Opinion Articles

The Union Jack belongs to everyone, not just the government

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On 24 March 2021, the UK government updated its Union Flag Flying Guidance for UK Government Buildings. There are just sixteen designated days plus the respective national saint’s day when flags ‘must’ be flown on UK government buildings. However, a significant change was made in this document that exploded in the national and international media and social media, provoking the entire (and predictable) spectrum of intemperate responses. It was this: ‘UK Government buildings are also encouraged to fly the Union Flag all year around’.

The advice was reiterated in more explicit terms in the text of the short document: ‘UK Government building flagpoles should not remain empty – the default should be flying the Union Flag if no other flag is being flown’. The very next sentence reminded readers that ‘designated flag flying for Northern Ireland government buildings is governed by legislation rather than this guidance’.

Perhaps the first thing to point out is that guidance is not legislation, and so is not legally enforceable. As Raphael Hogarth put it in a blog for the Institute for Government a year ago in discussing pandemic regulations, ‘They [the police] have powers to enforce the law and maintain public order, but they are not empowered to enforce the government’s guidance where it is more demanding than the law’. In that sense, these guidelines – whatever one may think of the political intentions behind them – are not dissimilar from earlier advice surrounding the Union Jack, and so it is worth busting a few myths about the flag and bring some perspective into the current debate.

First, the name. The flag been known as the ‘Union Jack’ in official documents since 1674; in 1902 an Admiralty Circular remarked that ‘Union Flag’ and ‘Union Jack’ were interchangeable; and in 1908 Parliament confirmed this. It is simply misguided pedantry to insist that the correct name of the flag is the ‘Union Flag’.

Secondly, the flag is, it is commonly believed, a combination of the crosses of St Andrew for Scotland, St George for England, and St Patrick for Northern Ireland. Up to a point, Lord Copper. When King James of Scotland first came to the English throne in 1603, ships had to fly both flags, and this inevitably caused friction as one flag had to be flown above the other, which traditionally indicated victory over a vanquished foe. To deal with this, the Earl of Nottingham was asked to design a new flag for King James VI and I. As the laws of heraldry do not allow each element to have equal prominence. Nottingham ingeniously interlaced the crosses of St Andrew and St George, ‘compounding’ the two flags. It might look as though placing the cross of St George over that of St Andrew suggests that Scotland is inferior to England, but the canton (the upper quarter nearest the flagpole, usually the upper left) is the most prestigious part of a flag – and this is occupied by the cross of St Andrew. Notwithstanding this, an alternative design has frequently been used in Scotland that also lays the saltire over the St George Cross.

This amalgamation might appear to have overlooked Wales, but the cross of St George at this stage represented both the kingdom of England and the principality of Wales. The Welsh-born Henry Tudor, who defeated Richard III at the Battle of Bosworth Field in 1485 to become Henry VII, marched under the cross of St George, and his subsequent dynasty strongly identified with the saint as a symbol of Anglo-Cambrian union. From the first, then, the ‘Flag of the Great Union’, proclaimed on 12 April 1606, was a rather more complex affair than merely chopping up and stitching back together the flags of two countries.

In 1801, the Act of Union with Ireland necessitated a new element. In hagiography, St Patrick has no cross (having not been crucified); but the twelfth-century royal house of Ireland the FitzGeralds occasionally used the insignia of a red saltire, which has been associated with Ireland since the sixteenth century. It was also more pragmatic to incorporate another cross than adding, say, a harp. Moreover it was in the same colours and style as the existing flag. And so this element was woven into the design.

The cross of St Patrick remained in the Union Jack after the formation of the Irish Free State in 1922 – which of course adopted the Tricolour – and neither is it the official flag of Northern Ireland, which is the Union Jack itself. In other words, the Union Jack has gone beyond its origins in three allegedly national flags and is now a symbol in its own right. That suggests that even in the event of Scottish independence, the cross of St Andrew, which in any case in Scotland is flown with a very different background colour to that of the Union Jack, would remain in the Union Jack as part of the heritage and identity of the remaining nations.

In the nineteenth-century, the Union Jack achieved an iconic status as an international trademark and a global brand associated with the British Empire, and in the twentieth century as symbolic of the defeat of fascism as well as a design classic and a perennial fashion accessory, from Cuba to Macao. This vogueish status is possible in part because there are no regulations for the exact colours or precise dimensions of the flag beyond its practical standardization for military uses. So the Union Jack has consequently been reworked endlessly by advertisers and pop stars and fashionistas – in fact, it invites such transformations.

Because the flag is made up of different geometric shapes in three different colours it is almost like an advanced tangram puzzle with infinite variations. So the authorities’ relaxed attitude to its colours and dimensions has helped it to become a touchstone of popular culture through endless reinvention. Moreover, there has also been a generally laissez-faire position on who or how the flag can be flown (except at sea), or even how it should be treated. Under 18 US Code § 700 (‘Desecration of the Flag of the United States), ‘Whoever knowingly mutilates, defaces, physically defiles, burns, maintains on the floor or ground, or tramples upon any flag of the United States shall be fined under this title or imprisoned for not more than one year, or both’. I asked a British Army colonel what he does with the Union Jack at his military base when it is lowered in the evening: ‘We just roll it up and chuck it in the corner’. Not only are there no laws on governing the flag, neither is there any single government department or public body that currently has overall jurisdiction over the Union Jack or any policy concerning it.

If we are going to debate the uses of the flag, it might be worth considering that its history is one of flexibility and concession, rather than making facile comparisons to totalitarianism at government ‘guidance’ over a piece of fabric that has been celebrated by everyone from Freddie Mercury to Amir Khan to Mo Farah to Rihanna. It is incumbent on all of us to take control of the flag and not allow any political faction to set the agenda on its meaning and uses. We should not abdicate responsibility but celebrate the abundant variety of the Union Jack, and decide whether it really does stand as a symbol of diversity and inclusivity, and then how it can also perhaps set a standard for the communities of the future.

Please note: Views expressed are those of the author.
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