Still a proud symbol of Union - or just a cheap patriot game?

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The Independent Online
Is it a flag a country should be proud to fly from its rooftops, symbolising a nation united? Or has its image been torn to ribbons by right-wing rage, making it fit only for boxer shorts and tourist T-shirts? Is it time for a redesign of the Union flag?

When two Liberal Democrat MPs suggested the flag might benefit from updating, they were not prepared for the level of opprobrium that came raining down upon them.

The Conservatives said the Liberal Democrats would "shred Brit-ain into a series of regions", while Michael Forsyth, the Scottish Secretary, said: "No one who holds our country dear can now trust either the Liberal Democrats or their Labour partners."

Yet behind the predictable political rhetoric, there was a valid question -- what does the union flag symbolise today?

Iain McLean, a professor of politics at Oxford University, said it had been hijacked for party-political purposes.

"The Conservatives put it into their logo a few years ago. And it's also used as a slogan by far-right groups, so certainly it's lost it's status as unifying emblem," he said.

Professor McLean said its symbolic value to many people was, instead, one of xenophobia. "As a behavioural observation, it's saying you're a little Englander. It's divisive rather than unifying."

Perhaps in response to this, some parts of Britain have been promoting their own brand of regionalism, with flags for areas such as Kernow in Cornwall, or North-umbria.

As a Scot, Professor McLean said the flag had never had a unifying significance in his life. "In Scotland, long before political nationalism, there was cultural nationalism. At rugby internationals in the 1950s, it was apparent that anyone waving a union flag would be English. I think the only time I've ever waved it was as a child, when we saw the Queen."

Tainted with its associations to brutalism, racism and to football hooliganism, the flag has also become, over the last 30 years, a symbol of tackiness, its colours shining out from a million Carnaby Street souvenirs, planted on everything from plastic guardsmen to boxer shorts.

This is not a fate which has been suffered by the American flag, which is protected by constitutional rules. These rules state, among others: "The flag should never be used for advertising purposes ... should not be embroidered on such articles as cushions or handkerchiefs or the like, printed or otherwise impressed on ... anything designed for temporary use ... or have any lettering or designs placed upon it."

According to Byron Shafer, the professor of US Government at Nuffield College, the American flag is protected because it is still seen as a unifying symbol.

"In some senses it represents us all. So any disrespect is therefore to us all," he said. "It's our symbolic counterpart in many ways to the Queen. We pledge allegiance to the flag where you would sing `God Save The Queen.'"

Nowhere has Britain's ambivalent relationship with its flag become more apparent than in the business community, where many companies are dropping it as a part of their corporate identity.

British Airways last week admitted that much of its traditional "British" image was seen as negative, "aloof and stuffy". Its planned redesign will include changing the Union flag emblem on the tail fins of its 250 jets.

But there is some hope for the Union flag. Just as it appeared likely to become an outdated symbol of a vanished empire, Britain's cultural community is reclaiming it as a statement of pride and regeneration.

A Spice Girl recently wrapped herself in it, Patsy Kensit and Liam Gallagher were sufficiently proud of it to pose in bed under it on the cover of Vanity Fair magazine.

And designers, such as Bella Freud, Clements Ribeiro and London duo Vexed Generation, have featured it in their recent collections.

"The reason we used it was because it's a strong pop-cultural image. We wanted to reclaim it in as much as it's got negative connotations, yet it's still an image we have to support," said Adam Thorpe, partner in Vexed Generation. "We wanted to give it some positive connotations."

Besides, according to Martin Casson, art director at advertising agency M&C Saatchi, who considered some of The Independent's suggestions, there is no better alternative.

He did, however, suggest that an anti-European flag might properly represent British history.

"It's quite a strong image. This country has been independent for centuries, resisted numerous attempts to take it over, so that would reflect the views of a lot of people."

His loyalty was reiterated by Tim Johnson, the creative director of Cowan Kemsley Taylor.

"Britain is losing everything. The monarchy's on its way out, it's all becoming European. But when you see that flag you think of England as green and pleasant with beautiful architecture and scenery. I think we should leave it as it is. All we've got is our symbols."

History of the flag

When James VI of Scotland became James I of England, it became necessary to design a new flag for Great Britain, which took four years. The Cross of St George was combined with the Cross of St Andrew - the national flag of Scotland - producing the first Union Flag in 1606, and was used for nearly 200 years.

When the British and Irish Parliaments were merged in 1801, the Union Flag was combined with what was thought to be the Cross of St Patrick, to produce the design that we still use today.

According to a proclamation from Charles I in 1634, it is still technically forbidden for any but Royal ships to fly the Union Flag. Instead, it was decreed by Queen Anne that other vessels should fly a red flag "with a Union Jack described in a canton at the upper corner, next to the staff.'' This is thought to be the the first official use of the phrase - originating from when the flag was flown from a ship's jackstaff at sea.

In Britain the flag may be freely displayed by all citizens. This is not the case however with all national flags. The French can use it in any way they please as long as they do so with due respect. In the United States, anyone can display the flag providing they obey certain rules such as "the flag should not be displayed on days when the weather is inclement".