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The Union Jack is not the flag of our forefathers

In the independence debate, the ‘NO’ campaign is made up of a motley crew.  It spans the whole political spectrum from the BNP to the Communist Party of Great Britain.

Now it has been joined by the Union Jackers. Inspired by the example of their cousins in Ulster, these Scots wave the Union Jack as a symbol of their loyalty to all things British. They reject the ‘Better Together’ lot as uselessly ineffectual and wishy-washy whilst stirring up echoes of the old cries of ‘Home Rule Means Rome Rule.’ They are the Ultras of the ‘No’ campaign.

But is the Union Jack really a fitting flag for Scots to wave?

First of all, let’s confirm it’s okay to use the term Union Jack. Experts say that ’Union Jack’ and ‘Union Flag’ have been used interchangeably since the 17th century. There’s no need to restrict the former term to a flag flying on a ship.  Unless you’re a vexillological pedant, of course. (Vexillology means the study of flags. I looked it up specially.)

The first Union Jack appeared after the Union of Crowns in 1603. It was James VI’s idea to have a flag which showed he was now king of two countries. Or perhaps I should have said James I’s idea since there is no doubt which country he supposed to be the more important. The first Union Jack simply superimposed the St George’s Cross on top of the Saint Andrew’s Cross.

Of course, Scotland after 1603 remained a separate, sovereign country, formally at least. Some vestigial signs of independence showed in the Scots’ preference for a Union Flag which superimposed the St Andrew’s Cross on top of the St George’s Cross.  Maybe Unionists will offer a return of this version of the Union Flag as part of some future devo-max proposal?

The Union of 1707 then imposed its own version control. Scotland had been incorporated into the English Empire. The final, undisputed Union Flag showed that – the English flag in the superior position.

The blue of the Saint Andrew’s flag was also darkened. This might have been due to issues about dyestuffs but a simpler explanation is that a darker blue sets off better the white and red of the St George’s Cross. After 1707, Scotland was shaped to serve English interests. The same fate befell her flag.

When Ireland was formally incorporated into the UK in 1801, the so-called St Patrick’s Cross was added. There is nothing faintly Irish about this cross. Such a symbol has no roots in Ireland. At best, it may have been the badge of some obscure London Irish club. Very conveniently, a red cross was exactly what was needed for the available space on the existing Union Flag.

The St Patrick’s Cross was added in such a way to show that the St Andrew’s Cross was senior to it. (Thanks to this, vexillogical pedants can tell if the Union Jack is being flown the right way up.) Scots might have been a junior partner in the new UK but at least we had the consolation of being vexillogically superior to the Irish.

And what about the Welsh, you might ask. Unfortunately for them, since Edward Longshanks forcibly incorporated Wales into England in the 1280s, they formally disappeared from the map and so have never had a place on any emerging Union Flag. Even the staunchest Unionist must feel some embarrassment that one of the supposed four ‘Home Nations’ doesn’t figure at all on the Union Flag! Surely they could have put a Welsh dragon in a corner somewhere?

So what will happen if Scotland becomes independent? Well, Scotland has sorted out the Saltire. Since 2003, the shade of blue has been officially agreed:  Pantone 300 for the vexillologists, sky blue for the rest of us.

And the Union Jack after independence? When the Irish Republic came into being in 1922, the so-called St Partick’s Cross remained in the UK’s flag even though it has no link with Ulster and I doubt the majority there want any association with Saint Patrick. But the Irish Republic didn’t want it, thank you very much, so this English invention stayed where it was. 

Something similar will probably happen after Scottish independence. Scots will be able to focus on their own flag. That navy blue in the Union Jack has nothing do to do with Scotland and if the English want to keep the whole design as a reminder of their imperial past, well, let them do so. There are Union Jacks incorporated into the flags of all sorts of countries which were once part of the English Empire.   

For the time being though, we should recognise the Union Jack for what it is:  a flag carefully constructed to reflect the hierarchy of the UK – a state wholly dominated and shaped by England. 

Those Scottish Unionists who have such a desperate allegiance to it are perhaps, in the words of the poet, not so much waving, as drowning.

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