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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