Politicians are fretting over flags while the country falls to pieces | Kevin McKenna | Opinion

The serious issue of independence is a distant memory. Trivia now rules

Alex Salmond and the Queen discussed flying the lion rampant flag instead of the union jack back in 2010.

Alex Salmond and the Queen discussed flying the lion rampant flag instead of the union jack back in 2010.
Photograph: Michael Boyd/PA

In the void where the issues at the heart of Scotland’s great independence debate once stood, the politics of trivia now resides. In those years and months leading up to the 2014 referendum on Scottish independence, it seemed that the nation underwent a sweeping self-examination of its conscience.

This was more than merely a debate about the future governance of Scotland – it was the first time many of us had ever seriously addressed the essence of what it meant to be Scottish. And even whether or not this mattered in the grand scheme of things. Almost four years later, our £60k-a-year politicians are dealing in washers.

From the outset, many leaders of the unionist campaign strove to besmirch the referendum and to insist that it ought not to be taking place at all. It was merely a distraction from the day-to-day business of real politics; an expensive and time-consuming indulgence that would sow division and animosity among the people. Few of them had ever exhibited much concern about the effects of political discourse on the people’s spiritual welfare but now they had become behavioural psychologists, affecting to care about what exposure to raw and emotional discourse might do to the poor and ignorant.

Of course, they never really believed it. Their antipathy lay, instead, in the centuries-long fear the elite has for any movement that might become difficult to control. That assorted leading figures in the Labour movement in Scotland opted to propagate this lie almost destroyed their party. It is now beginning a recovery of sorts, only after acknowledging that more than 35% of its supporters backed an independent Scotland. Once, these people were treated as pariahs within the party; now, the few who are left are tolerated.

Thankfully, the attempts of the party leadership to defame the reputation of its own people by portraying them as ill-informed hooligans failed miserably. The turnout of 84.6% was the highest for a UK plebiscite since the introduction of universal suffrage. Many of those who chose to participate were engaging in political discourse for the first time and enjoyed the process of examining Scotland’s relationship with the rest of the UK and with the world beyond.

Many of those who pretended to be unmoved by this great shift in the nature of civic discourse are now reduced to flinging mud over superficial matters. The main party of independence, too, has become affected by this political malaise. A consequence of the UK government’s rudderless and rootless Brexit strategy has meant that we must wait a while longer for a meaningful debate about what it may presage for Scotland. Into this vacuum an army of mediocre politicians has poured, making heat out of superficial issues.

Last week, several of Scotland’s national newspapers, egged on by unionist politicians, feigned outrage at the contents of a party political broadcast by the SNP. These three-minute scraps of shallow political propaganda are ignored by most normal people. The SNP’s latest offering childishly chose to lampoon David Torrance, the journalist and author. Torrance is a mild-mannered chiel who regularly takes the SNP government to task in his newspaper columns and irked both Alex Salmond and Nicola Sturgeon by writing unauthorised biographies of them.

The decision to feature Torrance (or someone looking like him) in the broadcast was a minor lack of judgment from a party that thinks irony is what you do when you are pressing clothes and that would impose a curfew on humour if it could find an energy-efficient way of doing so.

To the Liberal Democrat MSP, Alex Cole-Hamilton, however, this was an act worthy of Donald Trump. He then duly laid a motion before Holyrood condemning the SNP and reported the matter to Ofcom. I fear for this chap’s sanity if something serious were actually to occur on our television screens of a night, such as a fight at a wedding in River City. The following week, some of Cole-Hamilton’s unionist colleagues expressed outrage at a report that Sturgeon had reduced the number of occasions when the union flag could be flown on Scottish government buildings. This led Ruth Davidson, leader of the opposition in Scotland, to yell that the first minister was guilty of tearing down the union jack. Davidson was then gently reminded that the lion rampant flag, the royal banner of Scotland, has been flown instead of the union flag from government buildings for royal birthdays and anniversaries since 2010. Moreover, this was done in consultation with none other than the Queen, who is apparently an authority on these matters.

On Thursday, after years of campaigning, the Labour party in Scotland finally succeeded in its mission to dismantle the Offensive Behaviour at Football Act. Admittedly, this is a badly thought-out law that criminalises supporters for espousing unruly sectarian sentiments in and around football matches.

It made Scotland the only country in the known world that deems one action to be criminal and the same one not, depending on where and when it takes place. Nor is it enough to be offended by said scrofulous sentiments – it is sufficient merely to think that you might be. It has been ridiculed by judges all over the country, who state that existing laws, if properly applied by the police, are sufficient. This, though, has been Scottish Labour’s cause célèbre, its keynote issue, the one they have clung to above all others. Yet it affects very few.

In other news in Scotland: Oxfam has revealed that the country’s richest 1% have more wealth than the bottom 50%; the educational attainment gap is as wide as the Clyde and Police Scotland is in a state of unprecedented crisis.