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Will the Sun Set on the Union Jack?

Surely what happens to the Union Jack is one of the more minor concerns that would follow Scottish independence—except that it's not.


As Scotland comes closer to next September’s vote on whether it should be an independent country, the BBC offers a rundown on one of the least important—and almost by corollary most interesting—questions to arise: What does mean for the Union Jack (or in proper BBC style, union jack)?

The existing banner results from combining the crosses of St. Andrew (Scotland), St. George (England), and St. Patrick (Ireland) into a single flag to represent the then United Kingdom of Great Britain and Ireland, circa 1801. (Sorry Wales—that’s what you get for being an English principality at the time.)

When the Irish Free State pried itself away from Britain in 1921, the cross of St. Patrick remained on the Union Jack in part, it was argued, because Northern Ireland remained in the union, and in part because it would have been very expensive to change all the flags throughout the empire. The Irish state, for a few more years hence still part of the British commonwealth, chose not to include the Union Jack in its new livery. It opted for a tri-color flag with vertical green, white, and orange fields. The idea of asking Britain to kindly remove the St. Patrick’s cross from its flag was briefly run up Ireland’s parliamentary flagpole, so to speak, in 1961; no one saluted this invitation to “heraldic disputations.” Meanwhile, a lot of other places—such as Australia, New Zealand, Bermuda, three Canadian provinces, and even the state of Hawaii—incorporate the current-style Union Jack in their own banners.

There’s a lot to enjoy in the BBC piece, available here, such as ideas for a new British flag (if needed), including ones that give Wales its due, and a discussion of the ambiguous responsibility for making the decision on any change. There’s a lot of buck-passing going on. "There is no official legal protocol on flags,” the Beeb quotes Andrew Rosindell, who chairs the All Party Parliamentary Group on Flags and Heraldry, “to the extent that you can't even say that the union jack is the flag of the United Kingdom." Rosindell opts for the path of least resistance, and leaving the union flag alone. He’s joined in that by Malcolm Farrow, OBE and president of the Flag Institute, who believes a change “would open up a political can of worms and ‘completely over-ride all the important things which the governments will need to do.’”

Farrow is out of step with results of a survey conducted by his own non-profit—“the UK’s only national flag charity.” Sixty-five percent of respondents say they want the flag to change if Scotland leaves the union, although only 56 percent say they think the flag would change in that event. Good news for Wales, 72 percent think the Welsh should be part of any new design. Complicating the debate, the British monarch would remain the head of state for an independent Scotland and the flag is officially a royal banner, while, as Rosindell noted, it has never been officially declared a national flag.

But while Farrow says amending the flag is hardly vital, he definitely argues that the flag itself—any national flag, for that matter—is important:

A national flag is but a means to an end and not an end in itself. Its purpose is to be an unambiguous focus for the unity of the citizens of a nation – whatever their individual background or personal aspirations. Up until the end of WWII the UK was a remarkably homogenous nation with, by and large, one overall culture, shared traditions and a common creed. This is no longer the case and over 10% of our present school children do not even have English as their mother tongue, whilst devolution has changed many people’s sense of national identity. Consequently the need to promote unity and cohesion throughout society is ever more important, and the national flag is just one means to do this, but a very obvious, low cost and effective means.

A flag, said Mahatma Gandhi, "is no doubt a kind of idolatry which would be a sin to destroy." Ah, but the theological arguments can be fierce.

The study of flags is known as vexillology, after the Latin word for flag, vexillum. But vex could just as easily be the root, as a quick look at current headlines bears out. In Northern Ireland there’s a simmering controversy—surprise—over a flag to officially denote that portion of Britain since the Ulster banner’s demotion 40 years ago. “Maybe we could have two hexagons, interlinked, representing the equally intransigent and black hearted extremes of both communities, bonded, at least in our dreams, in perpetual amity,” Malachi O'Doherty suggested at the Belfast Telegraph.

In Australia, an old flag representing opposition to British colonial misrule was in the news this week when a new piece of it was located. The Eureka flag was raised by rebellinggold miners in 1854; their revolt was put down with 38 dead. Now, the Wall Street Journal writes, “A scrap of the Eureka flag — five stars representing the Southern Cross and joined on a deep blue background — has resurfaced 159 years after it was torn down, trampled and bayoneted by colonial troopers who crushed the Eureka Stockade rebellion in the southern state of Victoria.” The Eureka flag still can generate controversy—it’s been used in racially charged riots and is brought up as a contender as Australians debate hoisting a new national flag, sans Union Jack, of their own—and there may have even been a Union Jack flying beneath it during the rebellion! (“Not credible,” says journalist and Eureka historian Peter FitzSimons.)

A little to the north of Australia, in Papua New Guinea, three activists were arrested in Port Moresby when they raised a flag—the morning star—that symbolizes an independence movement in neighboring West Papua. Indonesia, which holds West Papua, outlaws raising the flag. "Clearly Indonesia has put pressure on the [Papua New Guinea] government but we are an independent nation,” said Powes Parkop, the governor of Port Moresby, clearly irked at the national government’s pusillanimity. “Our constitution allows us freedom of expression and assembly.”

Those are just from a cursory glance at Google News. Social science backs up the power of the flag to affect behavior, and not just in ways predicted by Betsy Ross or Barbara Fritchie. Subliminal exposure to the Confederate battle flag, for example, lowered support for candidate Barack Obama in 2008. Using the American flag to prime subjects can generate feelings of nationalism but also of egalitarianism. A quick exposure can also sway viewers to more Republican-leaning positions. And waving American flags, versus Mexican ones, at immigration-reform rallies softened how “bothered” respondents were by the protests. “The flag has a complex range of associations,” the egalitarianism study author, David A. Butz, told our Lee Drutman a few years back. “Symbols like the flag can be multireferential. They can mean different things to different people. It shows how tricky it is to study the symbols.”

Good luck with that, Britain.