Scotland’s independence referendum isn’t only posing a threat to the continued unity of the United Kingdom; it could also spell the end for one of Britain’s most popular symbols as the world knows it.
The Union flag—featured on everything from tacky souvenirs and Spice Girls attire, to the top of the flagpole on Buckingham Palace and in the design of national flags the world over—could lose its signature blue background and diagonal white cross if Scotland votes to become an independent country in its referendum on Sept. 18.
Those aspects of one of the world’s most recognizable flags come from the cross of St. Andrew, the patron saint of Scotland.
When Scotland and England were united in 1706, the Scottish cross was combined with the red St. George’s cross to create the Union flag, more commonly called the Union Jack. The flag was altered in 1801 to add the St. Patrick's cross of Ireland.
If Scotland leaves the United Kingdom, many experts argue, the features it brought to the Union Jack will have to go too.
“As inconceivable as it is to us now to imagine changing it, it is equally inconceivable to think that we wouldn’t have to re-examine what our flag should be in the case Scotland votes 'yes,'” said Charles Ashburner, chief executive of the Flag Institute, a UK-based charity that researches and documents flags.
'It's hard to imagine it before the conversation starts, because it would be difficult to get rid of it completely - but impossible to keep it unchanged.' -Charles Ashburner, The Flag Institute
“It’s hard to imagine it before the conversation starts, because it would be difficult to get rid of it completely - but impossible to keep it unchanged.”
Whose flag is it anyway?
Ashburner has attended meetings at Downing Street over recent weeks to discuss the future of the flag in the run-up to the referendum. But despite the meetings, there is not yet an official plan if the United Kingdom becomes less united come September.
Not only is there not a plan, there also seems to be confusion amongst UK government departments about who’s in charge.
A spokesperson at the Department for Culture, Media and Sport said that the Cabinet Office was responsible for the flag. But calls to the Cabinet Office were redirected back to the Department for Culture, Media and Sport.
Prime Minister David Cameron’s office also said it doesn’t have authority over the flag. A spokesman there was quick to add, though, that all of the government’s efforts are currently focused on making sure Scotland votes to stay in the UK, not redesigning the Union Jack in case it doesn’t.
A global symbol with little official status
Much of the grey area surrounding the future of the Union Jack comes from the lack of laws regulating flags in the UK.
For example, despite being used as a symbol of Great Britain for centuries, the Union Jack has never formally been adopted as the UK’s national flag.
A private member’s bill to formalize its status was introduced in 2008 by MP Andrew Rosindell, the chairman of the All Party Parliamentary Group on Flags and Heraldry. But it failed to pass the House of Commons.
“It’s very typically British that we have no idea who is in charge - but because we’ve never been through a process of making it our formal and legal national flag, we have no agency to look after it,” said Ashburner.
“We are in a bit of a pickle as a country.”
The 'Welsh Factor'
Ashburner’s Flag Institute has begun to showcase an array of designs, from both its members and ordinary people, for a redesigned flag. Most of the entries incorporate features to symbolize Wales, like the Welsh red dragon.
Wales is not represented in the Union Jack’s current incarnation because it was seen strictly as part of England when the flag was created.
Andrew Blick, a spokesman from The Constitution Society — an organization aimed at bettering the public’s understanding of the British Constitution — said the “Welsh factor” should play a large role in any redesign.
“If Scotland’s out, Wales has to be in,” said Blick. “That’s the obvious argument.”
Even if Union’s broke, don’t fix flag
Still, there are many who argue that the flag should stay the same regardless of any Scottish secession.
Part of the reason, they say, is since the flag originated when the crowns of Scotland and England were united, rather than when the political union of the governments took place, there is no need to change it. After all, an independent Scotland would keep Queen Elizabeth as head of state.
There are also worries that a debate over the flag would distract the public and politicians from the vast amount of work that would need to be done to establish Scotland as an independent country — work that would likely have a greater impact on their lives than the look of the Union Jack.
On top of those reasons, some commentators argue that changing the flag would unfurl too many international complications. After all, mini Union Jacks are featured on more than 20 foreign flags around the world, including those of Australia and Hawaii, as well as the provincial flags of Ontario, Manitoba and British Columbia.
Would they be expected to change their flags too?
“It’ simply uncharted territory,” said Ashburner. “And it will open up a Pandora’s Box when the time comes.”