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.
Note also the word 'flown'. Not 'stand limply in a corner'.— Richard Harden (@rjmharden) March 23, 2021
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 the problem is letting rage overcome reason. Voters do not object to the flag. If you want to go after the Tories you make the argument about how they are letting down the flag they display, not the fact they are displaying it. Until people get this, they will keep losing— robert shrimsley (@robertshrimsley) March 19, 2021
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.
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