Union Jacks being placed indoors in politicians’ offices is a constitutional distress signal

23rd March 2021


“They’re selling hippy wigs in Woolworths.”

– overheard in Camden Town, 1969


In thirty-five years of reading and writing about the constitutional history of the United Kingdom I have never given a second thought to the Union Jack (or Union Flag).

To the extent I thought about flags at all, I just had a vague notion that they were things which people in other countries had – like the fact they put their country names on postage stamps while the Royal Mail does not.

It was not so much that I felt strongly against a flag – I just did not really think about it at all.

And now it seems to be the most potent political issue of our age.

It is all very strange.


Let us start with the law providing that the Union Jack is our national flag.

There is no law providing the Union Jack is our national flag.

Indeed, it seems there was doubt that the Union Jack was our national flag until the early twentieth century.

Here is a revealing exchange between three earls in the house of lords in 1908:

From that exchange we can infer that in the Victorian period the Union Jack was not regarded widely as the national flag – else there would be no need for such a debate and clarification in 1908.

So it may not even be Victorian nostalgia – but something of which has only been a big thing for a hundred years or so.

Another ‘invention of tradition’ as some historians would say.


There are two things, however, which one must know about the Union Jack.

The first is that some people will have Very Strong Opinions on whether it is called a Union Jack or a Union Flag – though those three earls of the realm were quite at ease calling it a jack.

The second is that the same people are also likely to have Very Strong Opinions on which way up the flag should be flown.

This blog does not have such strong opinions.

But the one thing which seems to be overlooked in the current heated political controversy about flags is that, well, they are supposed to be flown outside – on land or at sea.

That is the point of a flag, if you think about it.


To have political arguments about flags in indoor rooms seems, on this basis, to be rather weird.

It is like having a row about closed umbrellas.

Our ancestors did not give us much guidance about the Union Jacks being indoors as political props, as it may not have occurred to them that a flag would ever be used for such a purpose.


That said, there is some trace of flags in our legislation.

In schedule 1 of the grandly titled Town and Country Planning (Control of Advertisements) (England) Regulations 2007, there is this provision for things that do not need consent:

But nothing about flags inside.


This lack of any formal recognition of a national flag is not surprising in those often casual arrangement that we describe as the constitution of the United Kingdom.

A thing can be – and presumably cease to be – a national flag without any legislative intervention.

A thing can become official in an unofficial way.

Whether this relaxed approach will continue in this age of hyper-partisanship and performative nationalism is unlikely.

One can quite imagine a new act of parliament ‘enshrining’ the Union Jack as our national flag, with ‘tough new offences’ to ‘crack down’ on disrespect.

One wonders how we managed so far.


The timing of this phenomenon is telling.

By reason of Brexit, there is a non-trivial likelihood that there will be Irish unification and maybe also Scottish independence in the next few years.

So there is a real risk that two of the crosses on the Union Jack will soon not be there if the flag were ever to be adjusted for accuracy.

(Though one can quite imagine England carrying on with the Union Jack even with the loss of Northern Ireland and Scotland – like those pop bands that still tour with just one original member.)

And although it is easy to mock this flag-showery, it is not without political purchase, as my wise Financial Times colleague Robert Shrimsley avers:

But taking this sensible warning seriously, there still seems symbolism in this, well, symbolism.

Lore tells us that a Union Jack flown upside down was a sign of distress.

It is almost as if the current prevalence of indoor Union Jacks – upside down or otherwise – is itself a distress signal – and one for the future of the Union.

Brace, brace.


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37 thoughts on “Union Jacks being placed indoors in politicians’ offices is a constitutional distress signal”

  1. Putting a flag in the office, well, it’s foreign, innit? You don’t see the Queen with flags indoors, do you? Now, your European, your Yank, puts them up everywhere. It ain’t right is wot I say….

  2. For some reason I can’t get this passage from Pratchett’s novel ‘Nightwatch’ out of my mind…

    ‘Yes, Clive?’
    ‘Have you ever sung the national anthem?’
    ‘Oh, lots of times, sir.’
    ‘I don’t mean officially.’
    ‘You mean just to show I’m patriotic? Good gods, no. That would be a rather odd thing to do,’ said the captain.
    ‘And how about the flag?’
    ‘Well, obviously I salute it every day, sir.’
    ‘But you don’t wave it, at all?’ the major enquired.
    ‘I think I waved a paper one a few times when I was a little boy. Patrician’s birthday or something. We stood in the streets as he rode by and we shouted “Hurrah!”’
    ‘Never since then?’
    ‘Well, NO, Clive,’ said the captain, looking embarrassed. ‘I’d be very worried if I saw a man singing the national anthem and waving the flag, sir. It’s really a thing foreigners do.’
    ‘Really? Why?’
    ‘WE don’t need to show WE’RE patriotic, sir. I mean, this is Ankh-Morpork. We don’t have to make a big fuss about being the best, sir. We just KNOW.’”

    1. I had the same thought.
      Then I wondered if it might present an answer to our beleaguered commentators: when they are faced by a minister with an undersized flag they can invite him to make up for it by joining them in a chorus of the national anthem…

  3. My understanding is that the Union Flag should only be called the Union Jack when it is flow from the Jackstaff of one of HM Ships.

    There is a very helpful document entitled Flying Flags in the United Kingdom which is published by the Flags & Heraldry Committee of the UK Parliament. My copy is dated Mar 2010.

      1. The Flags and Heraldry All-Party Parliamentary Group exists to promote the flying of the Union Flag and flags associated with the UK, British territories, dependencies, the Commonwealth, heraldry, British symbols and related issues.

        It’s membership is very broad and liberal in outlook:

        Andrew Rosindell, Conservative (Chair)
        Lord West of Spithead, Labour (Co Chair)

        Conservative Vice Chairs:

        Tom Randall, Mr (sic) Philip Hollobone, Sir Peter Bottomley and Alexander Stafford.

        Democratic Unionist Party Vice Chair:

        Ian Paisley.

        Scottish National Party Vice Chair:

        Angus Brendan MacNeil.


        Henry Smith, Conservative.

        I think one may regard them as an advisory group on these matters rather than an authority on them.

        I do not imagine, for example, that the The College of Arms is much troubled by their deliberations.

      2. I don’t know which is funnier; your sarcastic comment, or his failure to recognise it as such, leading him to helpfully provide you with a link so that you may explore deeper into this ‘fascinating’ subject matter…

  4. Voters may not object to the flag, but I suspect that many will feel that a politician that just happens to have a full sized Union Jack, propped up in his or her spare room at home, when dialling into a breakfast tv interview is more than a bit of a prat.

    A point that I think eludes many of the Commentariat, especially those who in the last five years who have developed, they believe, a deep understanding of the thoughts and feelings of us proles and plebs.

    I am confident I could walk around the road, set light to a Union Jack and then pee on it to put the fire out with hardly anyone batting an eyelid.

    Round the road is a very white working class area wherein, not so long ago, the BNP, ukip, two shades of NF, the Conservatives, Labour, the Liberal Democrats and, I think, the Greens all contested a Council seat at the same election.

    I think these culture wars are just not for people like us. We are too phlegmatic.

    Most people, unknowingly quite often, enjoy at many times in their lives land conserved by the National Trust for the nation.

    Relatively few, disproportionately drawn from the middle and upper class, visit more than one National Trust property every year.

    The culture war over the National Trust’s report on its estate’s links with colonialism and slavery was always going to be a rather exclusive affair.

  5. Ah, flags and ensigns, fascinating stuff, as an ex soldier i can fly a defaced blue ensign on my boat. For this i need a warrant.
    £20 for five years from a defined authority. When flown a uniformed RN commissioned officer can demand to see my warrant, penalties for abuse are no doubt harsh.
    There are also rules for flying White ensigns and defaced red ensigns.
    I don’t know where these rules come from or whether they are enshrined in law.

  6. Suggestions on today’s use of Union Jack as marketing signal:-
    “buy from me because I’m a truly historic British company and I’m part of your heritage” (Co-Op)
    “buy from me, my owners are German and EU members BUT ignore that … I’ve adopted you and really feel JUST AS BRITISH as you are” (Aldi)

    The crassness of the messaging annoys me every time I see it.

  7. Interesting post.
    One initial point: You say “There is no law providing the Union Jack is our national flag”.
    See https://www.thegazette.co.uk/Edinburgh/issue/785
    – which contains both the specification of, among other things, the Union Flag; and gives the authority for that specification in the twin Acts of Union – Which (as any Scots or Irish person would understand) constituted the state.

  8. Flags are an overly potent symbol in Northern Ireland and it hardly needs stating how divisive they remain.

    Flags in NI have been, & still are used to mark out sectarian & territorial divisions between communities to the extent of planting flagstaffs at the entrances to housing estates as a warning to “others”.

    How do the government ministers think their flag waving, faux patriotic fervour plays out or do they even think?

      1. That legislation was based on adopting the current practice in GB at the time it was drafted.

        But now that government buildings in GB are going to have the Union Flag flying 365 days a year, it’s going to reopen the can of worms in NI, regardless of whether the government intends to open the can.

        If the new rules are extended to NI, nationalists will kick off; if NI is exempted (as seems to be the government’s intention), then unionists will be outraged that they aren’t being treated as “as British as Finchley”.

        But as recent Brexit shenanigans have shown, Boris Johnson’s Tory Party don’t give a damn about maintaining the delicate balance and peace in Northern Ireland.

  9. I’m afraid I don’t find the use or more accurately abuse of the flag by the current government in any way funny or amusing. The displays are clearly directed by the Prime Minister and his office, to wrap every appearance and statement by the goverment in a sham garb of patriotism, meaning that any criticism of the government is thereby rendered unpatriotic. The Prime Minister is making the Conservative Party indistinguishable from the National Front, and that is no laughing matter.

  10. We never used to fly EU flags in this country, not even the most pro-EU of us. It only started when pro-EU people realised, too late, that they were about to lose something they valued. And now unionist politicians are doing something similar.

    One of the effects of all the EU flag-waving was to harden opinions among those who’d voted to leave. And perhaps English politicians starting to look like Northern Ireland Loyalists will have a similar effect on those who think that, on balance, they prefer to leave.

  11. I feel some of us have been stuck in a permeant Braced position faced with Johnson’s Government and since the Brexit Referendum.
    So I’m now upping my “Brace..” level after your wise words and Pop band analogy. l am now waiting for Gerri Hailiwell (in that dress!) to be Enshrined in Law (somehow) with the way the UK Government is dabbling and indulging in Flaggery antics.

  12. What disturbs me is the way that the flags are folded so as to emphasise the Red Cross of St George and shrinking the other elements of the flag……England is great and sod the Union is the message that is received.

  13. Interesting (if that’s not stretching things) that class H doesn’t explicitly mention the Union Flag as in ‘The Union Flag and any country’s natioonal flag’. Whilst the addition might not alter the meaning its absence suggests it wasn’t at the front of anyone’s mind, at least in 2007.

  14. I have, in recent weeks, tweeted the following or similar;
    “Flags are designed to flutter in the breeze at the top of a 20’ pole, to feel the wind on their folds, not to be stuck on a stumpy little stick gathering dust.l

  15. Fascinating post David, and interesting comments too. The current flag-nonsense is very disturbing.

    It does not need to be so. A flag can be the right thing, if all those around agree. I used to be based in Denmark, and the Danish flag is everywhere – because the Danes are fond of it, they like their country and they are relaxed in their skin. The Danish government would never dream of using it just to show how good they are.

    Of course it is much older than the Union flag. The Dannebrog came down from heaven some time in the 13th century, to support the Danish army in the field – Wikipedia has an excellent article, https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Flag_of_Denmark

  16. Flying any flag upside down is interpreted as a sign of distress. This is more by way of accepted practice than “law” as such, but mariners are required to render assistance to those in distress. It much more obvious for one with asymmetric element, such as the US flag. For flags that look the same when inverted – such as the French tricolour, or, let me say it quietly, the Union Jack – an accepted alternative is to tie a knot in it.

    John has mentioned the 1801 Order in Council which specified the format for the Union flag. If you believe Google Ngrams, the term “Union Jack” has been the more popular way to describe the Union flag since the 1840s. The pedants demanding “Union flag” lost that argument over 150 years ago. https://tinyurl.com/a48865a9

    There is some discussion in Hansard in 1893 of section 8 and 9 of the Licensing (Ireland) Act 1836 (6 & 7 William IV, c.38) which prohibited public houses from displaying any “arms, flags, colours, symbols, decorations, or emblems whatsoever”, and complaints when that Act was used to remove Union flags in Londonderry. https://hansard.parliament.uk/Commons/1893-05-08/debates/3967fe9f-6970-4294-90cf-1932c1ba3b57/TheUnionJackInIreland

    It seems the Houses of Parliament have flown the Union Jack when in session from about that time, thanks to the impassioned imperialist Lord Meath again: https://hansard.parliament.uk/Lords/1893-07-25/debates/e5140c32-db45-4f0a-b6a7-0c354b05a696/TheNationalFlagOnTheHousesOfParliament

    1. Is a Proclamation necessarily an Order in Council? TBH that’s probably quite a way into the plumbing. But having looked at that Gazette again, it strikes me the more interesting item is the first-reported – is the new PC merely a re-badging of the body created by statute in 1708?

      1. Necessarily? Perhaps not, but I’ve seen other sources describe it as such. About half way down the second column we have “… we have thought fit, by and with the advice of our Privy Council to appoint and declare that …”

        There is another proclamation on the next page which uses a similar format, under which the King “by and with the advice of our Privy Council” commands a “Public Fast and Humiliation” in Scotland on 12 February 1801. I wonder when the last such event took place. Victoria commanded a “Public Fast and Humiliation” across England and Ireland in 1847, for example. eg https://books.google.co.uk/books?id=Jit35_wboB0C&pg=PA1

        1. I have a vague memory that the text of a Proclamation is approved by OiC, and its issuance by a separate OiC; but the public-facing sign-off of regular OiCs seems completely different from the sign-off for Proclamations.
          While the equivalent London Gazette https://www.thegazette.co.uk/London/issue/15325 has multiple Proclamations incl. Flags etc; Public Fast in England and Ireland; a repeat of Fast in Scotland: and flags in merchant ships ( including diagram of Red Duster)[all also repeated in 15327] I can see nothing about the new Privy Council itself – which seems somewhat odd.

          1. I defer to your knowledge of the niceties of Gazette announcements in the early 19th century.

            The London Gazette announcement of the flag, etc. proclamation on page 23 of issue 15325 also contains the “by and with the advice of our Privy Council” language. (Nice ha’penny stamp on the front page, by the way.)

            For some reason, the Public Fast and Humiliation in Scotland was on Thursday 12th February, but the one in England (which I assume includes Wales) and Ireland was the next day, Friday 13th.

            The Proclamation about the Red Ensign on page 26 of the that issue of the London Gazette (nice diagram – you don’t see illustrations in the London Gazette very often) also mentions the “Our Jack, commonly called the Union Jack”, telling subjects not to display it on ships without particular warrant.

            This historical investigation is diverting, but I fear we may be trespassing on the goodwill of our host.

  17. “To the extent I thought about flags at all, I just had a vague notion that they were things which people in other countries had – like the fact they put their country names on postage stamps while the Royal Mail does not.”

    We were first in the field with postage stamps, hence no need for a country name. US URLs don’t have one for the same reason.

  18. “And yet to the people of only two generations ago this would not have seemed all-important, because they were not attempting to alter history … They were not loyal to a party or a country or an idea, they were loyal to one another.”

    — George Orwell, 1984.

  19. Please, please please say that they’ve forgotten to repeal the bit about flying the EU flag…

  20. For tangental amusement.

    Readers may be aware that the English cross of St George flag, and part of the Union flag, was borrowed from the republic of Genoa in the late 12th century. At the time, Genoa was a major trading hub, and powerful maritime force across the Mediterranean and Black Sea region. Pirates routinely attacked English vessels on passage in the area, and an arrangement was reached between the Richard I and the families of Genoa to rent the flag, so that English vessels appeared to represent the powerful Genoese navy. Fearful of retribution, the pirates kept away from these vessels.

    In subsequent decades the Genoese republic lost influence, and the English crown ceased paying rent, though the flag remained. It wasn’t until the early 17th century that the flag was altered to reflect the new Union.
    Genoa has occasionally asked the UK crown for rental arrears, mostly with half-heartedly, or in humorous style.

    For what it is worth, St George himself was born in Turkey, of Greek parents.

    Many of those flying the cross of St George are unaware of this history, which might conflict with other views they hold.

  21. I recall reading a book about the English. It contained some insights that I found illuminating being written by someone who was not herself English.

    At the end of the book she managed to whittle down the essence of Englishness to one phrase – ‘don’t take yourself too seriously’. Being English myself I identified with this. It encapsulated my view of the World and the earnestness / sensitivity of a number of other nations.

    The use of the flag by UK politicians is usually viewed as something that is vaguely un-English / un-British. The fact that it is being done by the current Government may fall within this description however that they think it works also tells me that there has been a change in society. A shift in the ground. Perhaps a feeling of insecurity is seeping through what was a unified and relatively confident society?

  22. You could not make it up: “Government buildings to fly Union flag every day” https://www.bbc.co.uk/news/uk-politics-56514501

    Oliver Dowden described the flag as “a proud reminder of our history and the ties that bind us”. He might seen it as a symbol of unity, but many in Scotland and Wales and particularly in Northern Ireland (and indeed elsewhere) might beg to disagree. For some, the Butcher’s Apron is a proud reminder of the British promotion of the slave trade in the 17th and 18th centuries, of the Irish and Bengal Famines, of concentration camps in South Africa, and torture and mutilation in Kenya. Hooray.

    Supported by the delightful Sir John Hayes, sworn enemy of “cultural Marxist dogma, colloquially known as the woke agenda”.

  23. What gobsmacked me was “An advertisement within paragraph (d) of this Class may be displayed only in the county with which the saint is associated.”
    Saints? Counties? Where does this stop?

  24. “Though one can quite imagine England carrying on with the Union Jack even with the loss of Northern Ireland and Scotland – like those pop bands that still tour with just one original member.”

    In that scenario, how insulting would it be to the Welsh to maintain the Union Flag in its current form?

    It’s bad enough now that the Welsh get no representation in the flag; if Scotland and Ireland were to retain pride of place in the flag after both nations have left the union, whilst Wales remains unrepresented… well, I can’t think of a better way to provoke the Welsh into considering their own independence?

    So I don’t think maintaining the Union flag in that scenario would be sustainable.

    I suspect the recent outbreak of over-the-top flaggery from our political class is a defence mechanism, because they recognise the imminent prospect of the Union Flag becoming a historical relic.

    (Anyway, what’s on Earth’s wrong with this country – the UK – that, given the opportunity of having a dragon on our national flag, we’ve opted not to do so? An actual dragon!? Dragons are cool!!)

  25. To paraphrase some wise words from the late John Hume: real politics is about living standards, and social and economic development. It is not about waving flags at each other. You can’t eat a flag.

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