Is it my imagination or are more national flags being flown on public buildings and at private homes across the four countries of the United Kingdom? I was struck by this, again, when I went down to London a couple of times last week. There were certainly more flags – mostly Union Jacks – than I’d noticed before atop flagpoles next to large hotels, or billowing out above shop entrances in the place where you’d expect to see the shop sign. I can’t speak for government buildings, as I didn’t pass any.
But the appearance of Union Jacks in commercial settings was perhaps of even greater symbolic significance. It was as if they were proclaiming, “This is London you’re in now – the capital of a great, vibrant, commercial nation: the United Kingdom”. For all the controversy that now surrounds it, the Union Jack can still carry the weight of such national pride. It’s a great symbol, really: a global icon that ranks in ‘brand recognition’ right alongside the Stars and Stripes or the Communist Red Flag. No wonder that our London-centric, power-obsessed politicians are so loathe to give it up!
Nor should they, or we, really. There is no reason why the Union Jack should not continue to serve as the visual symbol for the United Kingdom in whatever form in which that state survives. This is despite the recent suggestion of Welsh Labour MP Ian Lucas that the Red Dragon from the Welsh national flag should be incorporated in the Union Flag’s design. For non-initiates, the reasoning behind this is that the three-cross design of the flag makes reference only to England (upright red Cross of St. George on white background), Scotland (diagonal white Cross of St. Andrew on dark blue background) and Ireland (diagonal red Cross of St. Patrick on white background) – but not to Wales. If I had to choose between the two options, rather than messing up the neatness and cleverness of the Union Jack’s design by sticking a red dragon on it, I’d try to incorporate into it the Cross of St. David, Wales’s patron saint, which would be consistent with the conception behind the existing flag. This is a yellow cross on a black background. One rendition of how this might look is pictured below:
For all its politically correct and historically sensitive efforts to be inclusive, however, this ‘Inclusion Jack’ is a bit of a dog’s dinner visually, and it does rather ruin a powerful national and international emblem. I am in fact quite sympathetic to the objective of adding some explicit Welsh element to the Union Flag. As the son of a Welsh mother and English father growing up in England, I myself went through a phase of feeling indignant that the Union Jack made no overt reference to Wales. That said, the need to be inclusive in this way should be less acutely felt nowadays than then. As Wales has now acquired a substantial measure of self-government and official recognition as a distinct nation, the Red Dragon can be hoisted above official buildings across that land; whereas before, if any flag had been used, it would usually have been the Union Jack. And indeed, when I travelled to rural West Wales for the funeral of a family friend a couple of months ago, I did notice that the Welsh flag was being displayed more proudly and prominently than I’m sure was the case before.
I haven’t been to Scotland for many years, but I’m certain that in these days of devolved government, the Cross of St. Andrew must also be cropping up in all sorts of places where hitherto either the Union Flag or none would have been preferred. In England, too, as is well known, the Cross of St. George has largely superseded the Union Jack in popular affection and usage. I say that, but when I spent a couple of weeks in rural Lancashire towards the start of this year, it was the Union Flag that swung from poles in pubs or country gardens, not the Cross of St. George. Whether there’s some particularly strong unionist connection in that county, or whether this preference for the Union Jack is linked to local support for the BNP (related to ethnic tensions in Lancastrian cities such as Blackburn or Burnley), I don’t know. But generally, it is the red cross on a white background that is now viewed and used as the national flag by most English people.
By the people, that is, not the state. The irony of Ian Lucas’s intervention is that he should be pushing for more inclusion of the Welsh flag within that of the Union at the very time when the official use of the Union Flag in England is perceived by many as excluding, or precluding, the use of the Cross of St. George and, with it, the affirmation of English national identity. From this perspective, it is as if calls to add the Red Dragon on to the Union Jack – however fair in one respect – are adding insult to injury: not only can English people not expect to see ‘their’ national flag flying from public buildings, but also the Red Dragon is stuck onto the British flag as a permanent reminder of a historical injustice perpetrated by the English towards the Welsh: denial of recognition as a distinct nation, rather than as just a principality subsumed into England.
For, in fact, this historical situation is now reversed: it is England that is denied any official, constitutional status as a distinct nation within the UK; while the other three countries of the Union do now enjoy semi-separate nation status. And flying the Union Jack rather than the Cross of St. George on English public and government buildings is increasingly becoming a symbol of the denial of nationhood to the English.
How can these two not unreasonable but conflicting demands be reconciled: the Welsh wish to add some overt symbol of their country to the Union Flag; and the English desire to fly the Cross of St. George rather than the Union Flag? There is a simple solution that would obviate the need to ruin the design principles or ‘brand impact’ of the Union Jack. Separate versions of the Union Flag could be authorised for each nation in the UK that would incorporate their own national flags in miniature into the top-left corner of the flag in a similar way that the Australian and New Zealand flags or the Royal Navy Ensign insert the Union Flag. Specifically, each national flag could fill the quarter of the Union Jack demarcated by the lateral left-hand and vertical top bars of the red cross, i.e. they would go over the white surround to the red cross on that part of the flag. (This is simply because it would make the English and Northern Irish flags appear neater when inserted in this way, rather than having extra bits of white around their border deriving from the Union Flag.)
This solution would mean that the Welsh could have their Union Jack plus Red Dragon. It could be made explicit in the legislation or regulations establishing these flags that each country-specific version of the Union Flag was not exclusively for use in that country alone: that each version was a fully authorised variation on the Union Jack that could be flown in any part of the Union whenever and wherever it was felt appropriate. For example, the Welsh version could be flown by Welsh Guards regiments, even those based in England, or on ceremonies or visits involving the Prince of Wales – or wherever, really.
Similarly, the English version of the Union Jack – same flag as now but with the Cross of St. George flag inserted into the top-left corner – would enable national- and local-government and other public-sector organisations to fly both the Union Flag and the English flag at the same time. Some purists and English nationalists (among whom I count myself, by the way) might object to this compromise solution, feeling that only the Cross of St. George will do. But at least my suggestion would enable both sides of the argument to be assuaged to a limited extent: the new English version of the Union Flag would be both a fully authorised UK flag, of equivalent status to the unadulterated Union Jack, and it would prominently display the English national symbol. Better to have some recognition of England’s existence as a nation within the UK – which such a country-specific version of the Union Flag neatly symbolises – than none. If nothing else, this enables cost-conscious local authorities or hospitals, for instance, to be able to display both the UK and the English flag, if they were minded to, without having to invest in a second flag pole and incurring the extra costs of maintaining two sets of flags!
I’m assuming that the Northern Irish version of the flag would use the red upright cross, red hand and crown of the Ulster flag, rather than the Cross of St. Patrick. But that could well be somewhat controversial, to say the least, and the politicians there might have to compromise on the Flag of St. Patrick, which after all is used in the Union Jack now. I could see the thing getting rather party-political in Scotland, too, with SNP-led authorities tending to prefer to fly the Scottish flag alone, while unionist party-controlled authorities might choose the Scotland-specific version of the Union Flag.
However, that would be their affair, just as it should really be England’s choice whether to fly the Union Flag or the Cross of St. George on government buildings. But until we’re free to make that choice, having a version of the Union Jack that also includes the red cross of England seems like a satisfying and, dare I say it, sensible English compromise.