Helen Martin: It’s far from a standard flag

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TO some people it’s the ultimate emblem of national pride; to some it’s an irrelevance. And others even go so far as to claim it’s a symbol of oppression and dominance.

The Union Flag’s effect on impassioned nationalists in Scotland is understandable, but it seems now to be so unpopular that Asda, the UK’s second biggest supermarket, sent an email to major suppliers saying that while enthusiastic re-branding of products in Union Flag packaging prior to the Olympics and the Diamond Jubilee was fine for England, “standard packaging is to be sent to Northern Ireland and Scottish stores”.

The suppliers don’t appear to understand, having – perhaps naively – believed we’d all be draping ourselves in red, white and blue, being proud to be British, and stocking up on all manner of memorabilia, not to mention Union Flag tissues, cornflake boxes and toilet paper.

In general, the English don’t get it, including the Conservative MP for Romford in East London who thinks Asda is “playing petty politics” and has sworn to boycott the store for pandering to nationalists.

In fact, Asda is simply in tune with its Scottish customers, including many who would otherwise describe themselves as “unionists”.

There is a place for the Union Flag, as long as we remain part of the UK. It’s quite right that it flaps on flag poles above Edinburgh Castle and Holyrood Palace and other appropriate locations, usually alongside the Saltire.

But, let’s face it, it’s a flag that has often been hijacked by those wishing to display their “English-ness” and also by purveyors of tat.

I cringe when I see displays of Union Flag “tapestry” cushions, most of which we can safely assume have a label naming the Far East country of production. Knickers, T-shirts, socks, mugs, duvet covers . . . they’re most likely to be found in cheap English market stalls and souvenir shops, and fall into the same category as Scottish “see-you-Jimmy” wigs. Rather than being a sign of quality, the flag positively screams “rubbish”.

In Scotland, just as in Northern Ireland, the Union Flag is often used by Orange walks as a display of Protestant supremacy and celebration, disguised as Unionist loyalty.

And perhaps that is the hardest thing for baffled Asda suppliers and uninformed politicians in the south-east to understand. The Union Flag is not a neutral, all-embracing flag in Scotland, as it is in England. For them, it represents all political parties and is therefore not political at all.

For Scots, especially nowadays, it’s far from neutral. As well as a level of sectarianism that doesn’t exist in England, we have a Nationalist government. And regardless of whether you celebrate or regret that, disporting a Union Flag here is a significant political statement; all the more so if it’s borne on an ordinary item of the weekly shop, whether that’s a tin of beans, a box of tissues, paper napkins or kitchen mugs, where it seems even more excessive and fanatical.

Just as we would be highly unlikely to buy these things with Nick Clegg, David Cameron or Ed Milliband’s face painted on them, we have no desire to have to conceal our tableware when the next-door neighbour pops in for a cup of tea lest we open up a heated political discussion.

We should, however, perhaps be worried that supermarkets, driven by commercial imperatives, put more effort into understanding customers and keeping their fingers on the pulse than most politicians would ever put into keeping in touch with the electorate or understanding the make-up of the UK.

Clear as mud

I WAS delighted to hear Martin Wheatley, who will be in charge of the new Financial Conduct Authority, call for transparent pricing in banking; but perplexed when he said “free banking” was an outmoded concept and didn’t really work, because any free service was subsidised somewhere.

Perhaps I’ve been banking in the wrong place for the last 40 years, but in all that time I have never enjoyed “free banking”, especially when I was in credit. The banks used my money and that of their other customers, in overnight deposits.

While Britain slept, they used our balances to make money on the international market. We didn’t get any of the profits; in fact most customers were unaware their money was being “borrowed” and used like this for the bank’s gain.

Transparency would be nice.

Jack it in

FORMER First Minister Jack McConnell took legal action to pursue a pensioner neighbour over her customary use of a coal shed she and other neighbours believed was hers anyway.

He applied for an interim interdict which would have had the old lady flung in jail if she kept storing her mops there. Not surprisingly the Sheriff as good as told Mr McConnell to “get real” and ordered him to pay the old lady’s costs. I guess some retired politicians find it difficult to leave the ruthless cut and thrust behind them.