The history of the Union Jack

New official guidance says flag should be flown from all government buildings in England, Wales and Scotland

Union Jack flies before Parliament
(Image credit: Hollie Adams/Getty Images)

Government ministers looking to bolster the embattled state of the union are pinning their hopes on a potent symbol.

In “another apparent escalation of the ongoing flag-based culture war,” newly issued guidance from the Department of Culture advises that the Union Jack should be flown every day from all government buildings in England, Wales and Scotland, The Guardian reports.

Culture Secretary Oliver Dowden has called Union Jack “a proud reminder of our history and the ties that bind us” - but not everyone agrees.

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Creation of the Union Jack

The Union Jack is “so called because it combines the crosses of the three countries united under one sovereign - the kingdoms of England and Wales, of Scotland and of Ireland”, explains the Royal Family’s official website.

The flag dates back to 1606, three years after James VI of Scotland ascended to the throne of England to becomes James I.

England and Scotland remained separate states on his accession, but a new flag was created as a “symbol of harmony” following “alterations between English and Scottish ships”, writes historian Dominic Sandbrook in an article for BBC History Magazine.

The flag originally comprised the “red cross of England superimposed on the white cross of Scotland, with the blue field of the latter”, says Encyclopaedia Britannica.

In January 1801, the effective date of the legislative union of Great Britain and Ireland, the Cross of St Patrick was incorporated into the design - a red diagonal cross.

The symbol of the fourth nation in the union - the Welsh dragon - doesn’t appear on the flag, however. According to the Royal Family’s website, “this is because when the Union flag was created in 1606, the Principality of Wales by that time was already united with England and was no longer a separate principality”.

The Union Jack is now raised on about 20 designated days a year, “covering national saints’ days across the UK nations and a selection of royal occasions, primarily the birthdays of senior family members”, says The Guardian.

Union Jack or Union Flag?

Many people believe that the national flag should be called the “Jack” only when flown from a British warship, but the Flag Institute says that “either name is valid”.

“In 1902, an Admiralty Circular announced that either name could be used officially,” the educational charity explains. “And in 1908, the UK Parliament approved this verdict, stating that ‘the Union Jack should be regarded as the national flag’.”

The origins of the term “Union Jack” is unclear, but Buckingham Palace historians believe it may date from the time of Queen Anne’s reign (1702-14).

“It may come from the ‘jack-et’ of the English or Scottish soldiers, or from the name of James I who originated the first union in 1603,” says the Royal Family’s website.

Raising ministers’ flagging hopes

Members of the current government have shown an “increasing fondness” for ensuring that a Union Jack “is part of their home or office backdrop for TV interviews”, says The Guardian. But the trend triggered a row recently when BBC Breakfast presenters Charlie Stayt and Naga Munchetty “were chastised for gently teased” Communities Secretary Robert Jenrick over his display of the flag.

The decision to fly the Union Jack continuously from government buildings appears to be part of “ongoing government efforts to associate itself with a more overt union-based nationalism”, the paper continues. Councils will also be “urged to do the same from their premises”, and the only exceptions to the rule will be “times when a single flagpole is otherwise occupied, whether by another UK flag or flags to mark particular events”.

The new guidance has met with a mixed response from commentators.

The flag “has always been part of the British national consciousness”, writes Sean O’Grady in The Independent, and is “sometimes associated with freedom and democracy, and the defeat of fascism”. However, “at other times, the flag accompanied imperial conquest and oppression”, he notes.

The Telegraph’s Patrick O’Flynn says that distaste for the Union Jack is an “explicitly political rejection of Britain’s history and heritage”, and exemplifies a “belief that this country should be ashamed of both”. But “these symbols of belonging carry a powerful message about mutual obligation and the ties that bind us together in one society”, he argues.

The Times also views the Union Jack as a useful tool for promoting national harmony. “Given that the words English, Scottish, Welsh and Irish carry, for good or ill, a connotation of ethnicity which perhaps excludes non-natives, allegiance to Britain serves as a useful unifying alternative,” says the paper.

Maybe in theory, says The Guardian’s John Harris, but the flag’s meaning has become “tattered and torn”. Ministers may try to convince us otherwise with their displays of “national chest-beating”, but “mass backing in Scotland for independence”, and increasing support in Wales to go it alone, “clearly speaks for itself”, he continues.

And “in both countries, Union Jacks and invocations of the bulldog spirit will surely do the fragile cause of unionism much more harm than good”.

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