Robert Burrington ponders the British flag and what it really means ……

This month we shall see many Union Flags on display. Or “Union Jacks” as they are sometimes known. What does this flag tell us about ourselves, our national character and our Christian heritage?

De facto flag

The Union Flag is the de facto national flag of the United Kingdom. Although no law was passed making the flag the official national flag of the Britain, it has effectively become such through precedent. It is sometimes asserted that the term Union Jack properly refers only to naval usage, but this assertion was dismissed by the Flag Institute in 2013 following historical investigations. The flag has official status in Canada, by parliamentary resolution, where it is known as the Royal Union Flag, and it is the national flag of all British overseas territories.

When the first flag representing Britain was introduced on the proclamation of King James I in 1606, it became known simply as the “British flag” or the “flag of Britain”. King James’ proclamation gave no distinctive name to the new flag. The word “jack” was in use before 1600 to describe the maritime bow flag. By 1627 a small Union Jack was commonly flown in this position. One theory has it that for some years it would have been called just the “Jack flag”, or the “King’s Jack”, but by 1674, while formally referred to as “His Majesty’s Jack”, it was commonly called the “Union Jack”, and this was officially acknowledged.

King James

In 1603, James VI of Scotland inherited the Kingdom of England (and the newly created client state, the Kingdom of Ireland) as James I, thereby uniting the crowns in a personal union. With Wales added into the Kingdom of England under the Laws in Wales Acts 1535 and 1542, James now ruled over all of the island of Great Britain, which he frequently described as a unified kingdom (though the parliaments of the Kingdom of England and the Kingdom of Scotland did not actually unify until the Kingdom of Great Britain was formed in 1707). In the wake of the 1603 personal union, several designs for a new flag were drawn up, juxtaposing the Saint George’s Cross and the St Andrew’s Saltire. No design was accepted by James. After deliberation on 12 April 1606, a new flag to represent the regal union between England and Scotland was specified in a royal decree, according to which the flag of England (a red cross on a white background, known as St George’s Cross), and the flag of Scotland (a white saltire on a blue background, known as the saltire or St Andrew’s Cross), would be joined together, forming the flag of Great Britain and first union flag.

The cross of Saint Patrick was incorporated into the Union Jack in 1801 to represent Ireland. However, the creation of the Irish Free State in 1922 saw some people question the continued placement of the cross onthe Union Jack. The ‘etymology’ of the flag can thus be seen here:

The rightness of the political decision on Britain’s flag design has been justified by history. Surprisingly, in the present ambition of some in Scotland to secede from the Union, there has been speculation that theScottish elements would be removed from Britain’s flag. In practice, however, it is likely the flag would remain unchanged, partly because of its historic value and resonance, and partly because the ongoing cultural and social interconnections between Scotland (even if it accedes to the European Political and Military Union (EPMU)) and the remainder of Britain. History cannot be extinguished!

Christian connection

Many European flags are essentially crosses on a contrasting background. This reflects the reality that across Europe Christianity has been the official religion since the early Middle Ages (after approximately AD 500). Plainly the cross represents the crucifixion of Messiah Jesus (“Jesus Christ” in English) and in turn that reminds Europeans of the theological and eternal truth that the price of their sins has already been paid by Jesus on the cross, evidenced by His Resurrection from death. Christianity, in turn, significantly stimulated the development of democracy (an article for a later date, perhaps!). Since Christianity is founded on the reality of personal relationship with God the Father through Jesus the Son, it can be described as a personal faith system, not dependent on ‘religion’ or ‘priest’; accordingly it takes seriously the rights and needs of the individual – hence the strong connection with democracy. Whether democracy itself can survive the de-Christianisation of Europe is a moot point …….

British Values

It can be appropriately argued that distinctive British values can be traced to our over-arching Christian culture and be ‘mapped’ creatively onto our flag which reminds us of a vertical axis (arguably from God to Mankind, ) and a horizontal axis (reminding us of our community relationships. Arguably these two ideas intersect via the Cross of Christ. This PowerPoint presentation helps to explore these ideas: British Values

These ideas are summarised in this representation:

Wave it

So, British values are not ideas dreamed-up by politicians or the whim of the media or even the electorate. British values are founded on a balancing act of the rights of church and state, the individual to the community, measured in personal responsibility and the intrinsic value (measured by God’s standards) of the individual. Behind this sits the relationship (or lack of relationship) of the individual to the God who self-identifies as “The God of Jacob”. By all means wave your flag, then, but remember it represents history, the value of the individual, the Nation and Almighty God. (You don’t get that with a French flag!).