This article is from the May issue of Total Politics

In 1603, James VI of Scotland was crowned James I of England. It was a union of crowns that came about after the death of Queen Elizabeth I. The Virgin Queen had announced on her deathbed: “I will have no rascal to succeed me. Who should succeed me but a king?” King James of Scotland was duly nominated her heir and became the first king of a united Great Britain. And it soon became apparent that the newly-united kingdom required a new flag.

Before union, England had taken the cross of St George (a red cross on a white background – a flag that also represented the principality of Wales via its adoption by the Tudors) as its national flag – while Scotland flew the diagonal cross of St Andrew (a white saltire against blue). But the newly-united country needed a new symbol both to proclaim Britishness at sea, and to help the people think of themselves as one nation.

King James initially ordered that ships should fly the flags of England and Scotland side by side. This advice was not only impossible – one flag was inevitably always higher than the other, either on the same pole or simply on a taller mast – but was also fraught with more subtle difficulties. Flying one flag above another was a naval signal to show that an enemy had been defeated. Inevitably, English vessels flew St George over St Andrew, while Scottish ships did the opposite. Each taunted the other as a defeated enemy, so it was proposed that a single flag would resolve this incessant bickering.

The job of designing the new flag was given to the Earl of Nottingham, who had been one of the commissioners for the union of the two countries. He came up with several designs (see above), including placing the cross of St Andrew in the middle of the cross of St George, or having four St Andrew crosses on a St George flag, one in each corner. His preferred solution, however, was to place the two crosses beside each other. This was conventional in heraldry for indicating marriage, with the male arms on the left and the female on the right. King James was very keen to see the union as a marriage “cemented by love”, and he even had the declaration “what God has joined let no man separate” inscribed on his new crown. Nottingham agreed, saying of the side-by-side design: “In my poor opinion, this will be the most fittest, for this is like man and wife.”

The only problem with the marriage design, however, was that Scotland was positioned as the wife in marriage, ‘impaled’ (in heraldic terms) by England. The Scots were having none of this, so Nottingham’s innovative solution was to combine or “interlace” the respective national banners. In simple terms, this meant placing a white-bordered cross of St George over the white and blue cross of St Andrew.

However, this design also provoked fury north of the border because now the cross of St George was “imposed” on that of St Andrew, much as the English had been imposed on the Scots. The Scottish Privy Council warned: “This will breed some heat and miscontentment betwixt your Majesties subjects.” The Scots also objected to a design that appeared to chop the Scottish flag into four pieces, although it is worth bearing in mind that in heraldry the top left-hand part of the flag is the most prestigious quadrant, and that this was occupied by the colours of St Andrew.

Despite this technical supremacy, and the fact that the flag has been ordered and endorsed by a Scottish king, the Scots remained unappeased and Scottish heralds produced their own designs. One of these was accepted as an alternative for Scottish shipping, and is still occasionally seen elsewhere. In this variant, St Andrew’s cross is placed over St George’s cross. As far away as the West Indies this compromise caused “great quarrels” among British sailors, who, not being experts in heraldry, simply saw either England or Scotland in the most prominent central position of each flag. It was not until parliamentary union a century later in 1707 that the dispute had blown itself out and the flag was finally accepted.

Whichever version was used was known as the “Union Flag”, and many much prefer this name today. But there is no historical justification for this preference. The flag of the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland has been known as the “Union Jack” since the seventeenth century. ‘Jack’ may refer to King James, who was known as Jacques or Jacobus (hence ‘Jacobean’), or to the padded or armoured jerkins worn by soldiers on which national colours were emblazoned: these were ‘jacks’, from which the modern ‘jacket’ is derived. There may be some maritime influence here as well, as all royal ships fly the Union Jack, as a ‘jack’ from the jackstaff, a small vertical pole. Indeed, it is only at sea that it’s worth distinguishing between the Union Jack (on the jackstaff) and the Union Flag. An Admiral of the Fleet, for example, flies a Union Flag from the main topmast, and Union Flags are flown if the monarch is onboard, or when a court martial is taking place. For the majority of us, however, the flag is the “Union Jack”, and has been so since the 17th century. Only a misinformed pedant would try and rename it after some 400 years.

The flag of James is more or less recognisable as the Union Jack of today, but lacks the red diagonals stripes. These derive from the cross of St Patrick, added when Ireland became part of the Union in 1801, to form the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Ireland. This legislation was forced by William Pitt, who feared that Napoleon would use Ireland as a strategic base from which to launch an invasion of Great Britain. It also required the redesign of the Union Jack to recognise the new partner in the union.

But the diagonal red cross of St Patrick was not simply placed symmetrically over St Andrew’s cross. Instead, it was set asymmetrically: lower on the left side of the flag and higher on the right. This was a reminder that Scotland was the senior member of the union over Ireland. Hence, as all Scots know, the Union Jack is raised with the broad, white diagonal band at the top of the flag on the side nearest the flagpole (the “cream rises”, or the “thickest goes to the top”). It has also meant that, ever since 1801, the Union Jack has been unique among flags of the world; it is mistakenly flown upside-down as often as it is flown correctly. When Britain became a member of the Common Market in 1973, for example, the Union Jack was accidently flown upside-down over the EEC buildings in Brussels – traditionally either a sign of distress or an insult to the sovereign.

Since 1801 the flag has remained fairly stable in design, although neither the dimensions nor colours were formally stipulated, and the St Andrew blue grew progressively darker in the nineteenth century as the dye used needed to withstand global sea voyages. Nevertheless, in its 1801 form, the Union Jack remains a potent image. It will characterise both the London Olympics and the Queen’s Diamond Jubilee celebrations this year. And yet these displays of Union-Jackery will also take place against a political backdrop of possible Scottish independence, and so it’s certainly worth asking what will happen to the Union Jack if Scotland goes independent. Will the saltire of St Andrew be removed from the flag?

The symbolism of the Union Jack is, in fact, already anomalous, as the cross of St Patrick was retained in the design after the Republic of Ireland was established. Strictly speaking, while Northern Ireland remains a union province it is not a separate kingdom and therefore should not be afforded a separate status on the flag. But as Éire did not adopt the cross of St Patrick as its national flag in 1937 – preferring instead to hoist the Irish Tricolour – there was no pressing need to remove St Patrick’s cross from the Union Jack. At the very least, then, this should remind us that the Union Jack is not a simplistic statement about the territories that form the United Kingdom – not least because it appears to overlook Wales. Rather, the flag is a complex symbol that describes the history and compromises over centuries of international relations.

Admittedly the saltire of St Andrew is already recognised as, effectively, Scotland’s national flag, and would surely be adopted as such in the case of independence, but even this does not mean that it could be removed from the Union Jack. Scottish independence does not entail republicanism; the country would remain part of the Commonwealth on the model of Australia or Canada, and the current British sovereign would remain monarch as the heir of James VI of Scotland, the unionist king.

The Union Jack has remained surprisingly independent of party politics since at least the Second World War, when it gained its deep associations with freedom and liberty. In the 1970s there were attempts to brand the flag with far-right extremism, and the failure of the left to reclaim the flag at that moment was one of the great betrayals of post-war Britain. More recently, there have been attempts to enlist ‘Britishness’ and the flag in New Labour’s ‘Cool Britannia’ campaign (1997) and in ‘The Governance of Britain’, the inaugural green paper of Gordon Brown’s government (2007). By contrast, David Cameron has been noticeably more circumspect about draping himself in the red, white and blue. For it is worth remembering that, even if it wears its party politics lightly, the Union Jack still has profound social resonances: from Armistice Day to the Olympics, from Mods and Punks to the Spice Girls and Rihanna – all are part of the culture of the Union Jack. It is a symbol that is embedded in everyday life in dozens of contexts, and this is one of the distinctions of Britishness – it is everywhere, but passes almost unnoticed. The invisible ubiquity of the Union Jack is therefore far beyond the reach of politicians who aim to rewrite the history of the four centuries of unionism that have forged today’s identities.

Nick Groom is a professor in English at the University of Exeter, and the author of The Union Jack: The Story of the British Flag

Tags: David Cameron, Gordon Brown, History, Issue 47, King James, Labour, Scotland, St Andrew, St. Patrick, Union jack