Scotland votes NO but UK cannot stand still

Citizens throughout England, Scotland, Wales, and Northern Ireland are waking up this morning in a United Kingdom which is both unchanged and never to be the same again. Whilst the government in Westminster (and indeed many of us in what very nearly became ‘the remainder of the UK’) breathe a collective sigh of relief, politicians of all shades will nevertheless be aware that their work is just beginning.

The Flag Institute is delighted that the Union Flag will continue to proudly serve the United Kingdom as it has done for more than 200 years, and the inclination may now be to let the subject of our national flag drop rapidly down the enormous list of constitutional holes which need plugging. However, the column inches devoted to the subject in the final run-up to yesterday’s vote, gives testament to the fact that Westminster has had a very lucky escape.

The United Kingdom flies a national flag which has never been formally adopted, and which no one in the machinery of our democratic government is responsible for. Scotland’s NO vote has bought us time, but not much.

For generations the care of our national flag has been neglected. Successive governments have feted this crucial national symbol when it suited them, whilst repeatedly failing to take basic measures to respect, protect and care for it. That this mistreatment has often been the fault of poor advice from establishment reactionaries is no excuse.

Our flag has been left without governance or protection by any constitutional instrument whatsoever.

This might once have been dismissed as dusty British constitutional wooliness of the kind we pretend sets us above other, younger, nations. Today, it is exposed as arrogant and lazy indifference of the kind which very nearly resulted in the dismantling of our once Great Britain.

Yesterday Scotland voted to stay in the United Kingdom. Today the debate about the future of our Union (and with it our Union flag) starts in earnest.

It is time for government to look up from its dusty constitutional ledgers and apply lessons provided by history rather than simply using history as an excuse for resisting change. It’s time to listen to the vibrant democratic clamour of ordinary people living in the real world. People who take a healthy view on our most important national symbol in the modern British context of respect for the past tempered by open-mindedness about the future.

The Prime Minister must take decisive action on this by immediately appointing a minister to be responsible for governance of our national symbols, and our national flag in particular. Assisted by a working group whose members should be chosen at least as much for their ability to get difficult jobs done as for their vexillological, historical, political, or constitutional expertise, this minister should lay a proclamation before Her Majesty formally adopting the Union as our national flag and resolve – within weeks – generations of vagueness about our national identity.

Only with these basic issues resolved, and an adequately informed minister in place, can the government expect to lay a responsible guiding hand upon the safety and future of the flag of the United Kingdom.

As the UK’s national flag charity, the Flag Institute stands eager and ready to play its part. 

Charles Ashburner, Chief Executive

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7 Responses to Scotland votes NO but UK cannot stand still

  1. C.Montague 19 September 2014 at 10:10 am #

    Well said indeed. It is astonishing that our flag has no formal protection. Keep up the good work.

  2. Exmoor Fella 19 September 2014 at 10:12 am #

    Agreed things have to change now in London and Cameron has alluded this this morning. God willing this will include paying attention to the Union FLAG!

  3. Lolia Kit 19 September 2014 at 11:36 am #

    A very well written article ! You are absolutely correct in what you say and I hope that those in Government will take heed of your words. It’s quite astounding really that something as important as our national flag is so vulnerable. This does seem to be the right time to make pertinent changes, for example including Wales in the flag which I think could be done creatively and quite easily, and ensuring it is then formally adopted (although I don’t really understand what this means and would welcome further information about it).

    The people of the United Kingdom, need to feel united, and including Wales in the flag in this way may help do that. As far as Scotland is concerned, we will have to wait and see how things progress, but perhaps it is the attention to detail that needs expert knowledge, so as you suggest, having a minister responsible for such symbols as the flag would be a perfect step forward.

  4. Tom 19 September 2014 at 11:45 am #

    The flag has survived several centuries without specific legislation and bureaucratic control. Has so much really changed over the last couple of months?

    • ChiefExecutive 19 September 2014 at 12:01 pm #

      Yes. We might have awoken this morning to a devastated constitutional landscape. The lack of anyone exercising proper care of our national flag – for centuries, as you rightly say – could very well have left the door wide open for this vital national symbol to have been pulled in all directions, and destroyed.

      We aren’t the only nation without effective basic governance of our flag because anyone thinks that’s the best way. This situation exists because those who claim responsibility for the job haven’t done it.

    • Graham Bartram 19 September 2014 at 12:43 pm #

      Actually it used to have “bureaucratic control” in the form of the Home Office, before it fell between the cracks during one of the many reshuffles. The point is that at present no one is in charge of it, so no one can protect it, or started the process to change it, if that had been necessary. We’ve dodged a bullet with the referendum, but our national symbol still needs better protection than it has.

  5. President of the Flag Institute 19 September 2014 at 12:48 pm #

    I endorse what our Chief Executive says. Our flag’s ambiguous constitutional status as the national flag is by custom and practice only, supported by two parliamentary answers quoted in Hansard (in 1908 and again in 1933). No elected representative is responsible for the Union Flag or any other national symbol. No UK-wide authority exercises effective governance over it. There are long and complex historical reasons for this but perhaps the time has come at last, catalysed by the Scottish referendum, to do something about it. For example Australia, a constitutional monarchy exactly like our own, has a minister in charge of these matters who is directly accountable to the Prime Minister. We should do the same. Its not bureaucracy that is needed, but leadership.