In the U.K., where there’s (colored) smoke, there’s (political) fire

LONDON -- To the people of Glasgow, with their heads cranked skyward, it was a spectacular flypast from the Royal Air Force during Wednesday evening's opening ceremony of the Commonwealth Games. With the jets trailing smoke, the sky was an instant canvass of red, white and blue -- the colors of the U.K.’s Union Jack flag.

To the media in Celtic Park on Wednesday clutching guides saying that the Red Arrow jets would trail only blue and white smoke -- the colors of the Scottish Saltire flag -- it was a source of confusion.

Welcome to the land where the color of jet smoke is significant. This is, of course, a highly political time for Scotland, which on Sept. 18 will vote on whether it will become an independent country, possibly breaking up a 300-year-old union. Red, white and blue smoke versus blue and white smoke? It matters.

Against the backdrop of the looming referendum, keeping politics out of the Glasgow-based Commonwealth Games, a sporting extravaganza with competitors from 71 nations, was never going to be easy.

“Don’t Mess with the Red Arrows,” shouted the Daily Mail, a British newspaper, in a front-page story Friday that, citing unnamed sources, claimed the Ministry of Defence squashed attempts for the Red Arrows to trail only blue and white smoke. The Ministry of Defence declined to comment on the story.

A Games spokesperson conceded that organizers had floated the idea.

“Glasgow 2014 would like to clarify that it was its Ceremonies producers who had initial conversations about Red Arrows trailing blue and white smoke to represent the Host Nation’s Saltire but this was never formally requested,” a spokeswoman said in a statement.

For its part, the Scottish government has adamantly denied any role in trying to take the red out of the Red Arrows.

Before the opening ceremony, Alex Salmond, the charismatic first minister of Scotland, even pledged not to use the games to push his independence agenda.  It sounded like remarkable restraint for a man who last year unfurled a Saltire flag behind the British prime minister after Andy Murray, a Scot, won Wimbledon  (to the annoyance of Murray.)

But just as soon as he promised to hold back during the 11 days of the games --  in the exact same interview, in fact -- Salmond dubbed Glasgow "Freedom City," saying that he was confident the host city of the games would vote for independence.

If there was a medal for about-turns, Salmond would have clinched gold.

Karla Adam is a reporter in the Washington Post’s London bureau. Before joining the Post in 2006, she worked as a freelancer in London for the New York Times and People magazine.
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