Friday 6 July 2007

Brown is Right to Fly the Union Flag

Very rarely an action will be taken which places a conservative traditionalist in something of a quandary. As a conservative such a person is instinctively opposed to all attempts to alter a nation's traditions and customs. However, to the traditionalist's great chagrin, once in a while a reform will be announced which actually strikes him as sound. Such an event occurred this week.

Gordon Brown, Britain's new Prime Minister, has announced his desire to see the Union Flag flown from public buildings far more frequently than on the current eighteen "Flag Days". Traditionally, by Her Majesty's Command, days for flying flags from Government buildings (from 8am to sunset) were as follows:

20 January Birthday of the Countess of Wessex
6 February Her Majesty's Accession
19 February Birthday of the Duke of York
1 March St David’s Day (in Wales only)
10 March Birthday of The Earl of Wessex
12 March Commonwealth Day (second Monday in March)
17 March St. Patrick's Day (in Northern Ireland only)
21 April Birthday of Her Majesty The Queen
23 April St George’s Day (in England only)
9 May Europe Day
2 June Coronation Day
10 June Birthday of The Duke of Edinburgh
16 June Official Celebration of Her Majesty’s Birthday
17 July Birthday of The Duchess of Cornwall
15 August Birthday of The Princess Royal
11 November Remembrance Day (second Sunday)
14 November Birthday of The Prince of Wales
20 November Her Majesty’s Wedding Day
30 November St Andrew’s Day (in Scotland only)

Her Majesty had also commanded that the flag be flown on the day that She opens a Session of the Houses of Parliament and also on the day that She prorogues a Session of the Houses of Parliament.

In keeping with his policy of promoting "Britishness", Gordon Brown has now seen fit to advise Her Majesty that the flag should be flown with greater frequency. Ironically, for the last ten years, the Union Flag has flown above Buckingham Palace every day that The Queen has not been in residence.

The Prime Minister's recommendation strikes the Young Fogey as very sensible. Whilst in this era of the West Lothian question it conveniently serves Gordon Brown (a Scot representing a Scottish constituency) to be seen as unashamedly pro-British, one must also assume that his desire to strengthen the Union and combat anti-British extremists is sincere.

Although the Union Flag was seen a great deal during the jingoistic days of Empire, Britain's relationship with its flag has been very different from that of countries such as the United States of America. Whereas the flag of the United States is recognised in law and is regarded as the very embodiment of the nation and its ideals (with repeated attempts made in Congress to criminialise the act of flag "desecration"), no law has ever accorded the Union Flag official status as the flag of the United Kingdom. Whilst the Union Flag is recognised as official, Parliament has never passed legislation establishing it as such. American school children may swear daily allegiance to the flag, but in Britain (and traditionally in Canada, Australia and New Zealand) it is the Crown that is the embodiment of the state and it is to the Crown that one swears an oath of fealty.

This distinction is no where more apparent than during the annual Trooping the Colour ceremony in London. In the presence of the Sovereign the regimental colours and the Union Flag are lowered so that they touch, and indeed sweep along, the ground. Similarly, the construction, during a Drum Head Service, of a "drum altar", (a make-shift altar often used in combat situations when there is no access to a suitable alternative) requires the Union Flag to be draped over drums, often touching the ground (as pictured here). In many countries permitting the national flag to touch the floor is considered unthinkable, yet in countries of British heritage the flag is not accorded such reverence.

Times change. In the past few decades we have seen British-born states such as Canada, Australia and New Zealand regard their flags as increasingly important symbols; it is a sign of the increased influence of American culture that, in a hierarchy of importance, many of the citizens of these countries would most likely rank their flag above their Sovereign. I frequently hear Canadian patriots ("patriots" of whom many are perhaps unaware that The Queen is their Sovereign) complain that too few of their fellow citizens fly the Maple Leaf flag; the reality is that they unfairly compare their nation's flag-flying habits with those of the United States.

In truth Canadians fly their national flag with far greater frequency than the citizens of Britain or probably any European state. I once stood in front of the Houses of Parliament in Ottawa (on Parliament Hill) and counted twenty-four Maple Leaf flags flying nearby. I did this a few weeks later in Parliament Square in London and I only counted three flags. Indeed, the Union Flag only flies from the Houses of Parliament when Parliament is sitting.

On Dominion Day (more commonly known as "Canada Day") one will see the Maple Leaf flag plastered on the side of every major building and painted on cheeks and bare arms. The Royal Arms of Canada that appear on a prominent building in Vancouver are covered up to make way for a large Maple Leaf flag, the fact that the Arms are equally (if not MORE) Canadian clearly escaping the flag drapers. Similar scenes no doubt occur in Australia and New Zealand on their national holidays.

Yet the growing flag-worship which we have seen take hold in the former dominions has not taken root in Britain. More correctly, Union Flag worship has not taken root in Britain (on the contrary, it is less prevalent today than it was in the 1980s). However, partly as a result of devolution (and the resulting English resentment), we have witnessed a dramatic increase in the use by private individuals of the flags of England, Wales and Scotland. This is perhaps most marked on the playing fields. Where once the Union Jack greeted English teams, the St. George’s Cross now flutters.

The Union currently faces more threats than at any time in its three hundred year history. Devolution, the European Union and the internal cancers of a segmented and ghettoized-society are fraying the cords that bind the country together. Flying the flag will not solve these problems. However flags are symbols and the act of flying the flag symbolises one's belief in the Union, its values and its institutions.

There are few more obvious signs of patriotism than the simple act of flying a flag. I am reminded of the words of G.K. Chesterton: "For we are the people of England; and we have not spoken yet." He spoke of England but I think of Britain. If the great British silent majority woke up to the threat now facing the country and clearly and unashamedly asserted their pride in Britain, which could start with the simple gesture of flying the flag, it would be the first step on a long journey of revitalisation.

At this particular time of crisis I applaud the Prime Minister for flying the Union Flag from No. 10 Downing Street. May we all follow his example.


Jane said...

What is the difference between "british" and "english"?? The terms are used interchangeably here. And what is a "Union Flag". Thought that cross on cross was England's. Tho, after wading thru your post, I doubt I know what "England" is anymore.
(an apparently ignorant American)

mrcawp said...

You aren't ignorant: in many respects, your view is rather the way things work. Patriotism is a marvellous, great big fudge of things here.

Brian said...

"Similar scenes no doubt occur in Australia and New Zealand on their national holidays."

Not at all in New Zealand, our National day, Waitangi Day, is more the seen of Protest; than Flag-waving.

MandysRoyalty said...

I am glad Mr. Brown sees fit to fly the flag.

This comes as a great relief after that nonsense a few years ago about Britons not being able to fly their bunting for fear of "upsetting" or "alienating" non-British peoples. However, the non-native Britons were encouraged to fly the flags of their own homelands. Sounded a bit odd to me. said...

Dear Jane,

Great Britain is comprised of England, Scotland and Wales. The United Kingdom (full name: "The United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland") is comprised of England, Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland. See this link for an explanation of the construction of the Union Flag:

Dear Brian,

Thank you for yoru comment. It has caused me research to Waitangi Day in greater depth.

Dear Mandy,

I quite agree. The contempt many Britons show to their national flag must be extremely difficult for a North American to understand.

Benedictus said...

"American school children may swear daily allegiance to the flag, but in Britain (and traditionally in Canada, Australia and New Zealand) it is the Crown that is the embodiment of the state and it is to the Crown that one swears an oath of fealty."

This is what makes me a bit concerned about Mr. Brown's intentions in flying the Union Jack. On the one hand, it is a good thing that he promote British identity by flying it more often, but I hope it is not at the expense of the Crown. Since schoolchildren in Great Britain swear allegiance to the Crown, it is to the Crown, and not a flag, to which they swear fealty. I realize that "no monarchy, no union," and perhaps there is an organic unity between the British flag and the monarchy. My only question is to what degree is this communicated to the public, and even more imprtantly, to that segment of the public that will be the future of this great union-the schoolchildren?

Mind you, I write as an Anglo-American, who celebrates his republic and swears fealty to it and its Constitution, for which our flag stands. I do not, however, have the "French disease"-that abominable thinking that would seek to spread republican ideas abroad. It is not for everybody. Monarchy would be silly in my country (unless we rescinded the Declaration), and republic would be asenine in Great Britain. I'm with Archduke Franz Joseph Otto von Habsburg: Before I'm a republican or a monarchist, i am a legitimist, meaning I'm for legitimate government, whatever that happens to look like. said...

Dear Benedictus,

British schoolchildren do not swear allegiance to the Crown (or to anything). However new citizens must swear an oath of allegiance.

I agree with you that this new expression of "Britishness" must not be at the expense of similar expressions of loyalty to the Crown. We are seeing worrying attacks on the Royal Perogative from Number 10 but, thus far, none of those which are exclusive to Her Majesty have been touched. Let us pray that remains so.