Nicola Sturgeon last night faced demands to fly the Union flag on Royal occasions after Scottish Government guidance emerged saying it should be flown just one day a year.
Prime Minister Theresa May urged Ms Sturgeon to explain why the Union flag was no longer to be flown from public buildings on dates such as the Queen’s birthday.
The First Minister was accused of being more interested in lowering flags than raising standards in schools and hospitals when the change to Scottish Government flag-flying guidelines came to light.
New guidance issued this month states that the Union flag should only be flown on Remembrance Day in November.
That is a significant change from guidance issued in 2017 which said the Union flag should be flown from public buildings on 15 occasions including the Queen’s Birthday, her wedding anniversary, other royal birthdays and Coronation Day.
According to the new guidance for buildings run by the Scottish Government and its executive agencies, most public bodies should mark those occasions by flying the Saltire.
The change in policy triggered a furious row, with Mrs May’s official spokesman emphasising the Prime Minister’s belief that the Union flag was an important symbol of the United Kingdom.
“It’s up to Nicola Sturgeon and the Scottish Executive to explain the reasons behind their decision,” the spokesman said.
“The Prime Minister thinks [the Union flag] is an important symbol of our Union, and the Union is something that she believes in fiercely.”
At Holyrood, the Scottish Conservatives urged Ms Sturgeon to revert to the original guidance which recommended that the flag should be flown 15 times a year.
Tory MSP Murdo Fraser called on the First Minister to “change the guidance back to what it was”.
Mr Fraser added: “This is classic Nationalist behaviour and nothing Nicola Sturgeon says can alter that. She always stresses her civic Nationalism is nothing to do with flags and banners. The events of the last 24 hours prove otherwise.
“The SNP is more interested in lowering Union flags than raising standards in schools and hospitals. The First Minister’s Trump-style Twitter denial does nothing to change the facts.”
Ms Sturgeon had reacted furiously to the criticism, claiming in a series of Twitter posts that the civil service had updated the guidance to reflect “long-standing practice”.
She claimed the underlying policy had not changed and suggested the 2018 arrangements had been in place since 2010.
But last night the Scottish Government quango Historic Environment Scotland (HES) said it had followed the 2017 protocols last year and flew the Union flag from its public buildings on Royal occasions.
A spokeswoman for HES said the organisation would follow the 2018 guidelines this year, which will see the majority of its buildings reduce the number of occasions when the Union flag is flown.
The exceptions would be Edinburgh Castle, Stirling Castle and Fort George which as army garrisons fly the Union flag on an on-going basis.
Ms Sturgeon maintained the change in protocol was not done at her behest.
She tweeted: “I have issued no instructions, orders, authorisations – or even expressed an opinion – about changing flag policy. The update of guidance was an administrative step – albeit a sensible one – and not done at my request.”
The First Minister’s spokesman maintained that Ms Sturgeon had “no involvement whatsoever” in flag policy when presented with an extract from the guidance.
The extract said: “Only on exceptional occasions would a flag (other than a Saltire) be flown on a day other than a listed day. Any request to fly flags on exceptional occasions must be cleared in advance with the First Minister through the Protocol and Honours Team.”
Former first minister Alex Salmond waded into the row posting a blog supporting Ms Sturgeon’s claim that the policy had been changed back in 2010.
He said he changed the flag policy when he was First Minister following an audience with the Queen at Balmoral.
Mr Salmond said: “It seemed obvious to me that the appropriate flag to be flown on the occasion of royal birthdays is the Royal Standard or the Lion Rampant. The only people who can order that to be done are the Queen herself and the First Minister as her representative.
“I remember the occasion very well. Her Majesty asked me if the Lion Rampant was a popular flag in Scotland. I was able to assure her that it was and indeed much beloved of Scottish football and rugby fans. Thus I brought the new policy into effect and left the Union flag flying, as appropriate, at armed forces day and Remembrance Sunday.”
He added: “Given that this has been the policy for eight years with the Lion Rampant flying proudly on royal occasions, including jubilees and royal births and weddings as well as birthdays, why have none of these Tory politicians and newspapers noticed the flags flying in front of their eyes for the best part of a decade?”
Buckingham Palace declined to comment on a private conversation. But the guidance specifies that “by Royal Assent” the Lion Rampant can only be flown on Royal occasions at St Andrew’s House or at a Scottish Government building where the First Minister happens to be present.
A Scottish Government spokesperson said: “The current First Minister has made no change to the policy. Non-departmental public bodies such as Historic Environment Scotland, the Courts Service and the General Registers of Scotland are able to adopt their own policy.
“The operational guidance on applying the policy was updated in December 2017. This was not a change on the policy and the updating of the guidance was not a decision of the First Minister or any Scottish Government minister.”
A spokesman for the Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn refused to be drawn on the row, saying it was “entirely a matter for the Scottish Government”.
SNP Westminster leader Ian Blackford also played down the dispute, saying: “There is no issue about any disrespect to any flag in any of this. It’s about respecting the Royal Family, if anything, and about respecting the important anniversaries that we mark.”
Asked if Scots “give two hoots” about which flag is flown, Mr Blackford added: “No, in short.”
The Ross, Skye and Lochaber MP said: “We have to recognise that there are divisions in society, and the responsibility that all of us have is trying to heal those divisions.
“We have to understand that there are different opinions and be respectful.”