British by design: the Union Jack and the flag of St George

Part 1 of an FT series that considers the UK’s icons of national identity in the light of Brexit
Punks subverted the Union Jack in ironic gestures of anarchy © FT Montage/Getty

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Britain’s vote to leave the EU has provoked a serious bout of self-assessment. If Britain is to be an independent entity again, what kind of nation should it be?

Many aspects of British self image stem from the nation’s landscape, skylines, streets and designs — yet virtually every aspect has been affected by globalisation, government cuts, shifts in the economy and in agriculture, and threats, real and imagined, from within and without.

In a series of sketches, the Financial Times attempts to analyse the markers of British visual identity, how they are changing and whether we need new designs and new ways of describing them.

The Union Jack and the St George flag

In my childhood, flags only came out for the Queen — 1977 was awash with Union Jack bunting alongside the bill-posted punk versions. Now, in England, it has been superseded by the St George’s flag, which was rarely spotted until about 20 years ago, as the default symbol of nationalism.

The St George’s flag, the red cross on the white background, is a symbol brought back by knights and soldiers from the Crusades. Appearing first on their tunics, and 800 years later in suburban windows and fluttering from builders’ vans.

The St George's flag is a symbol brought back by knights and soldiers from the Crusades © Getty

Its recent popularity derives from football — the home nations each play in their own colours — but also in response to a resurgent idea of “Englishness”.

In 1966, when England had more success in football, it was the Union Jack that fluttered. Not only at Wembley and in the suburbs, but as a symbol of the swinging sixties.

There was Twiggy’s Mary Quant dress and Mini Coopers. The Who wrapped themselves in it and their fans flew miniature versions from their motor scooters. But by the 1970s it had taken on other meanings. the British National party, the National Front and the skinheads adopted the flag as a symbol of racism and the punks subverted it in ironic gestures of anarchy.

The Queen's silver jubilee meant 1977 was awash with Union Jack bunting © Getty

A generation later, denuded of meaning, It underwent another revival, coinciding more or less with Labour’s landslide election victory in 1997. Noel Gallagher of Oasis took to the stage with a Union Jack emblazoned guitar, Geri Halliwell donned a Union Jack microdress, Morrissey wrapped himself in the flag and this symbol of Britishness suddenly appeared everywhere from duvet covers to T-shirts, not as a cipher for national pride but rather as a symbol in itself.

From Beirut to Budapest you still see people with Union Jack T-shirts, bags and badges. Like the Stars and Stripes, it became divorced from its nation to become a global icon. Which left the individual flags of the four constituent nations as the real markers of meaning and belonging.

In 1979 The Who wrapped themselves in the Union Jack and their fans flew miniature versions from their motor scooters © Alamy

The question now might be, if Brexit leads to another referendum for Scottish independence and Scots vote to leave the union, what happens to the British flag, of which Scotland’s St Andrew’s Cross is an indispensable component?

New Zealand’s recent referendum on a new flag might hold some clues.

A competition was launched to redesign the flag — with its Union Jack lurking in the top left corner it was deemed to be not only too colonial but too similar to the Australian flag. The favourite was some variation on a black and white design featuring a silver fern, but change was rejected and the nation chose to stay with the existing version. Flags are too tightly tied up with sentiment and memory to be easily changed.

The Cross of St George didn't emerge as a symbol of national pride until about 20 years ago © Reuters

That Scotland voted so vehemently to stay in the EU has further emphasised the difference within the UK and the diminishing capacity of a single flag to represent the whole of the nation. What looks like an increasing isolationism and nationalism — is making the St George’s flag itself a contested symbol and one less likely to unite than to divide a nation in which immigrants and ethnic minorities are feeling more uncomfortable than they have for many years.

The future of the Union Jack too is in flux — leaving the EU has weakened the unity of the UK, an entity now held together by little more than history. What do you call a Union Jack when the union dissolves? It’s a joke without a punchline. Yet.

Letters in response to this article:

World Cup ’66 mascot did not wear St George’s cross / From Bernard McGinley

Church flew St George’s flag all those years ago / From Elizabeth Balsom

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