Thursday, 31 May 2012

Why I hate the Union Flag

For a start off, I just want to make clear that I don't hate the Queen.

Or any of her kids. Or her husband.

I'm not that keen on her genocidal Belgian great great great uncle  however many times removed he was  but he's dead anyway.

I don't think there should be a queen. Of anything. Anywhere. But I don't think there's a god either (not the one I've read about in Genesis), yet I love the Archbishop of Canterbury Dr Rowan Williams and think almost everything he says is right.

If the Queen's on TV, and she's given a speaking part, I'll often listen to what she has to say. She's eighty-odd and she's been a lot of places and seen a lot of things. She has a pretty interesting job. She knows a thing or two.

I don't think that her job should exist  just as I don't thing Dr Williams's job should exist. But that doesn't mean I don't think they do their jobs well and are well-deserving of them.

But in anticipation of the Queen's 60th year in her job being celebrated this coming weekend I've found miniature plastic Union Flags (or Union Jacks  call them what you will) festooned over my country, my town, indeed even the outside of my house.

This blog is about why that doesn't make me proud or happy.

The Union Flag

The Union Flag is badly designed.

If it were returned by a design agency nowadays the client would surely dismiss it as not fit for purpose.

The asymetry of the bisected red saltire transposed over the white cross of St Andrew is irritating once you take note of it.

A lot of people probably still think the flag is horizontally and vertically symetrical, as well as having a pleasing turn symmetry of two, which means you could never accidentally fly it upside down. If the former were true it would probably give the flag all the aesthetic supremacy with which it's often falsely credited; it'd be streets ahead of those funny off-centre cruciform colourways favoured by the Nordic countries.

But no, whoever updated the Union Flag from its original bipatriotic design decided to complicate matters to the point that any given individual drawing the design freehand from that point onward to the end of time would probably get it at least 30% wrong.

It's also ill-suited to adaptation. Sure, it's all over cushions and tablecloths and flasks and dog blankets and racist tattoos and seasonal bottles of Pimm's, etc. But as soon as you use the exhaust fumes of aircraft to try and recreate it, it becomes French, Hungarian, Russian, Dutch: anything but British. Our pilots just aren't good enough to match that complexity. The same happens if you turn it into triangular bunting: you're suddenly anonymous, at an international level.

But these minor quibbles are expressed partly in jest; it's a striking design, and much better than a lot of the rubbish out there. Take Nepal's irritatingly shaped broken Christmas decoration, the recently removed flag of Gadaffi's Libya  which displays a shocking lack of imagination, or the forgettable and derivative attempts belonging to any number of commonwealth territories across the globe.

No, what really makes me say it's not fit for purpose, is that it doesn't satisfactorily represent that which it claims to: the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland.

"Our" flag in its current design is over a hundred years old, which any historian worth its salt will tell you betrays a neglectful attention to detail on behalf of its custodians.

The Union Flag essentially represents two of the four major territories that it's supposed to, and one that it isn't supposed to. Let's start at the beginning.


St George's cross, the flag of England for hundreds of years  although not before it was the flag of medieval Georgia  is well-represented with pride of place along the central axis of the Union Flag.

This makes sense. As with most unions, everyone knows this isn't an equal partnership, so of course England goes in the middle and everything else works around it. (Where's the capital, folks?)

Red is a primary colour often associated with anger and other high passions, probably because of its close resemblance to blood and possibly something to do with it traveling faster than other colours; and white is a good neutral base (which saves on dye, too); so that's a good starting point right there. Good flag, England. And so far, so good for the Union Flag.


Scotland comes second. (Which is probably why a lot of Scots are keen on jacking in this whole union thing, but let's put that aside for the moment.)

St Andrew's saltire  white on blue  is a perfect complement to the starting point of St George's cross. It goes the other way (diagonal), and contains another classic primary colour: blue. Blue is probably the second best colour after red, and symbolic of cooler and deeper emotions, as well as water, and fish, and blue Smarties and loads of other stuff.

Transposed behind the English flag, it occupies four equal rectangular quarters quite nicely without losing too much of its own identity or taking up too much space around the English flag, which, as I mentioned, obviously comes first  that's clear to see.

This was the original design of the flag, or the one that had the best pitch and managed to stick, at any rate. This was used for a good while, until somebody noticed another nearby Celtic landmass that hadn't been under the yoke of any Anglo-Saxons lately, so Ireland was invited to join the party.


Yes, you see, the flag was adapted to incorporate Ireland. The whole of Ireland. Not Northern Ireland, which didn't exist then, and only exists now in the minds of about a quarter of the territory's inhabitants.

Most of the Irelanders in that area apparently argue* between belonging to the Republic of Ireland (whose inhabitants nowadays have their own flag with not a trace of red or blue in it) or the United Kingdom, whose flag we are currently unravelling, and which  unfortunately for those who fancy it  might not exist for much longer.

(*Actually, a lot of them probably don't argue. A lot of them probably just try and get on with their lives and keep their thoughts to themselves.)

But back in the past, which is a terrible place,  Ireland  the whole of what was then called Ireland: the whole island  was, erm... invited into the Union in such a way as it simply couldn't refuse. And at that point, sort of like at this point, nobody could get every single person on that island to decide which flag best represented the lot of them and, you know, how they felt their place in the world was best defined.

They had a saint mind you, and like the Scottish and English saints, he was a man, and a man with a common name, and with a cross made out of a combination of one primary colour and some white (to save on extra dye). St Patrick the snake-hater's flag was a lot like the English flag, only rotated so that the red cross hit the corners instead of the sides.

Perfect! Only there was already a saltire on the Union Flag, so this one  some pillock decided  would be chopped in half across each of its vertical axes and overlaid on top of the Scots saltire in a sort of haphazard manner reminiscent of a sad child trying to rearrange the shards of its mother's favourite vase.

England was first and foremost; Scotland was next; and Ireland was shoehorned in to look like it was a bad case of sunburn on one side of Scotland's sleeping face.

The overall effect was smashing! And most people were delighted. Because most people, in the Union, were (and are) English.

Look at our awesome flag! They would yell, probably, while drinking tea, or harvesting diamonds, or whipping Indians. It looked like St George's cross on acid. Or St George's cross going to war. Or St George's cross with level 35 magic armour. Or something...

But then actually Ireland suddenly had always hated being in the Union, it turned out, and actually wasn't invited so much as coerced. So then most of Ireland left, except for the bits that mainly contained Scots, or something.

It's very complicated, and I'm not actually writing this for the purpose of offending anyone, so let's just say it happened, and the Union was left with...

Northern Ireland

The problem with Northern Ireland is that it's not necessarily a country. Everyone knows that a country is a bunch of people all in the same place, all worshipping the same god  or at least pretending to, all eating the same food, listening to the same music, and being jolly well happy to see one another any time the burdens of capitalism necessitate that they have to leave the comfort and safety of their own homes.

Oh, and it helps if you have a flag.

Northern Ireland might not actually be a country  nobody really knows. And I'm not being wilfully provocative by saying this (only a third of them would be provoked anyway, because the rest are pretty sure it's either the UK, or Ireland); it's actually a fact, inasmuch as what makes something a country is other people's legal documents agreeing that it is one. Scotland's a country. England's a country.  Kosovo may or may not be a country (or may be a particularly naughty part of Serbia), depending on who you talk to. But nobody knows what Northern Ireland is.

And despite what people might have told you in the past about Northern Ireland's flag being represented in the Union Flag  it isn't. How could it be? Northern Ireland doesn't have a (country/province-specific) flag.

The bit of the Union Flag that one might presume to represent Northern Ireland ought, ironically, to only appeal to those Northern Irelanders in the Union that don't want to be in the Union, and want to be in the Republic. (Of Ireland.) Because the saltire of St Patrick represents all of Ireland, most of which has its own flag thank you very much. So the Union Flag  just to really hammer this point home  claims ownership of a country that left the Union, effectively destroying the Union as was, about a hundred years ago.

There is, however, another country that's part of the Union and is as yet not represented on the flag. It's a little country in the west. A little country where I spent most of my life. You might have heard of it...


I grew up labouring (well, more often idling) under the misapprehension that Wales wasn't a country. Not a proper country, anyway.

Otherwise it'd be in the flag, wouldn't it? Like Scotland. And Northern Ireland.

It was also convenient for me to believe Wales wasn't a country, because I grew up there as an English boy and was frequently reminded by my peers (the one's who didn't like me, usually) that I had not that special god-given birthright of Welshness. That I was not Welsh and did not belong to the land in which I lived.

Bollocks to that, I thought, but rarely said. Wales belongs to England. Everyone knows that. Look at the (UK) flag.

Mind you though, the Welsh had a story that there was once a big red Welsh dragon that beat a big(ish) white English dragon in a fight, and that red dragon now adorns their national flag. The white English dragon isn't on the English flag so I guess that's proof that it's dead.

While it may have been true for a long time that Wales wasn't a country (ever since Wessex and Mercia and all the rest of them were swallowed up into England, along with Wales), it definitely is now. So I apologize to anyone who I have previously misinformed about that. Ahem.

And Wales has its own flag. And that flag is nowhere to be seen on the Union Flag  nor are any of its elements.

It would be perfectly possible to transpose some green onto the bottom half of the union flag, or better yet stick a massive dragon in front of the various crosses on the Flag  just to tart it up a bit. But that doesn't seem to have happened. According to the Union flag, the Union still includes Ireland, and doesn't recognize Wales as a country.

Hell, they could even fit one of either version of the flag of St David onto the Union Flag if they wanted to keep it cross-centric. But no. None of it.

The Union

I suppose what this proves is that what really bothers me about the Union Flag is the "Union" bit.

I've always been interested in flags, and yet the more I've grown up and the more I've seen (and read) of the world, the more I've hated the notion of nations: the concept of countries. Especially all-powerful bullying dominant countries for whom the flag represents not union, not hope, not equality, not greatness; but subjugation, empire, and shame, shame, shame.

How can a Queen in London rule in New Zealand? What the hell's with that?

It's as nuts as Moscow telling Prague, or Talinn, or Samarkand what to do.

We hate seeing our own worst traits in others, and most English people are quick to condemn the cultural or political bullying of modern powers like the USA, China and Russia. But we're happy to fly the Union Flag. Indeed, our right wing politicals (who rarely bother to differentiate the UK and England from one another unless it's especially convenient for their current argument) tend to dislike the European Union because all the decisions get made far, far away in Brussels, which  last time I looked — is actually situated in the far West of Europe, a mere hop skip and a jump from London.

How do they think people in Inverness or Truro or Aberystwyth feel?

Estonia is often cited as a success story against the backdrop of failing economies that plague the less-mighty EU nations. It's one of those new Eastern European countries  "new" if you completely ignore it's pre-Soviet history, "Eastern" if you discount that most definitions of the geographical midpoint of Europe place it closer to the centre of the continent than England is.

Estonia  like a wounded hedgehog escaping the clumsy paws of an old bear — shook off the iron hand of Soviet rule in the early '90s and sought solace in a new pan-European family, whose centre was even further from its capital (Talinn) than Moscow was. They invented Skype (small wonder!) and they've never looked back East (except perhaps on stormy nights when they hear thunder).

If Scotland wants to follow in Estonia's footsteps, and Montenegro's footsteps, and South Sudan's footsteps, I say that's a good thing. If only because we can finally take down that damn flag and just stick and English one up in its place. Or a Welsh one. Or... well it depends where your flagpole is. I suppose the Northern Irish could keep the Union Flag if they liked.

What a lot of flag-wavers don't seem to understand is how justifiably offended a lot of people are by the Union Flag. I'm not comparing the United Kingdom with the USSR; though widdly now, it's been far more successful over the years  it's lasted much, much longer despite enforcing London's ideology and its monarchs' rule on perhaps even more people across the globe (in the past few hundred years) than Moscow ever managed with the Soviet Union.

And, as there were then millions under the boot of Britannia, there are peoples across the globe today who occupy places that are essentially as much a country as the next, but for the fact that they're not allowed to fly their flags on government buildings. There are even places like Abkhazia and Transnistria and Somaliland that are to all intents and purposes, flag-flying countries, but which have no UN recognition.

There are regions within established and recognized countries across the globe where if you fly a certain flag that identifies you of a supporter of a concept that could  just maybe  one day be a country, you could be imprisoned or worse.

These are the flags that interest me. These are the flags worth hoisting, worth thinking about, talking about, worrying about: worth loving.

What's ours? A relic. A mass-produced rag too ubiquitous to even be considered an antique. There's no bravery in it, no hope, no glory. There surely was in the past, for some, at certain times. Now it's nothing but proof of our collective ignorance and unwillingness to move out of the 19th century, and the 20th century, toward a brighter future.

I'm not saying the EU is the way forward. But it's a healthier concept than the UK ever was, even if it dies a younger death. It's a better idea: a collection of millions and millions of people with cultures diverse but interests (sometimes) common. Don't hate it because it's plagued by bureaucrats. We're all plagued by bureaucrats! Make it better. Fight for it. Try.

What's the UK for? What's the point in it? What does it achieve?

Keeps Anglo-Saxons dominant over Celts? What a thing to strive for. And it doesn't even manage that! Two of our last three Prime Ministers were Scots!

Those countries I mentioned earlier that aren't countries  or countries that used to be countries; or countries that may one day be countries  Wikipedia tends to call states with limited recognition. Some of them are tiny and, sadly, insignificant on a world scale. Some of them are huge areas of war-torn desert in Africa. Some are stretches of well-defended land in Eastern Europe or the Caucasus. Some of them are Israel, or Palestine. Two of them are China.

I call them antenational countries, because it seems to me they're in front of something big  usually wary neighbour or international body  but often poised, themselves, on the brink of some greater sufficiently significant recognition.

By my definitions, the UK  England, Scotland, Wales  Northern Ireland: we're all antenational. Because I don't know about you, but I never know what to write when I have to fill in a "nationality" form on a job application. I don't know if I'm British, English, Welsh, Polish, Lithuanian, Wessexishish...

But it's not my national identity that I'm concerned about when I see Union Flags fluttering about in the wind; it's bigger than that.

Nations, countries, are tiny, insignificant, pathetic things. Even Russia, in its way. We need to think bigger than that if we're ever going to make a better life for (yes, I am going to say this) our children.

Countries in the style of the UK inspire a jealous and arrogant brand of patriotism. It's jingoistic posturing built on nothing worth shouting about, and I never wanted any part of it. There's always lots to love about where you're from (even if you're from the Isle of Mann), but it should never be about trying to prove you're better than everyone else. Especially if you're not.

And I seriously believe that breaking up these failed countries we have is a good thing  the United Kingdom, the USSR, the USA  go a step further maybe: England (bring back Wessex! Wooh! Yeah!), Russia, Belgium, France, Iraq, China, Sudan (again). Do any of these big countries really work the way they were supposed to?

Does the EU?

Does the UN?

I don't have many answers. I'm more of a questions person. But this is the first thing I've been sure about in a while, and it's taken me a while to decide I am.

I don't think taking down the Union Flag means we can't all still be friends. I think it means we can start to be better friends.

At least let's stop sewing it onto cushions in the shape of a heart. (The BNP kind of own that now.)

Thanks for reading, if you got this far your reward is a Billy Bragg video and my proposed reworking of the Union Flag in the event of Scottish independence.

Equality is better for everyone.

Ask any feminist.



  1. We'll done Alexander. We'll written, and a lot of thought has gone in to your words. I liked the allegory and use of "antenational".
    I don't agree with much of it, though.
    It's ironical that many of the men of highland families harried and cut up after Culloden, were recruited to fight for the UK in the very regiments sent to subdue them. It's also an excellent example of Pax Britannica. Successful. The Black Watch was my Uncle's regiment.
    Culloden was mainly Scottish Lowlanders against the wild Highlanders. I'm glad we won. I have no romantic notions of what would have happened to Scotland after reverting to a feudal, impoverished nation under an incompetent, effete Prince Charles Edward Stuart. He wanted not simply the Scottish Crown. He wanted the whole lot and a R.C. hegemony all the way to Afghanistan.
    There would have been no Scottish Enlightenment. No ending of the slave trade. We would have been slaves ourselves.

    I was brought up to salute the Union Flag. It binds people together.
    Yes, the anomalies of N.Ireland and Wales need to be fixed soon.
    However one most important point:
    Independent Government for Scotland will not tear up the Flag, which was established by the Last King of Scotland. King James VI. 1603 Union of the Crowns.
    The parliaments will be separated, no doubt. But the two Nations will remain United and share the same Monarch.

  2. Thanks for your considered comment. I'm not sure I agree with the contents of this blog post anymore, to be quite honest. I wrote it five years ago. I'm certainly more ambivalent now, even if I have no emotional attachment to the flag (or indeed any flag). I tend to find whenever I have an opinion about something it can usually be confounded, if not completely overturned, by further research.