At some point in 2014, Scotland is going to hold a referendum on whether or not to dissolve her three-century union with the rest of the United Kingdom.
I'm personally opposed to this development, and moreover I think it unlikely to happen. Of course there are others, either pessimists or pragmatists, who like to dwell upon the possible consequences of Scottish secession. Amongst the many serious points surrounding our economy, defence capability, global standing and Security Council seat, one seemingly trivial problem has caught my attention.
If Scotland left the UK, what would happen to our flag?
For any readers unfamiliar with the genesis of the Union Flag (as pedants will insist we call it), here is a potted history: The flags of England and Scotland were combined by James I & VI as a royal banner in 1606, becoming the ensign of the Kingdom of Great Britain upon its formation 101 years later. The arms of Ireland were added during the latter years of the Interregnum of 1649-60, before the Saint Patrick's Saltire was added to represent Ireland at its accession to the Union in 1801.
Given the manner of its creation, the concerns surrounding the fate of the Union Jack are understandable. They are also far from new, with similar concerns being expressed during the build-up to Southern Ireland's independence in 1921-22. Indeed, Prime Minister of Northern Ireland Sir James Craig said at the time that he was "glad to think that our decision [to opt back into the United Kingdom] will obviate the necessity of mutilating the Union Jack."
So if Scotland does go her own way, what ought we do to the flag? In my view, absolutely nothing.
It strikes me as a little strange that much contemporary debate around the future of the Union Jack, whether related to the prospect of Scottish independence or not, revolves around a strikingly literalist interpretation of it. The various nations that contributed aspects of their banners to create it - England, Scotland and Ireland - are somehow assumed to have retained possession of different bits sections of it.
Thus when Scottish secession is considered, a lot of people seem to assume that they could walk off with all the blue in the Union Jack, because that blue, originally donated by Scotland, is somehow Scotland's possession. In similar vein, people look at how the flag was created and note that no Welsh flag is present (that only being adopted in 1959), and conclude that it does not therefore represent Welsh people. There has even been an attempt - happily unsuccessful - to interpret the flag racially.
All of this, I think, entirely misses the point of the union. Much like the country itself, the Union Jack is much more than the sum of its parts. Over time it has come to represent not an old alliance between the English and the Scots, but 'the British', a distinct product of three centuries of cooperative growth and immigration entirely distinct from the two nations that originally created their state.
The British include great numbers of English, Scots, and Irish of course, but many more besides, not least the Welsh. But there are a great number of Britons who hail, or whose ancestors hail, from different countries and continents altogether, and these people often identify more strongly with Britain than their native-born neighbours. Does anybody seriously subscribe to the notion that an immigrant of Pakistani or Jamaican descent, who counts themselves British, is 'unrepresented' by the flag unless some element of the Pakistani or Jamaican flag was added to it?
This country belongs to all of the British, rather than the home nations, and the Jack, in its undivided entirety, is the flag of the British. We should never confuse the process of its design - contributions from different national flags - with what it represents today.
Yet if you are committed to a literalist interpretation of the flag, consider this. If Scotland were to leave, the country the Union Jack represents will still exist. Notwithstanding the technical truth of the statement (Wales and Northern Ireland won't have gone anywhere), a vote to secede will not erase the three centuries of Scottish contributions to the development of Britain. Generations of Scots have been loyal and often enthusiastic participants in the great projects of union and empire, and we who will remain in 'rUK' will still be the richer for their having been our one-time countrymen and women.
In 2014 Scotland will hold a ballot, but it will only be on its own future, not that of Britain. If she chooses to secede the UK will be smaller. But the British will still exist, and while they do the Union Flag should fly.
Follow Henry C.H. Hill on Twitter: www.twitter.com/dilettante11