Monday, 3 December 2007

Flagging up our national day

The Times, December 1, 2007

First the history. The year is 832AD and deep in East Lothian a weary band of Picts and Scots is surrounded by a mighty Saxon army led by Athelstan. Fearing the worst, King Angus (he’s a Pict) turns his eyes heavenwards and sees to his surprise the cross of St Andrew marked out in white clouds spread across a blue sky. The sign is both omen and inspiration. Angus marches out to victory, and in gratitude installs Andrew as his country’s patron saint.

Fast forward to November 30, 2007. Under leaden skies, Scotland’s culture minister Linda Fabiani has chosen to launch the holiday celebrations to mark St Andrews Day at this ancient battlefield now occupied by the village of Athelstaneford - the only place on Earth named after a loser.

Fabiani’s schedule is hectic. In roughly 12 hours time, her day will end at a ceilidh in Edinburgh’s Princes St Gardens. By then she will have presented the Saltire awards for literature, judged a student debate “this house believes that you don’t have to be born in Scotland to be Scottish” (co-incidentally the motto of the country’s rugby selectors), and planted a tree in nearby St Andrews Square gardens.

But for now it seems appropriate that she should absorb the nationalist spirit at the home of the saltire. Appropriate too that she is surrounded by flag-waving children who on the count of three yell “happy St Andrews day!” The minister beams.

Fabiani’s smile grows broader a few moments later, when Sheena Richardson, the Provost of East Lothian reveals that henceforth, the ruling SNP/Liberal coalition have decreed that every public building in the county will fly the cross of St Andrew.

“That an absolutely fantastic idea,” Fabiani tells the children. She will tell every council in Scotland to follow the lead of Athelstaneford and fly the saltire from their buildings. Isn’t that a good idea, she asks the kids.

Silence. And a shuffling of feet. “Well, isn’t it?”

“Yes” groan the kids at last. This must be the “freedom” Mel Gibson was on about in the movies.

When she has finished a photocall, Fabiani takes time out to explain to any remaining doubters that the saltire is a warm, friendly and inclusive banner. “We are so determined that everyone who lives here should feel themselves part of Scotland," she says

It all sounds wonderful, unless you happen to be one of the chippy English incomers, 400,000 of whom make up Scotland’s largest minority group. Isn’t the symbolism of the flag also a sign of their defeat?

“It was the 9th century you know,” the minister oozes reassuringly. “It wasn’t the English and the Scots as we know them now. It was the Picts and the Scots and the Angles and the Saxons. Everyone likes to look back on their history to find wee bits of glory. It is all a bit of fun and games. It’s never the reality.”

So by the same token surely the 800,000 Scots who live in England should feel English?

Not at all, says the minister. “To me, it’s more about saying, isn’t it pretty fantastic what this country’s done. Whether it be Scotland, whether it be England or Wales, we’ve all got a fabulous history, lets celebrate it. Just be part of it. Because it’s about having a good time. It’s about no more than that.” She adds for good measure: “My concerns are about all the jingoism which comes with the union flag.”

That ministerial pronouncement comes to mind again 90 minutes later as she plants her tree in St Andrews Square, to celebrate the opening of the gardens to the public for the first time in history. Above her looms the monument to Henry Dundas, the fiercest advocate of the union in the later 18th century. Out of respect the man dubbed “the uncrowned king of Scotland” has been shrouded in a tarpaulin so he can’t see his sanctuary as it is opened up to the nationalist hordes.

Letting in the public in the public will make this place seem a whole lot “more Scottish and European” says the minister, carefully avoiding the B-word. But, she’s asked, what would Henry Dundas make of it all? “I’m not even going there,” she hoots. “Your’re paranoid.”

She may be right. In the years ahead, it is easy to imagine the comfortable English minority sharing a dram with their tolerant Scottish friends on warm and friendly national holiday shared by everyone. Or almost everyone. Ancient Britons, Angles and Saxons had best beware.

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