 2007,
  • Chris Bowie wrote:

I used to be ambivalent, but now I think flying a flag, be it the Saltire, the Union Jack or both is a great idea.

The reason I think this is the breakdown of community spirit and values we have in Scotland and the UK as a whole. Contrast that to the sense of national pride in the US.

I used to think that the flag was just a symbol, but seeing how revered it is in the states, plus how schools instill that sense of pride in the nation, I think it can only be a good thing over here.

  • 32.
  • At 11:39 AM on 01 Aug 2007,
  • alasdair wrote:

30 Jul 2007, Anne wrote:
Personally, I would rather just see the Saltire flying in Scotland. The problem I have with the Union Jack is that the only country flag visible is St. George's Cross, can see no sign of the Saltire or the Welsh flag.

Well Anne you obviously need your eyes tested. The Union Flag clearly shows the cross of st George, St Andrew and St Patrick, the blue and white of the saltire is clearly seen although the irish cross is over the white of the saltire.
I agree it would have been great if the Welsh flag could have been squeezed on too.

I am born in England of scots parentage and proud to be both English/Scots and British, long live the union. I am sure many narrow minded Nationalists will disagree

  • 33.
  • At 11:41 AM on 01 Aug 2007,
  • David wrote:

As a young Scott I would welcome the flying of the Union flag. I'm sick of the nationalists which only got 39% of the vote on a turn out of 50% being portrayed as the voice of the majority in Scotland. Hardly an endorsement of a nationalist agenda. Just like the Rangers fans who sang rule Britannia last Saturday I am proud to be both Scottish and British. I would welcome a referendum on independence if only to shut the nationalists up. Nationalists in any other part of the UK are seen for what they are, a dangerous fringe with questionable intent.

  • 34.
  • At 12:15 PM on 01 Aug 2007,
  • Cloggy wrote:

As neither a Scot nor a Brit, I am glad that the SNP seems to have taken the correct line on this issue. This seems in line with their brand of nationalism, which (thankfully) is quite distinct from the flagwaving, introspective, xenophobic, undemocratic nationalism we see in the rest of the world.

Long may they continue to be sensible!

(Oh, and welcome back. I missed the one blog I look forward to reading.)

I see a lot of assertions that nationalists are narrow-minded, but I'm sure of the basis for this.

Surely, the ability to open our minds to the possibilities of independance would suggest the opposite?

  • 36.
  • At 11:50 PM on 01 Aug 2007,
  • Anne wrote:

I am dismayed at the comments that Nationalists are narrow minded. It is only by opening my outlook that I have come round to the idea of independence for Scotland. Whether you like it or not, Scotland and England have an entirely different culture and outlook on the world. The problem with the union is that only England's viewpoint is put across on our main broadcasting network and until recently, only through Westminster. Since Devolution Scotland has begun to assert itself and redeem some sort of self-respect. Aren't you lot aware that in 1979 Scotland was lied to about it's oil revenue, that the oil would hardly last, but it went onto bank roll Thatcher's union bashing. Without it her government would have sunk. I quote Andrew Marr's excellent recent BBC2 programme, History of Modern Britain, that Thatcher shamefully left out the North Sea oil from her memoirs. Please, please open you eyes to the facts and don't call Nationlists narrow minded. I could go on, but what is the point.

  • 37.
  • At 01:56 PM on 04 Aug 2007,
  • Shaun wrote:

Im Scottish but also proud of being British. I welcome flying the union flag. It is a symbol of pride and hopes for a united future. Together we won two world wars, became one of the most successful nations this world has ever seen and influence international decission making. Why people want to seperate people that have stood strong side-by-side for centuries. Please dont pick at details that happened centuries ago, focus on a possitive future for both Scotland and Britian.
I have been told that im 'not Scottish' by some becouse I support the union. To those people I say... It is you that wants to stop progress and encourage social and racial devides. This would benefit no one.
I will fly the union flag and I will fly it with pride as a proud Scot.

This post is closed to new comments.

BBC © 2014 The BBC is not responsible for the content of external sites. Read more.

This page is best viewed in an up-to-date web browser with style sheets (CSS) enabled. While you will be able to view the content of this page in your current browser, you will not be able to get the full visual experience. Please consider upgrading your browser software or enabling style sheets (CSS) if you are able to do so.