By Jeffrey P. Lupo, B.A. program alumnus.
Insight from London, England
The Union Jack seems unique among national flags to truly capture an essential feature of the people it represents. It is in fact three flags stacked on top of each other: the English cross of St. George sits as the undeniable foundation, with the crosses of Saints Patrick and Andrew of Ireland and Scotland, respectively, superimposed. It’s as if when a hurried official came suddenly into some room in Westminster and said, ‘we need a flag to represent the newly created United Kingdom’, someone replied, flummoxed, ‘uhhh…ummm…could we just put them on top of each other?’ It’s the kind of creativity one imagines contributed to the naming of towns and cities up and down the East Coast of the United States: Worcester, New York, New Hampshire, New Haven, New Jersey, Plymouth…‘It’s not worth fussing over’, says the credo, ‘let’s go with what works and get on with it’.
The British are famed for not wanting to make a fuss and it is probably the one national stereotype that actually holds true. Of course, there are a million ways to define Britishness, and many would say it doesn’t exist at all. According to some, you’re either English, Scottish, Welsh or Northern Irish – you may even be Cornish! How could one word describe all these people when their accents are so different? Whatever. For the time being, these nationalities are in it together, whether they like it or not (and chances are they don’t).
But for all the fuss about not being fussy, lots of people around the UK are in a hissy over a great many things at the moment. Most notable are the upcoming referendum for Scottish independence and an in-out referendum on the UK’s membership of the European Union should the Conservative Party win re-election in 2015. If the Scots leave the UK and the UK leaves the EU, what will the Union Jack look like then?
As it turns out, exactly the same. The Scots would still have the Queen as their head of state and the EU has nothing to do with the flag, to everyone’s great relief. But once the cardinal rule of Not Making A Fuss is so completely contravened, how well can the quintessentially makeshift flag represent a country which in its new incarnation will have taken a lot of deliberate, determined effort to remake?
Not very. The 1707 Act of Union – when Scotland became part of the United Kingdom – prompted the creation of the Union Jack. The country was on the up. Ahead of it were over two-hundred years of global imperial dominance unknown to any other power in history. The Roman Empire is a joke compared to what the British achieved. In the 18th and 19th centuries, then, the Union Jack, insofar as it represented the essential qualities of the British people, was a projection of their country’s glory. In cities and ports around the world, the sight of the flag inspired admiration, respect, loathing, and on more than a few occasions it inspired fear. Regardless of the message, what is inarguable is that it mattered.
But if the Scots choose independence and the rest of the UK stumbles belligerently out of the European Union, it will mark a turning point for what the Union Jack represents. Not only will the purportedly least fussy country on the planet show itself to actually be rather high maintenance, it will also be an undeniable marker of decline. Pockets of the UK will be very nice places to visit—‘castles countryside, old churches and more!’ –but, on the whole, the country will matter less and be poorer.
As an American living in the UK and married to a Briton, but still roughly five years away from UK citizenship, it’s debatable whether my opinion matters. All the same, here’s to hoping the Union Jack still matters once I do take the hallowed vow of Not Making a Fuss, whatever the phrase has come to mean by then.
Jeffrey P. Lupo lives in London and intends to practice law in England and Wales. He graduated from the Jackson School in 2010. Jeffrey is the co-founder of the Jackson School Journal of International Studies.