|A political statement|
The occasion was a show at Perth Concert Hall where Darrell Scott was opening for Patty Griffin. I arrived a bit late and, preoccupied with finding a seat and greeting friends, I paid no heed to the stage and so it wasn't until the lights came up that I noticed the large flag draped over the grand piano. More precisely, two flags, as it was a banner combining America's "Stars 'n' Stripes" and the British union flag.
To say that I was irked would be an understatement. In fact, I was quite taken aback by the strength of my reaction. I muttered something unprintable, but which is commonly abbreviated to "WTF".
I am not someone who is given to powerful emotional responses. I tend to be, if anything, overly analytical. So I was rather perplexed by what was, for me, an uncommonly visceral reaction. Throughout the first half of the show I was constantly distracted by this flag and a nagging annoyance that was all the more irritating for being as unfamiliar as it was inexplicable.
And it wasn't only me. During the interval, the flag was the topic of every conversation I was part of or overheard. The tenor of these exchanges being along the lines of, "Great show! But what's with that flag?".
I spoke briefly with the manager of the venue and one of the people involved in organising the festival, simply pointing out that some people might consider the flag inappropriate. The former listened to what I had to say and assured me that he would look into it. The latter dismissed my observations saying that the flag(s) were "non-political". A remark of such magnificent silliness that he had walked away before I had overcome my astonishment sufficiently to point out to him that a national flag is nothing else but a political statement. All that changes is the nature of the statement as determined by the context.
Evidently, I was not the only one to make representations about the banner as it had been removed when the show restarted. I don't for one minute imagine this was done simply on my account. I enjoyed the rest of the performance. But I was left wondering about why the display of the union flag in this context caused such aggravation to me and others. I have been wondering about it ever since.
All this occurred shortly after the incident in which Alex Salmond waved a saltire in celebration of Andy Murray's Wimbledon win and the ridiculous fuss that was made about this in the media. So I was naturally prompted to reflect upon possible comparisons between the two incidents. Was my irritation at the display of the union flag in any way akin to the outrage among unionists at the First Minister waving Scotland's flag? And if not, what was the difference?
What I have come to realise is that it was not the flag itself that caused me such irritation but the thoughtlessness of displaying it. What was annoying was the disregard for the political context of the independence referendum and the failure to appreciate how such a display might be interpreted in that context.
Which leaves the question of whether the display of the saltire at Wimbledon was similarly inappropriate. I don't think it was. The reason being that the saltire represents the nation and people of Scotland - nothing more. It is, in any context, a simple statement of identity. The union flag, on the other hand, does not represent either a nation or a people. It represents a political construct. An artifice. A contrivance. It stands for the British state and, of necessity, the union that most people in Scotland want to end or, at least, drastically reform. Like it or not, the union flag is the emblem of a political cause - the cause of preserving the union.
Those who complained about Alex Salmond waving the saltire at Wimbledon did so largely because, whether they would admit it or not, they saw the saltire as a symbol of the nationalist movement. They were wrong! The saltire is quite deliberately not used in this way. But the union flag cannot be other than a token of the union and its display anywhere in Scotland during the referendum campaign cannot help but be viewed as signalling support for the anti-independence campaign. Those who would fly the union flag in Scotland should be aware of the fact that they are making a political statement on a contentious issue.
As an aside, in another flag-related incident, some week earlier I had attended a farewell party at my local for some English guys who had been up here working. The pub was decked with English flags and somebody remarked that I must find this offensive. I replied that did not find it in slightest bit offensive. I had no feelings about it at all. The reason being that, like the flag of St Andrew, the flag of St George represents a nation and people. In the context, it was perfectly appropriate.
Perhaps the most important thing that might be taken from all of this is the realisation that we are all human and subject to the vagaries of human emotions. For all the talk of facts and figures and clarity and certainty in the referendum campaign, when it comes to the vote, we will all be driven by the urging of our hearts as well as the calculating of our minds. There is absolutely nothing wrong with this. But it is wise to be alert to the fact that our emotions often send us garbled messages. By all means, follow your heart. But take a good look at where it's leading you first.
When it comes to flags and feelings, as they say in all the best romantic comedies, it's complicated.
First published in Aye! - Online magazine for Yes Clydesdale