Two tiny incidents were tempting me to write – more in sorrow than anger – about how years of strident Scottish nationalism have coarsened day-to-day life and affected civilised discourse, not only in Scotland but more widely in the UK. Then yesterday I saw something that seemed to summarise in a third way how we’ve changed and this article clicked into focus in my mind.
The first incident was a garden party I was invited to in London. No, don’t jump to conclusions. It was a party, in a garden and ergo a garden party. Mostly mature, educated people meeting to share a common interest in current events in their broadest sense. If any of them had a formal political affiliation it was unknown to me.
‘Where are you from?’ a man asked me.
‘Scotland,’ I replied.
‘Oh,’ he said, ‘I’ve been thinking of going there but I’m not sure …’
‘What,’ I asked ‘you mean to live?’
‘No, no,’ he said, ‘holiday. But I don’t know if I’d be welcome.’
‘Oh,’ I found myself saying, ‘I’m sure if it was just tourism you’d be welcome.’
It was a strange wee exchange and I’m not sure that if I’d received advance notice of it that I’d have replied in quite the way I did. The point of course was his uncertainty and mis-apprehension. Why did he believe he’d not be welcome? I cannot imagine the same conversation when I moved to Scotland many years ago. It is only the continued agitation and discontent of the minority who lost the once-in-a- generation referendum that makes our fellow British citizens so apprehensive of us and our attitude to them.
The second incident was even more ephemeral. I entered a supermarket in Dundee to see a small display of plants for sale sitting on a waist-height tower of boxes they had obviously come in. The boxes were coloured red, white and blue and in one corner had a picture of the union flag. ‘British plants grown in Britain’ the legend next to it said. ‘Oh,’ I found myself thinking involuntarily, ‘that’ll go down well here.’
I don’t know if my instinctive conclusion was correct but it’s certainly true that many nationalists react against the union flag in an irrational and hostile way, including democratically-elected representatives who should know better. I remember SNP MP Paul Monaghan’s use, in a public communication, of the pejorative ‘butcher’s apron’ [I’ve since discovered that his MSP colleague Sandra White has been guilty of the same usage].
We hardly see the union flag in Scotland these days and when we do it often takes second place to the saltire. Meeting someone at Aberdeen airport a couple of weeks ago I noticed six or seven flagpoles in a row outside the terminal. Only one flew the union flag, the rest sported saltires. And this at an airport that styles itself ‘International’ and most of whose flights are to the rest of the UK and Europe, not Scotland.
Then I found myself in the East Neuk yesterday.
If you drive into Anstruther from Pittenweem one of the houses on the seaward side of the road has long flown a large saltire on a flagpole in the front garden. I don’t much go for flag-flying of any sort myself but I know this is something some nationalists are determined to do. Lo and behold whoever lives here has now erected a second flagpole flying the ‘estelada,’ the unofficial version of the Catalan flag favoured by their separatists (I’ve written briefly about this before).
Catalonia, in case you need reminding, is a region of Spain that Scotland has little in common with and was scarcely thought of until nationalists here realised they could conjure up a sort of spurious solidarity with another allegedly oppressed people of Europe.
What sort of unbalanced obsessive even bothers with this sort of nonsense? I can’t imagine it happening twenty years ago, just as I couldn’t imagine the union flag looking out of place then, or English people wondering about the reception they’d get if they ventured north of the border for their holidays. Each represents only a small thing lost but collectively they indicate the wider malaise of nationalism, and we are all the worse off for it.