Alex Salmond faced the wrath of the media and his political opponents for waving a saltire behind David Cameron at the conclusion of the Wimbledon final. The Point’s Graeme McIver argues that there are much worse examples of politicians wrapping themselves in the national flag that the media chooses to ignore. He believes that there is consensus and crass hypocrisy amongst some of the political class over the UK’s Armed Forces Day celebrations.
A Scot being front page news across the world following the conclusion of the Wimbledon Championship - who could have predicted that? And who was that Scot I hear you ask? No, not the hero of the hour Andy Murray, but wee Moira Salmond, as the contents of her hand-bag and what her husband did with them suddenly became the centre of a major diplomatic incident.
As an emotional Murray looked as shocked as the rest of us that he had actually won the bloody thing, up in the stands the sneaky Salmond’s put their dastardly plan into effect and whipped out a St Andrews cross as big as a double duvet cover from Moira’s hand bag. To add insult to this considerable injury Eck then proceeded to wave the thing behind David Cameron’s smug head as The PM clapped and grinned in the hope the Dunblane youngsters win might somehow detract the majority of the population from the reality of his austerity policies, the likes of which have not seen since Fred Perry was the last British winner in 1936.
The twitter sphere went in meltdown and the papers responded with faux outrage and indignation.
The Guardian complained that Salmond, “rather unnecessarily waved the saltire” whilst the Scotsman reported or more accurately - grassed, (perhaps in the hope that poor Moira will get banned from future finals); “The stunt appeared to contravene tight All England Club regulations. Its website states that “large flags (over 2ft by 2ft), banners, rattles, klaxons or oversized hats” are among prohibited items at the club.”
From Fraser Nelson in The Spectator to Michael Kelly in The Scotsman the knives were out for Mrs Salmond, her husband and her handbag. (Although Nelson described it as a lunch box???)
On twitter, Shadow Scotland Office Minister Willie Bain, a man I last saw walking around during the Glasgow North East by-election with cross-dressing comedian Eddie Izzard and surrounded by dozens of balloon carrying activists complained about, “stunts”, while his Labour colleague Tom Harris thought the flag waving was “naff”. Liberal Democrat chief whip Alistair Carmichael tweeted that the tournament organisers would have to search the First Minister in future whilst John Prescott felt that Salmond’s photo-bombing of David Cameron was a, “bit sad”.
Downing Street sources commented that Cameron thought the surprise move, (the double duvet unveiling) appeared to be timed so it would be in a television shot of the Prime Minister and that it, “didn’t feel right because it was a day for sport, not politics.”
And here we have the nub. Yes, politics and sport should never mix and the Prime Minister, his party would never stoop to those levels would they?
Politicians of all the main political parties have always tried to associate themselves with sporting success in the hope that some of the gold dust rubs off on them. From Harold Wilson reminding everyone that England won the World Cup under a Labour Government to David Cameron and Nick Clegg associating with Olympians political strategists see it as a vote winner…and didn’t Alex know it!
As recently as last year, following Murray’s Olympic Gold medal win, Struan Stevenson Conservative MEP tweeted, "Andy Murray, great Scot and Olympic Champion, holding gold medal and proudly draped in the Union Jack - eat your heart out Alex Salmond!"
Speaking of the Olympics who can forget Boris Johnston’s dope on a rope stunt as he got stranded, dangling above bemused spectators whilst wearing a suit, a crash helmet, and waving little Union Jack flags all the while he was stuck in mid-air.
But joking aside, whilst Salmond’s little stunt may have been inappropriate/naff/sad, it pales into insignificance compared to the appropriation of national symbols by successive Westminster Governments who have wrapped themselves in the Union Jack in an attempt to justify failed foreign policy objectives. The week before the First Minister’s flag furor became front page news, the continued attempts to divert the publics attention away from disastrous wars abroad culminated in the 5th annual commemoration of Armed Forces Day. Over 300 events take place during the week leading up to the day itself. From parades, displays and the flying of a specially modified Union Jack over the country’s civic buildings the government has worked hard to raise the profile of the event.
As Iraq continues it’s decent in to bloody chaos and in Afghanistan David Cameron sanctions negotiations with the Taliban in an increasingly desperate attempt to somehow extricate Britain from the mire, using the national flag to shift emphasis away from political failures to “supporting our heroes” has become the propaganda objective of both the previous Labour and the current Con/Dems administration. This cultural osmosis, started during the fag-end of Gordon Brown’s tenure, is a crass attempt to play the trump card of patriotism. Don’t question the wars…just provide unstinting support for, “our boys/girls”.
Of course if the government really wanted to make sure armed forces personnel were treated like heroes then they could do a number of things to help. They could make sure retired servicemen and women received a decent state pension for a start. Yet many UK pensioners, just like they have since the end of WWII, remain in poverty and receive one of the worst state pensions in the developed world. The government could make sure that once service personnel leave the armed forces that there is plenty of good quality, affordable social housing for them in communities with good quality public services. For many ex-military personnel, poverty, homelessness, addiction and mental health problems are common. The BBC Panorama programme reported this week that in the last 12 months more British soldiers and veterans took their own lives than died fighting the Taliban in Afghanistan over the same period. The programme learned that 21 serving soldiers killed themselves last year, along with 29 veterans.
In an echo of the promises made to soldiers returning from WW1 that they would come home to a land fit for heroes, the military personnel so feted by Government have to join the rest of us in the fight for jobs, housing, health care and a decent education for their children. When they are in uniform they are useful to the government in order to fight wars and be used for propaganda purposes. Once they retire, or are made redundant, it is a very different story.
In 2008, the year that Armed Forces Day was launched, some of Britain’s most senior army figures hit out at Brown’s Government after an investigation discovered that many soldiers required loans in order to eat and that poverty pay was rife. Later the same year actress Joanna Lumley fronted a campaign to allow Gurkha’s who had served in the Army the right to remain in Britain, something denied them by the Labour Government. For many that were granted permission to stay, their reward for their service to the British army was penury, unemployment and scandalously poor housing. Last year Andrew Gilligan of the Telegraph exposed the scandal of Commonwealth soldiers being refused the promise of British citizenship after four years service. Unable to work or claim benefits, they and their families were forced to rely on charity to survive. In a damning indictment of austerity Britain, in November 2011, as government politicians chastised anyone not wearing a poppy on TV, former Army PE instructor Mark Mullins and his wife Helen killed themselves after being reduced to utter despair as they struggled to live on meagre benefits and charity handouts.
tragic Mark and Helen Mullins
In the meantime the army continues its policy of economic conscription by targeting recruitment in the poorest parts of the poorest towns and cities in the UK. With youth unemployment at record levels then the army can seem like an attractive career prospect, especially for those with little academic attainment and from areas of deprivation with little conventional job prospects.
Whatever the outcome of the Independence vote in September 2014, politicians of every hue will continue to try and appropriate sporting success for their own narrow ends. I will be joining those campaigning for a Yes vote but realise that the measure of success or failure of the type of society we want to create will rest not on photo-opportunities with successful sports stars but by the way we treat our pensioners, our poorest and most vulnerable regardless whether the flag flying above our civic buildings came from Moira Salmond’s hand bag or Boris Johnston’s crash helmet.
Other articles by Graeme McIver in The Point can be found here