With only 10 months to go before Scotland votes on whether to secede from the United Kingdom, rumours are already spreading of a change to the national flag. The view being put forth is that a UK without Scotland does not need the Scottish blue-and-white saltire as part of its national flag, and that the colours of Wales should take Scotland’s place.
It’s an interesting argument but before anyone can say yay or nay to it, we need to answer a couple of questions. First and foremost, we need to determine if the UK actually has a national flag to change.
Is the Union Jack the Flag of the United Kingdom?
When you think of the UK, one of the things you probably picture in your mind is the Union flag. It’s a bold design, it’s hundreds of years old and it flies over buildings across the nation. It’s also, legally speaking, not our national flag. It is, in fact, one of the two royal standards and the nation as a whole just kind of borrows it from the Crown.
The flag as we know it dates back to 1801 and older variants go back as far as 1606. King James I of England and Ireland and VI of Scotland began using a combination of the Cross of St George and the Cross of St Andrew as a royal standard a few years after the Union of the Crowns of England and Scotland. The flag was changed when Ireland became part of the United Kingdom in 1801, at which point the flag as we now know it came to be.
In all this time, there has never been an Act of Parliament to adopt the flag as the national flag. There aren’t even royal edicts granting the flag to nation as its symbol. There are laws on the flag’s use at sea, which is why it’s illegal for civilian ships to fly the Union Jack, but none for its use on land.
The closest you’ll get to a law is when individual Ministers make reference to the flag as a “national flag” but even this doesn’t make it law. We simply take it for granted that our flag is the Union Jack and because we’ve taken it for granted for so long, it’s become the de facto flag of the UK. Nothing in Britain is ever simple, is it?
So do we need a new flag if Scotland Gains Independence?
As we’ve already mentioned, the Union flag has changed since its inception. We gained the diagonal red cross of St Patrick when Ireland joined the Union in 1801. Notably, we did not change the flag when most of Ireland gained independence in 1921. There is therefore a precedence for the flag not changing when a country leaves the Union.
However, we have to look again at the fact that the flag is not the UK’s flag. It is a royal standard and the Queen will remain as the Head of State of Scotland in the event of Scottish independence. This means there will be no reason for the Queen to require a new flag – her sphere of influence will not have diminished if Scotland decides to go off on its own.
As a result, the rest of Britain is left with a choice: just accept the flag as it is and keep borrowing it from the Crown like we always have, or actually sit down and design a new flag that’s actually ours and which is separate from the Queen’s flags. This second option will be costly.
How much will a new flag cost?
There is no hard and fast costing laid out for designing and adopting a new flag but conservative estimates put it at several million pounds. Not only will time and money have to be spent to design and adopt a new flag but there is also Government time that must be spent drafting and passing legislation to adopt the new flag as the official flag of the United Kingdom.
Government departments, local council buildings and other state buildings will need to buy or be issued with a new flag. The military will need new flags – both for their buildings and for their uniforms. Any paperwork that bears the flag will need to be replaced. Websites using the flag will need to be altered. All these little expenses rack up quickly.
The international cost will not be small, either. Commonwealth countries that feature the Union Flag in their own flags will have to spend time and money debating whether to adopt the new flag into their designs, stick with their current flags or adopt a new one entirely. Then they have the same additional costs that we would have.
The whole thing is likely to get very expensive, very time-consuming and very annoying for a lot of people. It’s probably a good thing that we aren’t likely to bother changing it after all.