Does the attached Union Flag matter? Well of course it matters in the sense that in thoroughly offends many of us but will it have any effect on behaviour and, crucially, voting behaviour?
You won’t be surprised to hear that there is very little hard evidence of the effect of flags on political beliefs or behaviour. Indeed, there is almost nothing outside of the USA.
However, in ‘Subliminal exposure to national flags affects political thought and behavior’, a US, 2007, peer-reviewed study based on experiments with Jewish settlers on the West Bank the researchers found a strong connection:
‘that subliminal exposure to one’s national flag influences political attitudes, intentions, and decisions, both in laboratory settings and in “real-life” behavior. Furthermore, this manipulation consistently narrowed the gap between those who score high vs. low on a scale of identification with Israeli nationalism. The results portray a consistent picture: subtle reminders of one’s nationality significantly influence political thought and overt political behavior.’
Being exposed repeatedly though subliminally, to the Israeli flag seemed to have caused these settlers to identify more strongly with extreme Israeli nationalist parties and, crucially, become more likely to vote for them.
To compare this group with English-born settlers in Scotland’s voting behaviour is probably stretching things a bit far, but their reported voting, along with others not born in Scotland, against Independence in 2014, did seem to have been influential:
‘Independence referendum figures revealed: Majority of Scots born here voted YES while voters from elsewhere in UK said NO’
Was there increased use of the Union flag in media during this time? I suspect there was in the tabloid press but have no hard evidence for this idea.
A US study just before the McCain/Obama presidential election in 2008 also found quite a strong effect, this time, of the Stars and Stripes in increasing the Republican vote:
‘Shortly before the 2008 presidential election, the researchers recruited voters via social media to participate in an online political survey in exchange for a gift card. Half the screens shown to participants sported an unobtrusive image of the American flag. The researchers contacted participants immediately after the election and asked them how they voted. Those who had been briefly exposed to the flag, compared with those who had not been primed with the flag, were significantly more likely to have voted for McCain versus Obama’.
‘A single, incidental exposure to the flag a couple weeks before the election changed how people voted,’ Ferguson said. Yet 90 percent of those surveyed said they believed seeing the flag would not influence their voting.’
Once more, comparisons with other cultures limit us but perhaps we can, on the basis of these findings, make some connection between exposure, even if quite limited, to the Union Flag on produce and an increased tendency to vote Conservative or to vote conservatively, against constitutional change, in a referendum.
Thinking longer-term, the effect of exposure to national flags on the political development of children, raises concerns. A US study found that, attending flag-waving July 4th celebrations had these effects:
‘When done before the age of 18, it increases the likelihood of a youth identifying as a Republican by at least 2 percent. It raises the likelihood that parade watchers will vote for a Republican candidate by 4 percent. It boosts the likelihood a reveller will vote by about 1 percent and increases the chances they’ll make a political contribution by 3 percent. What’s more, the impact isn’t fleeting. “Surprisingly, the estimates show that the impact on political preferences is permanent, with no evidence of the effects depreciating as individuals become older,” said the Harvard report.’
Again, if we can equate support for the Republican Party in the US with support for the Conservative Party in Scotland and for conservative views on political change, the presence of Union Flags on produce, seen by children on a fairly regular basis now, may be having longer-term effects in sustaining these views even when contemporary events should weaken them.
I could find only one piece of research on national flags with a Scottish sample included. ‘What Do National Flags Stand for? An Exploration of Associations Across 11 Countries’ by Queen’s University in Belfast researchers in 2017 did not attempt to correlate exposure to flags with attitudes or behaviour but rather looked at what concepts the flags are mentally associated with:
‘In societies known for being peaceful and open-minded (e.g., Canada, Scotland), egalitarianism was separable from honour-related concepts and associated with the flag; in countries that were currently involved in struggles for independence (e.g., Scotland) and countries with an imperialist past (United Kingdom), the flag was strongly associated with power-related concepts.’
So, of some interest for us, the researchers found that the Union flag is associated with power in the sense of projecting it and of power over others whereas the Saltire is associated with power in the sense of self-determination and also with notions of peace, openness and egalitarianism. Does that tell us something about the nature of the effects the two flags might have on the voting behaviour of those already predisposed to think, broadly, imperially or democratically?
So, do the Union Flags on Scottish produce matter?
Accepting the limitations of the research evidence, I feel we can say that there is likely to be some effect on voting behaviour, perhaps not great but still important, resulting from repeated subliminal exposure to Union flags on a range of produce, and that effect will be conservative in both senses of the word. It does matter.
Do what I do….
If it’s got the jack put it back!
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People outside Scotland have and still have no idea of the avalanche of propaganda that Scots were subjected to in the weeks before the 2014 referendum ,
Days before ,it started being reported in the English press and nightly news and the common comment was how did this situation arise what happened to bring us to this stage most English people were shocked ,
while back in Jock land every single news item featured Armageddon and pestilence if a YES vote was carried , The biggest ever peacetime propaganda exercise was mounted by the then PM David Cameron , every Embassy and Consulate throughout the world was made to contact the government in that country to enlist the support of the union .Christ its a wonder we even got to the 45% mark such was the daily fear induced propaganda for older folk with no access to anything other than the BBC and the MSM it must have been a total nightmare ,
It wont work twice a wholly different approach will be used and this time it wont be so friendly
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I partly agree and I partly do not.
I think you are right to a fair extent about the lack of understanding outside of Scotland about how much British propaganda was broadcast. I remember a programme which was made by Ms Janet Street-Porter, in which she made a tour of Scotland to see and hear for herself, as an English person with a very strong and (trademark) London accent what she had heard about the attitude towards English people in Scotland. She started out with the view that the campaign for independence was solely anti-English. Last week. for example, as an aside, Mr John Harris in a Guardian piece, simply wrote of ‘cybernattery and hatred of the English as an axiom). To her credit, at the end of her programme, Ms Street-Porter, stated that the alleged anti-Englishness was pretty much mendacious and that she felt that the people who lived in Scotland had a good case. Ms Street-Porter, being a woman with strong views and from a working class background has suffered a fair deal of abuse by the media, particularly by the priggish and smug Private Eye.
I think that there are many more in England, like Ms Street-Porter who are aware of the situation with regard to propaganda, but do not get much opportunity to express it. There are others, who are aware and continue to pump out the propaganda.The Guardian, Observer, New Statesman, and columnists like Owen Jones are British Nationalist,
The propaganda continues because it is still effective. It is not as effective as it was pre 2014, and the independence campaign and the continuation of the pro-independence sites, such as this and also because for many in England the EU referendum exposed them – and continues to expose them to Operation Fear on a massive scale by BOTH sides.
So, I agree with you that many more people are aware of the propagandist nature of the mainstream media and the illusion of ‘fairness and balance’ which the BBC is supposed to exemplify. Even septuagenarians like what I am are aware of this.
However, the GREAT BRITAIN message is still a potent one with, of course the unwavering unionists, but is also reasonably effective in causing some waverers from making the switch. We ARE in times which are hugely uncertain and many people, understandably, want to have some fixed points to hang on to because they fear being swept away. The BRITISHness idea seems to have been a particularly strong one for many in the traditionally Labour voting areas of England which have been particularly badly affected by years of Thatcherism and austerity. For some metropolitan REMAINERS – i.e. people of the group of whom I belong – to have condemned them for ‘voting against their own interests’ (“Ragged Trousered Philanthropists”) is to insult them and misunderstand them. BRITAIN might well have robbed them of their standard of living, their jobs, their homes, etc – but they still have an essential person which cannot be taken from them and part of that identity is their BRITISHNESS (and, for some, their whiteness, their non-foreignnes, their non-Muslimness, etc.)
The whole Last Night of the Proms type flummery, the opening ceremony of the London Olympics, etc all play well with huge sections of the population, and that is why badging Scottish, Welsh, Northern Irish, Yorkshire, Cornish, Lancashire, etc quality products with a Union flag has an effect. The Harris Tweed Association is chaired by arch_Unionist and ‘nat’ hater, Mr Brian Wilson.
However, when the Last Night of the Proms is blaring out from the Albert Hall and Kensington Gardens, we in Scotland, are opted out and given a different section from Proms in the Park from Glasgow Green. The BBC is recognising that the crude Rule Britannia does not sit well with the Scots (wherever they originated).
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My debate has been hijacked. What about the jacks on the packs?
Well researched, John. It could be a purposeful indoctrination action – swamping our dinners with the jacks – rather than just appealing to the glory of the British empire. Possibly influencing the younger population to normalise exposure to the flag. We see the flag when it comes to finding websites of the uk, or payment options, so it has become more widely spread in innocuous surroundings with the advent of the Internet. The sudden and overwhelming use on food packaging I believe is unhelpful – if the whole thing is produced in uk, then we want to know the area – I am very happy to buy English produce, but a uj flag tells me nothing – and if you actually look closely, most of the produce so labelled only has a part-origin in the uk. As a way of promoting produce? If we are only given the choice of one thing, we are hardly choosing for quality.
Having had a sheltered childhood, my first remembered view of that flag was in the middle of a recently blackened ruin of an empty Belfast street as we drove through in silence. It felt like the only colour present, and made stark contrast to its surrounding. The next viewing was at the border, being stopped, questioned, and the car searched by armed soldiers.
Let’s say my childhood impressions have had a lasting affect on how I view the Union Jack flag, and the associations are not pleasant. So putting the flag on food might make give it a cuddly pleasant impression for the younger generation. Maybe the establishment hopes to delay a referendum on independence for another 15 years or so until the young ones are of voting age?
Analysing why I feel there are ulterior motives to the flag-plastering of our food – what are the practical reasons for doing the flag-plastering?
Could it confer quality? – I don’t think so – something as vague as ‘UK’ does not confer quality (as said above). Take something like pasta – it will still have italian flags shown on it – why? If ‘uk’ confers quality, why not in pasta as well? Well, we all ‘know’ that the best pasta is italian – so if you want to sell your pasta you are more likely to claim Italian origin.
An important point here is that EU food standards mean that regulations will give us a minimum quality should be adhered to throughout the EU, so the choices left are ‘special’ circumstances – like known superiority of product (and the protected status thing), food miles, and considerations to your local economy.
In general ‘local economy’ is NOT UK-wide, people do not see buying food to support london as a priority (… I hope!) – so the union flag does not induce this behaviour.
Lots of people are concerned about Food Miles – should you be buying a tomato from Spain, or one from Leeds? This is actually a valid argument for having a (small) union jack on your food packaging – IF the whole of the product (including packaging) actually originates in the UK. But if your tomato has come from the ‘uk’ – are the food miles your tomato has travelled actually less than that from spain (it will be if you are down south, but in scotland… transported all the way from dover, by a guzzling lorry – it needs a bit more thought). Say you take Danish pork, do they actually produce the best piggy product, and is it worth the importation? I don’t know the ins and outs, but say you take into consideration the lifetime of the product (for the pig, maybe it gets better environmentally friendly treatment in Denmark, maybe their packaging is better too, and what if they shipped (cleaner transport) direct to Scotland) – are you better off with Danish Pork or Kent Pork? – but again a point here about the UK flag being too general – we do not know if the product came from Kent or Stirling! So a difficult question unless you were comparing Australia and the UK maybe.
Superiority of quality – like I said if you think pasta you think italian. So what general UK-wide product is there that would make anyone think it superior to any region’s product? I really can think of any. Harris Tweed? Would anyone buy it if it was made in Kent. Talking of Kent, they have a large berry-growing industry, like perthshire, but would you be demanding to get, or happy to receive, Kent raspberries here in Scotland with the vague ‘uk’ mark instead of perthshire ones?
If anyone can think of a practical reason for the union jack branding, let me know. That’s why I believe it is purely political, and not in a nice way.
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Correct in every way. A+
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oh-YAY!! [bounce bounce bounce] yay, yay , A+, AT LAST!
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Well researched John? I should bloody think so. Do you know what time I was up? 😇😇😇😇
haha, I thought you’d just dingied me when I brought up the flag thing, but no, you were scurrying away finding evidence. And being thorough about it too, I’m most impressed – and sometimes our best work comes in the wee small hours – the creativity can flow!
Great article John.
This all reminds me of the ‘Buy British’ campaign in the early 80’s, at time when manufacturing output was drastically declining and deindustrialisation was in full swing but it made consumers feel better if they bought a washing machine with a Union Jack on it! Just remember the campaign didn’t save any jobs let alone our manufacturing industry!
One little hitch in modern day Britain is that the Saltire 🏴 and ‘Scotland the brand’ is well recognised and admired internationally and this should be celebrated but when a Union Jack label with the words “British Tweed” is added to the renowned ‘Harris Tweed’ or a Union Jack is added to a bottle of well known Scottish whisky it loses its authenticity and it smacks of something very cynical going on.
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Thanks. Yes, well-remembered comparison.
Here is something else to consider…why would the BBC make a 6 part show called ‘Made in Great Britain’ when every single place visited was in England? Why not call it ‘Made in England’ ?
Made in Great Britain BBC2 7pm
Episode 1: Steel from Sheffield (Eng) mon
Episode 2: Chocolate from York (Eng) tues
Episode 3: Hats from Luton (Eng) weds
Episode 4: Pottery from Stoke-on-Trent (Eng) thurs
Episode 5: Cheese from Wensleydale from Wensleydale (Eng) mon
Episode 6: Shoes from Northampton (Eng) tues
Further to the packaging thing – bizarrely no union jacks, mind you – potatoes grown by some bloke in Perthshire, but then packaged way down south,,, and then sent back up to glasgow for sale,,, (I’ve been reading the small print) – lots of unnecessary food miles there. You would think there could be smaller packaging and distribution centres all over the place?
Anybody know where I can get goat’s cheese without union jacks on it?
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It seems to me that the Butcher’s Apron emblazoned on packaging may induce uneducated Unionists to buy it. It emphasises the notion of One Nation Great Britain. Of course, I don’t think it has the right to be called a national flag. Great Britain is not a nation; it’s 3 nations and a bit of a nation divided from its majority. It also presents the notion of the supremacy of England, with the English cross being the only unbroken one, and broader than the others. The background character and brokenness of the Scottish and Irish Saltires also, I think, have a subliminal effect; contribute to the cringe. I think it must contribute to the formation of assumptions about what counts as “the nation”.
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