We’ve seen England flags and Union flags flown with pride rather than as a symbol of thuggish, racist acts of violence against immigrants or opponents.
Where once the cross of St George was appropriated by fascists, racists and football hooligans, it is becoming, once more, a symbol of pride.
Flags are fascinating. They are at once a threat and a comfort. Designed to make our opponents fear us, but unite us as one. I should declare here that my own country of birth has the coolest flag in the world. Only two official national flags have a dragon as a centrepiece, Wales and Bhutan. Only one, Wales, has a red dragon. At primary school we had to draw the flag and believe me it was difficult. To be honest, I struggled with the green and white stripes!
The Welsh have a word, “hwyl” (pronounced like foil with an H instead of an F), which has no direct English translation. It’s a word for emotional pride, and national pride. You get this feeling in a crowd of Welsh people when we are winning at rugby. You can feel the “hwyl”. The Welsh flag fluttering during the singing of the Welsh National anthem also stimulates that feeling.
Flags can be used for communication, for example, semaphore. Two flags held at arm’s length in different combinations to spell out a message that can be seen at some distance. Wave a white flag and it means “I surrender”, a red one means danger. But the primary function of a flag is identity.
The Union flag was first conceived in 1606 when King James 1 of England (James VI of Scotland) wanted to unite his two kingdoms. The flag combined the vertical red cross on a white background of St George, for England, with the diagonal white cross on a blue background of Scotland’s St Andrew. When Ireland joined the union, the red diagonal cross on a white background, the cross of St Patrick, was added and the United Kingdom was born. The new flag was formally adopted in 1801.
As a child I often wondered why there was no green or, better still, a dragon on the flag. Why was Wales left out of the “union”? When the union was first created, Wales was part of England. It had been part of a union with England since the 13th Century, ruled by the English. Wales was a Principality not a Kingdom and because of this, no part of the Welsh flag could be incorporated into the Union flag. Britain misses out in my opinion. We could have had a dragon, but we chose boring crosses, more fool us.
Our flag is often called the Union Jack. The origin of this name is disputed. Some believe it comes from the fact that King James first designed it – the name “Jack” coming from the Latin for James, Jacobus. Another idea is that it relates to the jackets worn by Scottish and English soldiers. Others say it comes from the fact that it was flown as the leading flag on the bow of a warship, the “jack” flag, where jack means small. Because of this, many people think it should only be called a Union Jack when flown on a ship and a Union flag otherwise.
Our flag conceals another issue that often confuses people. What’s the difference between Great Britain, the United Kingdom and the British Isles? They are not just alternative names for the same thing and shouldn’t be used interchangeably. Great Britain comprises England, Wales and Scotland. The United Kingdom adds in Northern Ireland and the British Isles contain all the former plus the Channel Islands, the Isle of Man and Southern Ireland.
Most people aren’t aware of these geographic subtleties, but they have been the source of many bitter disputes, civil unrest and war over the centuries. We ignore identity at our peril. While I am proud to be a British citizen, I still see my nationality as being Welsh – it’s the country where I was born and brought up. Although I don’t have a Welsh accent and I’ve lived in England longer than I ever lived in Wales, I cannot reject my heritage and certainly not such a cool flag.