Wednesday, 17 September 2014

Out of the Union

Tomorrow history will be made if Scotland votes for independence. A lot has been written in the press and debated about the reasons for and against leaving the union with England. It’s a confusing issue, even for the English. The actual union is between the Crowns of England and Scotland, not the nations. Scotland has always kept its own laws, legal system, church and even public holidays. As the centuries progressed and power moved away from the Crown and onto Parliament after the English Civil War, London gained more control over new laws that applied to both nations – tax, economy, defence and the health system.

I’m sure there’s one specific historical person who’ll be turning in his grave at the thought of England and Scotland going their separate ways. And the surprising thing about him is that he was Scottish.

King James VI of Scotland, who was also King James I of England, fought several years against his advisers in favour of a union of the two crowns.

James inherited the English throne in 1603 on the death of Queen Elizabeth I. After such a strong female monarch England was slightly taken aback by the less macho James. There were leaflets being printed which summed up what a lot of people thought – “Elizabeth was king, now James is Queen”.

This sentiment was felt generally around the country. Everywhere he went he was met by cheering crowds who, it is claimed, shouted out “God bless Queen James”!

But this wasn’t just a reflection of his style of rule in his first years but because he had a reputation for having a young toy-boy on tow most of the time. This started before he came to England. He had several aristocratic young men as his “favourites”, and even after he inherited the English throne and had married there were several young men close at hand. After the informal separation from his wife two particular young men attracted his attention, and the concern of the court. They were the Earl of Southampton and the Duke of Buckingham.

James was also keen on uniting the two countries in some way. He wasn’t keen on uniting the governments and wanted the Scottish laws and government to remain separate. But he DID want to unite the Crowns, the thrones and defence of the realms into one new kingdom. He gave this kingdom the name Great Britain.

The main defence of any island kingdom is the navy, and the English navy was the best in the world, famous for its defeat of the Spanish Armada and for its mastery of circumnavigation and exploration. It was also a period of piracy. The English preferred to call this privateering (one of my Tudor cousins, Hercules Foljambe, was a privateering pirate).

To prevent ships from being attacked on the high seas by others from their own country they flew national identification flags. With his united navy King James decided a newidentification flag should be used, so he asked the admirals and heralds to come up with a suitable design. They tried to unite the English and Scottish flags (still, officially, the ONLY national flags for the British people). What they came up with are the designs below.

King James didn’t like any of them. He told the admirals and heralds to go away and try again. Perhaps he gave them an idea of what he envisaged, I don’t know, but when they came back they had produced a design so unique, so distinctive, and so classic that it’ll be very familiar. This is it –

At this stage Ireland was not united to Great Britain so its red diagonal cross is missing from this original design. James liked this a lot, probably because it inadvertently disregarded the rule that no precedence should be given to the English or Scottish flag. Why? Because it’s a heraldic flag – when described in official heraldic language the background is described first as the important base upon which all the other elements are placed. The background is the blue of the Scottish national flag. Scotland has heraldic precedence! Perhaps James realised this – he hasn’t been called The Wisest Fool in Christendom for nothing!

You’ve probably had a thought by now – if Scotland becomes independent what happens to the Union Jack (or Flag, it doesn’t matter what you call it, trust me, I’ve been a member of The Flag Institute since 1988)? Will it lose the blue? The Flag Institute asked its members a vote on what should happen. Most of them said a new flag should be designed. I didn’t, and for one reason. The Union Jack and the name Great Britain signify the union of the Crowns of England and Scotland, not their political parliaments or governments. All through the independence campaign it has been made clear that the Queen will remain as the Head of State and Queen of an independent Scotland. So really there should be no change. Think of it like the situation when Australia and New Zealand, both realms formerly within the British Empire, became independent. They retained the Queen as head of state and the UK naval ensigns they had used while colonies. The political independence of Scotland is similar.

Whether the people in power, or indeed fellow members of the Flag Institute, are fully aware or understand the historical background is questionable.

Its all very confusing. At least if parliament decides to consign the name Great Britain to history we’ll still have the United Kingdom. The full name of the country is the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland. The only change will be the words “Great Britain” being substituted by “England”.

Before I go, an explanation about the UK’s national flag. The Union Jack is the flag of the Crowns not the people. There is NO national flag for the British people apart from the individual flags for England, Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland. Within the present century the Prime Minister, Tony Blair, had to state in parliament that the government “permits” the British people to use the Union Jack “as if it was the national flag”. No Prime Minister has yet declared that it IS the national flag of the people. It is only in the last ten years that people in the UK didn’t have to get permission to fly the Union Jack outside their own homes!

No doubt the politicians won’t care about any of this. Whichever way the vote goes tomorrow I hope that the two most important things about any nation on an international stage – it’s name and it’s flag – will not change. I’m sure King James would think the same. After all, he chose them both, and I can’t think of any other queer creations that have made a bigger impact on world history in the last 500 years than the Great Britain and it Union Jack.

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