The Jolly Roger flyingAnother round of flag fuss has kicked off, and as usual, it’s lowered the tone and brought politics, especially nationalist politics, into disrepute. When I say nationalist, I of course include the British or Unionist variety as well as the Scottish variety: both sides are susceptible to the kind of totemism and time-wasting that accompanies flag-centric news stories.

Yesterday it was the classic version of the argument – which flag should fly at Edinburgh Castle, an issue which was done to death a mere nine years ago. Petitions Committee discussed it again, and one MSP present at the meeting told me that “it’s rather sad how this posturing and competition goes on about the two national flags”. Yes indeed.

There are endless variants, none of them with an ounce of real news to them and all taken as deadly serious by those involved. When I first started working for Parliament’s own press office in 2002, I took a media inquiry about a flag story. I think the question was this: which flag would fly higher at the new Holyrood building? I came off the phone and light-heartedly told a colleague about the call. His face dropped and he advised me that this issue would be likely to occupy our time for much of the week *, and so it did.

Another such round was the previously unconsidered question of the proper colour of the Saltire. Parliament was asked, and Pantone 300 was the answer. Not a partisan example, but it’s hard to justify that discussion as a good use of MSPs’ or civil servants’ time. On another occasion a member of the National Library staff had apparently wasted hours of work time covering their desk in endless Saltires and Lions Rampant. When they were told to get them down and just do their job, it was regular flag-lover Christine Grahame who stepped in for a Saltire-draped photo-op.

Before that we had the unedifying sight of Labour moaning about how the trains were painted. It’s got to be painted somehow, and they chose a Saltire: who cares? The shocking inconsistency of the Labour spokesperson in that last story is something else: “People care about whether their train runs on time, not what colour it is painted.” So why did you spend thirteen years in office in London and eight in Edinburgh without ending the Tories’ failed privatisation experiment? Too busy checking there weren’t the wrong kind of saltires on the line?

The former blogger Scottish Unionist, much missed by me, used to do a great job excoriating the Nationalist side of this. But both sides are as bad as each other. When Salmond picked a dreich Christmas card of a lassie dragging a Saltire around we could have done without the frothing on all sides, including the Lib Dems and the Tories. When the SNP administration, perhaps ill-advisedly, spent £23,000 on flags, did we then need another round of Rent-A-Foulkes?

I’m not a nationalist, although my preference is for Scottish independence, a distinction which some either cannot or will not understand. I also make the traditional exception when Scotland are playing. But I am anti-flag. They’re a waste of valuable mental space, of Parliamentary resources, of newsprint and pixels. It’s time the nationalists on both sides stopped pretending it’s for the tourists, too.

Fly what you like on your own property, unless it’s got a really bad history. But the nonsense has to stop somehow. Perhaps each time an MSP issues a press release urging the use of one flag over another, their preferred flag itself could be banned from public buildings for a month. Perhaps we could consider alternatives for the castle, like the Edinburgh flag or the one above (which the tourists would clearly prefer). Or perhaps we could just cut down every last public flagpole and save ourselves a lot of bother, including blog posts like this.

* Edit: I’ve been reminded that the response was actually “tricky fellows, flags”.

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