I was once horrified to read that Scots travelling to the southern states in the USA had been warned not to display the national flag of Scotland, the Saltire or St Andrew’s Cross. A silver-white diagonal cross on a sky-blue field, the flag of Scotland is believed to be the oldest national flag in the world, dating back to the 9th century at the least. The reason for this warning was that the Scots Saltire had been adopted by some white supremacist groups, notably The League of the South, who wanted to ressurect the American Confederacy, and who spoke of “Anglo-Celtic culture”.
The southern states have been in the news more recently with the decision to ban the Confederate flag by some states and organisations, under the auspices that it is a symbol of a racist past. Whether it was ever intended as such is a moot point, as there are certainly some US citizens, particularly African Americans, who consider it to be as every as odious as the Nazi swastika.
Writing about his removal of the Stone of Destiny from Westminster Abbey on Christmas Day, 1950, Ian Hamilton once wrote that the stone is a symbol of Scots nationhood and “symbols are important”, and he is correct. And some are important for all the right reasons and some for all the wrong reasons. I would argue however that there are times we need to exercise caution, as well as some plain commonsense.
In Germany today it is illegal to display the Nazi swastika, or any other pro-Nazi symbols. Yet, the swastika was effectively stolen from eastern religions, and twisted to represent a death cult, when in fact it originally represented the sacrity of life. ‘Swastika’ style symbols have also been found in ancient cultures around the world, from the Japanese, to the Hopi Native Americans, and some can even be found on Pictish carved stones in Scotland. Should we than ban all these symbols, and completely disregard the cultural context that they represent? Of course not. Similarly, another symbol of the racist extreme right is a form of ‘Celtic Cross’; a cross whose arms break through a circle. Do we then ban the Celtic Cross, a legitimate symbol of faith, and arrest anyone displaying it?
The incident which has prompted me to write this article is the apparent outcry over an Islamic man walking past the Houses of Parliament on Saturday 4 June 2015, draped in what appeared to be the flag of the terrorist organisation, ISIS, and with his daughter on his shoulders who was also flying a similar small flag. Images of the man have been all over the internet, there has been public outcry, and people asking why he was not arrested. Thy hypocrisy of the public is astounding. For on the very same day there was a racist, neo-Nazi rally in an area of London with a high Jewish population, warning about the “Jewification of London”. Those involved were displaying swastikas, Confederate flags, banners with racist and antisemitic slogans, and other racist and neo-Nazi emblems, chanting racist slogans and making Nazi salutes. Where were all the keyboard warriors then? Where was the public outcry? Where were the calls for all of the neo-Nazis to be arrested for displaying offensive flags and symbols? One single man with a toddler displaying Islamic flags have generated much more or a reaction than a group of racist and antisemitic thugs. I know which I find much more threatening.
The man in the flag was actually stopped by police, he was warned by them but allowed to go on his way, as he had actually broken no law – just as the neo-Nazis in Tottenham were breaking no law. Now, that may be stick deeply in the craw, but the fact is that when we start arresting people for symbols they display, then I for one would question our commitment to democracy and freedom.
There is even a question over whether the flags displayed by the man and his daughter were indeed ISIS flags. Just as the Nazis hijacked the swastika, ISIS have hijacked the black flag with Arabic writing which apparently states “There is one God but Allah, and Mohammed is his messenger”. The same flag is used by a number of Islamic organisations, some which are indeed terrorists, and some which are completely benign. Should I then be arrested for wearing a CND / Peace badge, given that the broken cross symbol is also Die Totenrune (the Death Rune), a symbol also once used by the Nazis? Should anyone displaying what has become a symbol adopted by a hate group be arrested? Do we then arrest Billy Bragg? Or do we recognise that he spearheaded a hugely successful campaign to reclaim the national flag of England, the George Cross, back from English neo-Nazis. Indeed, if we arrest someone for carrying an Islamic flag, do we then start arresting people for displaying symbols of Christianity and other faiths? Better start building a hell of a lot more jails.
Irish Repulican groups such as the IRA and the INLA were once proscribed terrorists organisations in the UK, and there are still some who idolise them. Do we then arrest anyone flying the Irish Tricolour? Indeed, as to those who opposed them, do we then arrest anyone who flies a Red Hand of Ulster flag? And should the display of those flags then be effectively banned? How much further do you take that? There are some unionists who claim that we Scots Nats have ‘hijacked’ the Saltire, and some who just plain do not like it. Given that the unionists are in the position of power, how would most Scots feel about the Saltire being banned and anyone arrested for flying it?
There is a meme doing the rounds on the internet about the Confederate flag and it being a symbol of slavery, with a British Union flag below it, asking something like what about the flag which flew above the slave ships. That is actually a good point. I will grant that the Union flag is seen by many today as a symbol of freedom, justice and democracy. Others however see it as a symbol of imperialism and bloodshed. I certainly object to the Union flag flying over many public buildings in Scotland, and particularly in my native Edinburgh. I certainly do not see the Union flag as my flag. Would I see it banned and / or people arrested for flying it? Not for one moment, because I believe in democracy, freedom of speech and freedom of expression. And that is precisely the same basis under which neo-Nazis were allowed to fly their flags, and one man was allowed to drape himself in his flag in London that Saturday.
Symbols are indeed important, but they can have many different meanings to different people. Ultimately they are symbols of expression, and we do well to remember what the United Nations Universal Declaration of Human Rights states on that matter:
“Everyone has the right to freedom of opinion and expression; this right includes freedom to hold opinions without interference and to seek, receive and impart information and ideas through any media and regardless of frontiers.”
(Article 19, UN Universal Declaration of Human Rights)
If that is to apply to anyone wishing to fly the Saltire – or any other national flag – at a rally or a sporting event, then it has to apply to skinheaded knuckle-draggers, and some numptie insensitive and daft enough to drape himself in an Islamic flag. No matter how distasteful we may find that, we cannot apply those freedoms to some, but not to others.
We may indeed find some flags and symbols offensive and object to them being displayed, but when we start to ban them and arrest those displaying them, then we are on a slippery slope indeed. For while it can be someone else’s flag today, it could just as easily be your flag tomorrow.