Archive | September, 2014

The Disunity of the Union Jack

25 Sep

The Union Jack is supposed to be a symbol of the unity between the increasingly dysfunctional “family of nations” that make up the United Kingdom of Great Britain.  Yet, as a flag of unity, it is deeply flawed.  It was designed (whether deliberately or accidentally matters not) to show English dominance over the “Celtic nations”, just as it was in the days of  Empire a symbol of oppression and servitude under a supposedly philanthropic (sic) British rule. It was the design submitted by English heralds, which was most favoured by James VI & I who approved its use, perhaps on aesthetic grounds or more likely to appease his new subjects.

However, many in Scotland objected to having the Cross of St George superimposed over the Cross of St Andrew (just as there was fury during the recent Independence Referendum, when BritNats placed a Union Jack in the top left corner of the Scottish Saltire – which is illegal in Scotland – to proclaim Scotland a mere colony of the UK rather than a “Home Nation”).  Instead they used a Scottish version in which the St Andrew’s Cross cut the St George’s Cross into four triangles.  The Scottish version, which was never official, was banned by law after the Acts of Union in 1707.

Yet, heraldically (and flags are governed by heraldry) the Union Flag does not combine the English flag with the Scottish Saltire as the colour used is a royal blue, which is mid way between the sky blue (or azure) of the Saltire and the navy blue  of the flag of the Island of Tenerife (which, incidentally, the English failed to subdue in 1706 and the British (under Nelson) in 1797.

Thus, heraldically, though the blue is supposed to represent Scotland, it does not (as was recently pointed out to me by the Serbian Royal Herald) as it is neither one thing or the other. It seems that it was assumed that the St Andrew’s Cross would be understood to refer to Scotland even though St Andrew is also the patron saint of Barbados, Greece, Romania, Russia and the Ukraine (only one of which has been under British rule!).

However, Scotland, receiving some kind of representation through the cross of St Andrew (though not through the Scottish Saltire) is considerably better off than Wales, which has no representation either in the Royal Arms or the Union Flag.  The English excuse is that at the time of the Union, Wales had been absorbed into England by its Tudor monarchs and, therefore, was not party to the Treaties of Union and so needs no representation other than the Cross of St George.  Yet St George is not, and has never been, recognised as having any role is Wales (other than conquest).  Wales’ patron saint  is St David, whose symbol (a yellow cross on a black field) was used informally on flags in Wales from 1921.   Not until 1959 were they granted an official flag (the Welsh red dragon), which is based on a variant of Welsh flags used since the 1480s.

Ireland is represented by the so-called Cross of St Patrick, though there is no good evidence to suggest that it was ever used prior to the foundation of the Order of St Patrick in 1783.  It has been suggested that the design was based on the arms of the powerful Fitzgerald family who, as Earls of Kildare, were Lords Deputy of Ireland and, as Dukes of Leinster, the premier peer in the Irish House of Lords. Indeed, despite a number of official bodies (eg the Royal College of Surgeons in Ireland) adopting it between the foundation of the order and the act of Union of 1800, it has never had wide acceptance in Ireland, outside of the Anglo-Irish ascendancy.  For most Irish people it was seen as a blood-stained Cross of St Andrew, forever reminding them of  the English imposition of  Scottish settlers in Ulster by Cromwell.    The traditional cross of St Patrick, a cross patée, which has been used for centuries, is widely used in Catholic Dioceses, but eschewed by the Church of Ireland (Anglican) which, unsurprisingly, uses the red saltire of the British establishment.

It has been argued that it is appropriate for the Cross of St Patrick (sic) to remain within the Union Flag as the 6 northern counties which make up the Province of Northern Ireland are subject to the Crown.  However, the red saltire is not widely accepted in Northern Ireland either. The sectarianism there means that Loyalists prefer the Ulster Banner, which was the official flag of Northern Ireland from 1953-1972, as they regard the Cross of St Patrick as Irish, while the Republicans favour the Irish Tricolour, seeing the Cross of St Patrick as a British imposition. Though it has sometimes been used as a neutral flag, neither side of the sectarian divide is entirely happy with it in that role.  Far from being a symbol of unity, the Union Flag, despite the success of the peace process, is a symbol of on-going division in Ireland.

In the Union Flag, the English Cross of St Patrick has been placed, counterchanged, into the Cross of St Andrew, further diminishing any representation of Scotland it may have had.  The resulting hotchpotch also means that 95% of the British population (and 99.9% of foreigners) have no idea whether the  flag is the right way up or not!  Thus, at least half the time it is flown upside down, which is an international distress signal.

So here we have a flag that is supposed to represent unity but which is actually an offensive mishmash that uses the wrong colour for the Scottish Saltire, uses a detested cross for Ireland (of which only a small Province  tacked on to the UK remains), and gives no representation whatsoever for the Principality of Wales.   It is noticeably absent from the flag of the Commonwealth of Nations, all but one of which were British colonies, as in some parts of the world it is despised for its imperial (and post imperial) connotations and in other parts for its once proud association with  the international slave trade.  Little wonder then that there are moves to extirpate the “bloody butchers’ apron” from their national flags, even in countries which remained colonies well into the 20th century  (eg Fiji),  just as they did their Governors General on gaining independence.  And it is niot confined to countries that were former colonies; even countries which are still under the Crown (eg New Zealand) are debating its removal.

So, if it doesn’t symbolise unity, what does it signify?  For some – a minority to be sure – it represents far-right wing British Nationalism as displayed by the BNP or Britain First; for others – a rising number it seems – it represents the xenophobic “little England” nationalism of UKIP; for others, it represents a corrupt and greedy, self-perpetuating, plutocratic elite that will hold onto power at any cost; and, yes, for an ever-dwindling number, it represents the UK and Britishness (whatever that might be).

But its advocates (who are, by definition, nationalists – British nationalists) will doubtless defend their flag on two counts: a) military campaigns and  b) fashion.

a) They will waffle on about how we fought two World Wars under the Union Jack and liberated Europe, without also recognising that it was used to invade Iraq on the basis of a lie, or that there are only a scattering of countries worldwide that the UK has not invaded (or tried to invade).  Also, they conveniently forget that it was the flag that flew over numerous slave ships and the ships of their Royal Navy escorts (both on the jack and in the top left  corner of the red and white ensigns).

b) Citing the Union Jack’s use in fashion (despite the fact that the days of 1960s Carnaby Street and BritPop fashion in the ’90s have become, like the two World Wars, nigh nebulous memories for many) they claim that it is the most recognisable symbol of Britain.  While it is true that versions, often crudely drawn, are used as decals and designs on cheap, sweat-shopped tat or tasteless souvenirs, the majority of the non-British purchasers of such garments (and souvenirs) don’t equate it with the UK (just like the other instantly recognised symbols: Big Ben, Tower Bridge and the Queen of England – notice a pattern here?), but with England, unconsciously having understood that the UK is just a euphemism for England “writ large”.

Whereas my grandfather, born in the age of Empire, proudly served under the Union Jack, both as a career naval officer and as Lord Lieutenant, I feel no pride in it; no sentiment; just mild indifference.  As with those nations, which want to remove the Union Jack from their national flags, it does not reflect my identity in any meaningful way and so is only of historical interest like, say, the flag of the Austro-Hungarian Empire.

If the government (of whatever stripe) in Westminster are serious about unity within teh oft vaunted “the family of nations”  (rather than the usual uniformity – the genesis of which is a casual arrogance – they try to hawk), both the Union Jack and the Royal Arms need to be revised and modernised to reflect the diversity and the equality implied in the family metaphor.  Failure by the Union (which was so valuable that  it could only be saved through lies and threats) to do so will merely reinforce the view of the Celtic Nations that they are being not very subtly subsumed, whether they want to be or not, with even less status than a colony, into an increasingly uncaring  Greater England.

It is surely time to consign this ragbag of a flag, which has such a  chequered past, to history, where it belongs.

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19th September, 2014 – The day my country died.

19 Sep

Yesterday, my country committed the equivalent of suicide.

Scotland had a clear choice: be an outward-looking nation with a distinctive voice in the world and assume the responsibilities concomitant with that status; or be an unimportant province of a nation state that has an insular, post-imperial, small island mentality – a dwarf in a deceased giants’ shoes.

The people who voted for the latter, whether they realise it or not, voted for privilege over social justice, corruption over accountability, sentimentality over pragmatism and fear over hope. To me it is utterly incredible that 55% of my people could have fallen for such duplicity. Yet it appears they strained at every YES gnat while swallowing the whole NO camel of bald-faced lies, sly misrepresentations, empty promises, flagrant fakery and fear-mongering, which they were fed by a self-serving, political elite bolstered by a docile and biased press. I have no doubt that in 2015 we will see a veritable gala of gongs for the victorious malefactors from their grateful Westminster puppet-masters. It makes me thank God that I don’t have to live there and immensely sorry for the 45%, who voted for change, who do.

If the 55% think they have voted for the status quo, more fool them. What they perceived the status quo to be when they voted will change faster than they could ever have imagined; and not for the better. If they voted for the empty promise of further devolved powers, they were simply stupid; doubly so given the same empty promise was made in 1979. Perhaps they chose certainty over risk without understanding the risks to health, education, poverty and exclusion inherent in that certainty and must now “accept such a parody of a nation’s life as is offered”[1] by their beloved Union. Yet, doubtless, when things instead of remaining the same go from bad to worse, they will bleat like frightened sheep about how they were duped. However, I for one will not accept any complaint from that quarter. They only got what they voted for – inflicting it on the rest – and only have themselves to blame. Their right to complain is forfeit.

While I have never been a “Proud Scot”™, I was yesterday made to feel ashamed of being Scottish; to be a citizen of a country that while singing of brave deeds is too lily-livered to join the nations of the world as a mature state. Scotland became a laughingstock to the rest of the world, both to those who had seen us as heroes in a struggle for democratic change and to those who heaved a sigh of relief that their cosy elites could continue untrammelled. Where we wanted to unchain the unicorn, they have replaced it with a battery hen, and the thistle with a pansy.

My flag – the beautiful Scottish Saltire – has been reduced to a provincial flag akin to that of Castile & Leon (flown civically but not personally). Edinburgh our national capital, reduced to a provincial capital like Valladolid – a former Royal seat and National Capital, but now just the centre of a semi-autonomous province within a larger nation. The difference, of course, is that Castile & Leon has more autonomy than Scotland.

In place of the simple and beautiful, ancient Scottish flag we are supposed to embrace that dog’s dinner, that butchers’ apron, the Union Jack (which, even in the UK, is as often upside down as right way up), as a symbol of our unity (just as Catalans are supposed to with the Spanish flag). The difference, of course, is that Catalonia, unlike the Kingdom of Scotland, has never been a fully independent country.

Whereas the Saltire is (and always has been) a symbol of freedom and (during this campaign) an inclusive and all-embracing civic nationalism, the Union Jack is not – as is claimed by the BritNats – a symbol of our unity but a symbol of   the division, domination and oppression of Empire, which has its roots in an exclusive, ethnic racism, which like the nationalism that drives it, is both unrecognised and not admitted.  The whole appeal to historical sentimentality for the glory days of the two world wars, while appealing to the over 65s, who overwhelmingly voted NO for a nostalgic Britain that no longer exists, has little if any resonance with the younger generation.

The Union Jack, often crudely drawn, which is plastered across every cheap, sweat-shopped bit of tawdry tat (the equal of any tartanry), has no more (and no less) meaning to me than the EU flag, which also tries to portray unity, where more often than not there is division.

So was it all in vain? Was it all one great big waste of time, energy and money?  Of course not.  There were huge achievements from the YES side.

• They kept their integrity and did not descend to the level of the NO campaign whose slurs and smears and innuendoes served them so well.

• Political parties as diverse as the SNP, Scottish Greens, Scottish Socialists and Labour Voters for Independence were able to present a united front while the Unionist parties bickered among themselves and ignored their grass-roots.

• They were able to inspire a massive grass-roots campaign – the highest level of political engagement in living memory and beyond – which took the debate robustly and (apart from a few hotheads on both sides) good-naturedly on to the streets and into every part of daily life with a wealth of creativity, humour and enjoyment (just contrast the smiling, dancing and singing YES groups with the dour, unsmiling and reticent NO groups, some of which had to be bussed in from other parts of the UK).

• They held open meetings, where questions were encouraged and genuinely answered (no matter how daft), which were packed out; the polar opposite of NO’s closed meetings in secret locations with carefully vetted questions.

• Without groups like Radical Independence and the lead political parties encouraging participation it is doubtful whether the exceedingly high voter registration (97%), would have been achieved, which in turn led to a turnout higher than seen in over a generation.

So why does it feel like the aftermath of the election of George W. Bush in 2000?

Like in that election, canvassing suggested that Al Gore was going to win as did the exit polls, though opinion polls put the race too close to call. On Thursday, the polls put the referendum too close to call, the canvassing by YES (with precise figures) suggested a far higher YES vote than transpired as did the exit polls by YES. Little wonder then that some YES supporters believe that the results had been rigged.

Despite there being a time to weep and to mourn (and it is only right that both sides recognise the necessity of that) there is in the future, unless we wish to emulate Queen Victoria, going to again be a time to laugh and dance (Ecclesiastes 3:4).  As Martin Luther King Jr so famously said, “Let us not wallow in the Valley of Despair….even though we face the difficulties of today and tomorrow, I still have a dream.” and as Professor Walter Moberly of Durham University has suggested,”...it can be salutary to remember that the reality of hope in this life may sometimes take the form of continuing just to keep putting one foot in front of the other, and not giving up.”

As so often is the case in Scottish history, we epically lost a battle, but like the Bruce or the Great Montrose, despite a sense of despondency which threatens to overwhelm us, we have not given up.  We will rise up again to fight on.

Yesterday, hope was extinguished but the dream lives on and that can, and will, reignite hope. Saor Alba!

[1] R B (Don Roberto) Cunninghame Graham (who was 1st President and co-founder of both the Scottish Labour Party (1888) and the SNP (1934)) writing in The Scots Independent (1928).