Could Ulster-style flag protests take root in mainland Britain?

Treasury Chief Secretary Danny Alexander
Treasury Chief Secretary Danny Alexander

In this country we’re a long way off sorting out our flag issues and I had cause to wonder this week if our problem has the potential to pollute other places within the United Kingdom.

Take Scotland, for example. They revere the Saltire but just as many prefer the Union flag.

Sandra Chapman

Sandra Chapman

It’s my experience of many years spent holidaying in Scotland that in most areas they don’t exactly fight over which flag goes up the pole. But that could change. I call it the problem of tomorrow created by none other than the Coalition partner at Westminster, the Lib Dems.

Danny Alexander, Chief Secretary to the Treasury, a born and bred Scotsman, mustn’t have had his philosophy hat on (one of the subjects he studied at Oxford) when he announced last week that Union flags (what we commonly call the Union Jack) are to be displayed on roads, bridges and other publicly funded infrastructure projects throughout Britain.

According to Minister Danny all future publicly funded infrastructure sites from Cornwall to Caithness will carry a plaque featuring the Union flag alongside the message ‘Funded by UK Government’.

I wonder did he discuss this with the people of his constituency for example which takes in Inverness, Nairn, Badenoch and Styrathspey? There are two areas there which I believe to have a strong nationalist bent. More to the point did he get Mori to do an opinion poll to test the water?

It’s less than a year since the Scots voted by a relatively narrow margin to stay within the UK as opposed to choosing independence. That debate showed us for the first time how strong Scottish nationalism has become and the kind of flag waving exercise proposed by the Coalition partners could get us the nose of the nationalists in a big way.

Already some of them see it ‘as an attempt to shore up support for the union’. The major party of Scotland the SNP could very well have a big say in how the whole of the UK is governed come the May election when they’re expected to whip seats off Labour.

If Alex Salmond is one of those elected we could see him demanding that the Saltire fly alongside the Union flag at Westminster.

If this didn’t happen it wouldn’t go down well in the highlands and islands of neighbouring Scotland where many feel they’re a mere breath away from independence. Quite why some people at Westminster feel that Union flag bearing plaques would counter the nationalist surge is beyond me.

The Scots I suspect don’t want a fight with the English – they had enough of that in the 16th century and lost their Queen and eventually their independence as a result. Yet their history haunts them. It niggles them constantly.

Forty per cent of the population ache for independence. We in Northern Ireland understand such nationalistic stirrings and we know how intractable, even toxic, they can become.

We know how people can go out of their way to be offended and our local angst over flags may well serve as a method by which people in other corners of the UK feel they too can get their way.

The Scots should think carefully about how they take their nationalism forward given that many of those problems of the 16th century were of their own making.

Here flag issues in particular have ended in running battles throughout the land with nationalists believing they’ve got the bit between their teeth and won’t let go whilst the Protestants want to celebrate their historic past in peace. The Coalition’s flag-waving exercise could backfire spectacularly.