Scottish Politics has become 'ulsterised' lately, descending into the flag wars of Northern Ireland. Corrie Douglas insists that rabid opposition to the Union Jack should be avoided in Scotland.
Winds of the World, give answer! They are whimpering to and fro,
And what should they know of England who only England know?
The poor little street-bred people that vapour and fume and brag,
They are lifting their heads in the stillness to yelp at the English flag!
Must we borrow a clout from the Boer – to plaster anew with dirt?
An Irish liar’s bandage, or an English coward’s shirt?
We may not speak of England; her Flag’s to sell or share,
What is the Flag of England? Winds of the World, declare!
- Rudyard Kipling, from The English Flag
The preface to Kipling’s poem describes an event noted in the ‘daily papers’: a crowd surrounding a raging fire, burning up a flagpole that was crowned with the Union Jack. It bore the flames for a time but eventually succumbed; upon its demise, the crowd “rent the air with shouts, and seemed to see the significance.”
The Union Jack, more than most flags, is characterised by a contentious identity. Some see it as deeply and primarily Christian – indeed, the significance of a design including three saint’s crosses forming into a single centre is palpable; some see a symbol of unity in diversity, different nations coming together as one; some see it as a symbol of the Empire, be that positively or negatively; for some it is Protestant and yet for others it is merely English (a friend once made the observation that the other flags seem to act as God’s rays behind St George’s cross).
Alongside this, it is also perhaps the most recognisable flag in the world, save for the stars and stripes – but we can hardly be blamed for losing out to the world’s foremost superpower. It is as aesthetic as it is controversial. And it is a core component of Scotland’s history. So, let’s talk about Jack.
England, and the rest of the world outside Scotland, often evokes the ire of Scots for labelling the flag as ‘English’. After all, Scotland’s blue and white takes up most of the flag and it was the Scottish crown that fulfilled the idea of a union.
Scotland truly took an active role in the Union of the Crowns in 1603 – the union that actually produced the flag. Predating the Acts of Union that ended the Kingdoms of Scotland and England and their independent parliaments by around a hundred years, it would not be wrong to say for that period of time that it was an English flag. But it was also a Scottish flag.
The beauty of the original union, encapsulated by the Union Flag, was the retained independence of Scotland and England, with neither (in theory) dominating the other ﹘although this may be somewhat of an idealisation. For a case in point, one may look to the ‘Scottish Union Flag’ with its St Andrew’s saltire in front of George’s cross.
We don’t know just how common its use was in those early days, but we do know many Scots kicked up a fuss over the standard variant. However, we also know that whilst the standard Union Flag was seen in Scotland, the reverse would never have been true. One can speak to the symbolic nature of this, but that is an article for another time.
The point in all of this is that the Union Flag is ultimately a monarchist flag more than a parliamentary flag – that is to say, its existence rests on the shared monarchy, not the shared parliament at Westminster.
Alas, the prevailing perception says otherwise. In the run-up to the 2014 referendum, a number of outlets – including the Guardian and the BBC – discussed altering the Union Flag in a post-United Kingdom. What followed was a selection of decidedly unaesthetic re-design options that ranged from replacing the blue with black and adding yellow to a sort-of post-modern rendition of the Assyrian flag. This would look poor for all parties involved.
The white papers produced by the Scottish government called it correctly: there is no need for a change. Also due to our shared monarch, Jack would not need to leave Scotland either.
When we approach the hot topic of national identity we risk falling victim to the Ulsterisation of flags (also known as ‘flag wars’), where they take on a fierce importance that enters the realm of silliness or conflict﹘perhaps even both at the same time. Already the Union Flag has taken on a proto-sectarian character because of the question of independence. To continue with this would be profane.
Furthermore, British identity, like European, Christian, or local, should not require the existence of a parliament to give it life﹘that is a largely American notion. There was a character and a history to these isles before 1707 and it shall continue after. Not all may identify so strongly with Britain, but it is undeniable that many do; for those that want him, let Jack remain.