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.