Flags – they can mean many things to many people. They can represent pride and instill patriotism in some, while also causing an affront to others – and these emotions can be felt by people living within the same country.
Recently, there was a controversy over the British flag – aka, the Union Flag (or Jack) – not being present on the vests that are to be worn by British athletes during the World Athletics Championships in Beijing. The redesigned vest features the national colors – red, white, and blue – as well as “GREAT BRITAIN” spelled out across it in red letters, but not the flag itself, which had been prominently displayed on the uniform used for the last world championships in 2013 in Moscow.
Not since 1997 has a British athletics competition vest failed to include the flag. For Olympic long jumper Greg Rutherford, it was “wrong and ridiculous” to have the flag omitted, and he took his complaint to Twitter, where he tweeted a photo of the new athletics kit.
Rutherford, known to be popular and forthright amongst members of the athletics squad, further stated that he was “proud to be British”, and lambasted the new kit – calling it “terrible” and no longer British. He also claimed that there was not one athlete he had spoken to who had wanted the change, and that everyone wanted the Union Flag on the vest. Among his Twitter followers who agreed with this was British steeplechaser Eilish McColgan, who remarked that the vest looked “really odd” without the flag and – as with Rutherford – accused UK Athletics of representing itself, rather than Britain.
UK Athletics is the governing body of the sport of athletics in the United Kingdom, and its CEO Nick de Vos stated that the objective of the new kit was not to eradicate the Union Flag (which is still displayed on the shorts and socks) but to promote the brand of Team GB and British Athletics leading up to the World Championships being hosted by London in 2017, and that by having “Great Britain” spelled out across the vest, they were actually taking a cue from the success of Team GB at the 2012 London Olympics. In this sense, it was more about the team than the flag.
This view taken by the governing body is not entirely off the mark. While having the flag on uniforms is preferable in athletic competitions, it is not necessary – especially if the name of the country and its colors are present as part of the scheme. For my part as an American, I do not look for Old Glory on the uniform of athletes, and with regard to the last summer Olympics, I paid much more attention to the performance of the squads representing Team USA, whose uniforms typically displayed small US flags (probably not much larger than 2" x 3"). The substantial prominence of the flag came from the USA fans and its appearance during victory laps and medal ceremonies.
So flags can become overrated in the overall scheme of certain things and in certain contexts, and if the statement by UK Athletics had been the last word of the controversy, this post would have stopped here.
But Jonathan Jones decided to take it to another level when he wrote in The Guardian that he had “sympathy” for the kit designers, who he claimed had created an “elegant” vest with the national colors, while dispensing with “that jagged, explosive, aggressive flag.”
Jones, an art columnist for the newspaper, insisted that his criticism was not about “imperial arrogance” or a “coercive union that keeps Scotland in its place”, but instead had to do with how the flag looked, and he opined that the flag was “cluttered” with sharp-angled lines which implied fragmentation as opposed to unity, as well as being “heavy and overbearing, forceful and strident.”
Furthermore, Jones asserted that while the flag had meaning when Britannia ruled the waves – and in particular, when fighting in battles such as Waterloo and Trafalgar – it was “crap” today, and that its “sheer pompous ugliness unconsciously damages the image of the union” in a way that gives a “psychological boost” to the separatists who wish to break up Britain.
For this reason, he suggested that a new flag should be designed to save the United Kingdom and make the British people proud to be British and love their country again.
However, I find that the commentary by Jones – while a bit refreshing for coming from an artistic point of view – was off the mark and at odds with the Union Flag which I and millions of people around the world have come to know.
The Union Flag is – quite simply – one of the most beautiful flags in the world, and that beauty is in part derived from the fact that it is, as Jones writes, “a compromise, a merging of different national symbols.” It brings together a vibrant blue field and a white diagonal cross – the Saltire of St. Andrew representing Scotland, with the red Saltire of St. Patrick for Northern Ireland, and the red Cross of St. George representing England, to forge one flag for one country – the United Kingdom.
It is therefore a flag of unity, and James VI of Scotland knew exactly what he was doing in the early 1600’s when he moved to have the flags of Scotland and England merged when he ascended to the English throne as James I, and therefore became the first man to rule all Britain. The royal union eventually led to the political, economic, and cultural union which has thus far endured for over 300 years, and the flag has become a symbol of the nations of Britain joining together as a single country.
This is in similar fashion to the United States, where the stripes represent the original thirteen British colonies which became independent states and came together as one, while the fifty stars represent the fifty states of our current Union – all in the spirit of E Pluribus Unum.
Indeed, the idea of several diverse areas melding together is especially true of Britain, where various tribes eventually merged into larger and expanding kingdoms, and resulted in the country that we know today. Those three crosses come together as an expression of that unity, as well the possibilities that can arise from that unity of peoples from so many cultures and backgrounds.
It must be made very clear that the Union Flag is not the flag of any one part of the UK, nor is it the flag of any one ethnic group, nor is it the flag of any one religious group, or of any one racial group, nor is it the flag of any one political party, group, or philosophy. It is most definitely not the flag of “Westminster”, and neither is it a factional or sectarian flag.
It is the flag of the United Kingdom and thus the flag of all Britons, from Inverness to Southampton, Belfast to Dover, Berwick to Cardiff, Anglesey to Glasgow, Land’s End to Shetland, and everywhere else in between. This includes people who can trace their families to the Normans, Vikings, Anglo-Saxons, Romans, and the various Celtic tribes (all of which are quite interrelated, anyway), as well as the people who are Britons of the first generation in our time. As such, it is a flag of “relentless dynamism” – a term used by Jones – as the country has changed time and time again while also preserving elements of continuity.
It is not “owned” by anybody, just as the Saltire in Scotland is not the flag of the Scottish nationalists, for it is the flag of all of Scotland, including those who believe that Scotland should continue to be part of the United Kingdom, and who look to the Union Flag as the one that they share with the people of the rest of the Britain.
Some may disagree with me on this point, but quite simply, it is my belief that the Union Flag serves the purpose as the national flag of the United Kingdom, just as the Stars and Stripes does as the national flag of the United States – full stop, and it is doubtful that the nationalists will start looking more favorably at the Union with an entirely redesigned flag.
The one modification I would perhaps make would be to find a way to include Wales, which had already been annexed into England at the time of the unions with Scotland and Ireland, so that it is effectively represented by St. George's Cross. It is not – at least from what I can see – a terribly important issue, but it would be nice to have St. David’s Cross or the Red Dragon incorporated into the design, so that Wales can be represented as an integral part of the Union, as it always has been. My own personal preference would be to have the Red Dragon in the middle to preserve the overall red, white, and blue color scheme of the flag (since St. David's cross is yellow).
After all, the Union Flag has long been established and cemented as an easily and hugely recognized symbol of the United Kingdom across the globe. It is powerfully iconic in its representation of Brand Britain everywhere, whether it is featured on clothes, food packaging, automobiles, ships, airplanes, various forms of media, mobile device cases, pillows and bed sheets, wallpaper, Christmas ornaments, stuffed animals, desktop backgrounds, posters, logos and insignia's for various organizations, and several other things which people use or come into contact with everyday.
The flag is flown in admiration for Britain and to denote places, people, and things that are British, such as the Scottish pub in my hometown of Savannah which flies it, along with the Saltire and the Red Lion Rampant (the Royal Standard of Scotland) on its premises, as well as another pub which flies the crosses of St. Andrew and St. George, the Red Dragon, the Union Jack, and the Stars and Stripes. When one sees the Union Flag around the world, he or she knows what it is, and no questions need be asked.
From this point of view, the true measure of the global influence of a Union Flag is not such much about how many other countries copy its design when in the process of designing their own, but about how many people admire it and choose to use it in admiration of and respect for the United Kingdom.
When I see the Union Flag, I do see the Saltire of St. Andrew, St. Patrick’s Cross, and St. George’s Cross, and through them, I see the countries of the UK and their contributions to Britain’s history, its achievements, themes, values, issues, tensions, paradoxes, and contradictions, as well as the triumphs and tragedies, good and bad, joys and sorrows, and times of unity and division, as well as its future – all wrapped up into one flag to represent the United Kingdom as a whole in its beautifully complex tapestry.
Indeed, the Union Flag should not be in competition with the Saltire or the other Home Nation flags and it would be preferable if it could fly alongside them where applicable (i.e., it and the Saltire side-by-side at public buildings in Scotland). Except for Wales, it is composed of flags representing the Home Nations, and as such, it complements them and denotes their rightful place in the overall context of the Union.
This is why I see unity instead of division in a flag of “relentless dynamism” which befits the robust, outward-looking, and tolerant country that Britain is and should always aspire to be, as well the hope that Britain can sort out its issues – constitutional and otherwise – as one.