In the build up to the outcome of the Scottish independence referendum this Thursday, we've taken a look at potential new designs for the Union Flag. If the result is a less than resounding but democratically legitimate 'Nay', at least we had all the bases covered.
The referendum has brought about some fascinating self-reflection for many people in the UK on what the whole United Kingdom is, or what it was supposed to represent in the first place. It has certainly got me thinking a lot about where 'Brand Britain' will find itself should Scotland opt for a William Wallace inspired charge for the exit door of the 307-year-old Union.
Setting the scene
History, nationhood and its relationship with the present day is a funny thing, especially in a country, or Kingdom, that has been knocking around for the last one thousand years, give or take a few comings and goings together with the odd invasion or ill-tempered revolution. History is all about context, but once the dust has settled and the choices made at the time have been woven into the cultural fabric of a nation, no one seems in a hurry to go messing about them without a really good reason.
In fact, there hasn't really been cause to revisit the design or format of the Union Flag since it's last great revision in 1801 when the St Patrick's Cross was skilfully added (with some unusual symmetry) to form the present day design following Ireland's union with Great Britain. Even though that particular union didn't work out so well - only 121 years later Ireland had its independence - no change was deemed necessary given that the North had opted out and remained part of the Union. The other glaring anomaly (to 21st century eyes at least) is the absence of Wales being represented in the design of the Union Flag, a result of Wales having been considered part of the English Crown but a mere principality back in 1606 when someone first thought to combine the St George's Cross and the St Andrew's Cross.
Framing the problem
It seems to me that should Scotland choose to go it alone, some kind of re-appraisal of the Union Flag would be unavoidable this time round, which poses a difficult design brief for a nation that many would say had already been suffering a bit of an identity crisis in recent years anyway.
So, where does that leave us?
Well, take away the Scottish St Andrew's Cross and things all start to look a little sparse and disjointed. Charles Ashburner, chief executive of the Flag Institute, has already drawn up a proposal that will see the blue field of the St Andrew's cross replaced with the black field of the Welsh St David's Cross. The yellow cross of the St David's Cross then becomes the surrounding border colour for the St George's Cross.
This is all very well and good, but despite having the added benefit of finally put paid to those racists who inexplicably tell us that the colour black doesn't feature in the Union Jack, it does to my mind smack a little of a fudge. So, let's look at some of the other far less likely options that myself and Liam, another designer at Venn, have come up with.
Approach number one: The 'Reductive Heraldic' flag
A first port of call might be to investigate the symbols and imagery that we have historically ascribed to the peoples of England, (Northern) Ireland and Wales. A quick look through the history books shows us that heraldic symbols and imagery have played big part in the representation of the state through the years.
Taking inspiration from the coat of arms of England from the period 1509-1554, this design sees the Lion (England), Dragon (Wales) in fearsome poses, sat across a juxtaposed St George's Cross and St Patrick's cross. In the centre, we see the three symbols of the three elements of the Union, and a fourth element, the English Crown, which is common to all members of the United Kingdom. The forms have been simplified a bit from standard heraldic ones, so it looks a bit cleaner. This one might play well with the tourists/export markets who tend to enjoy a bit of perceived medieval history, but also retains some trace of the current flag's design.
Something didn't feel right though. The lion and the dragon were a bit on the aggressive side, and the 1509 Latin inscription - 'Peace is obtained through war' didn't seem like the right message for a nation in the 21st Century. Keeping with the heraldic theme, the next design retains a lot of symmetry and overall Union flag feel to it, but I enlarged the St George's Cross and placed it on a black field with reference to the St David's cross. Finally, a symbolic Rose (England), and on either side, the Irish Shamrock, and the Welsh Daffodil both appear, all set on a heraldic Lilly. It seemed to tick all the boxes - but then it just brought to mind a range of John Lewis novelty cushion covers.
I think this is the essential problem for the Union Flag - it has achieved that rare status of visual pastiche. Liberally daubed across every form of manufactured commodity from T-shirts to toilet roll dispensers, it's often easy to overlook what it stands for. Would changing it, even slightly as Charles Ashburner has proposed, bring to mind just a cheap imitation of the original emblem? As though maybe the lithographic plates had gotten out of alignment during the print run? Something more radical was called for.
Approach number two: A rallying cry for the United Kingdom
This version looks ahead to a United Kingdom in crisis following the departure of the Scottish contingent of the Union. How will the UK convince the global community that Britain is a safe bet, now that it is no longer Great Britain? Looking closer to home, how will the government of the day issue an effective rallying call to the people of the United Kingdom?
Political propaganda will be the order of the day, to contain those grumbling regional separatists. Who better to do this than Britannia, protector of these shores, and a figure who in name at least refers to the original Roman term name for England and Wales (i.e. no Scotland - they built a famous wall to keep them out of Britannia).
An appropriation of the work of Russian soviet-era designer Alexander Rodchenko, who produced now iconic work that was often used for soviet state propaganda purposes. There's a nod to the United States Stars & Stripes with the circle of stars around Britannia. There are 62 in all, one for each of the Ceremonial counties of England, Wales and Northern Ireland. I think the Union will be in for a rocky ride should Scotland leave this Thursday. My feeling is that the pressures for further devolution of regions in the face of the North-South divide will only increase. Maybe the future points towards a more federal, locally governed future for the United Kingdom?
Before looking into a new flag for the United Kingdom, I first wanted to understand why national flags, besides Nepal and Switzerland (as far as I'm aware) are all rectangular in shape. I quickly found that this was down to the wind and specifically naval requirements. As a triangular flag may not fly so proudly, any early ideas I had about creating a really standout, shapely flag had soon dissipated and I decided to go with something that has stood the test of time - a rectangle.
As already covered by Geoff, The Union Flag is a combination of the flags of England, Scotland and Northern Ireland and currently doesn't represent Wales in any form. One simple and straightforward option for the new flag of the United Kingdom would be to substitute the saltire of St Andrew with something that represents Wales.
No, I don't like it either.
Before starting on this brief I had a good think about Great Britain. I collected all my thoughts on the country, from what I had learned from my family growing up, to what I see in the media on a daily basis. Coming from a northern, working class family - like something out of Billy Elliot - my initial thoughts were soured by issues regularly aired in the sensationalist tabloid press. After mulling over this for a short period I decided to focus on the good parts, the stuff we don't see enough of in the newspapers.
I vividly recall the horrific story of Lee Rigby in Woolwich, the media was awash with stories of terrorism and fear yet the story least publicised was that of the 3 brave British ladies who sat with Lee Rigby during his final moments. More recently, Manchester Dogs home was subject to an arson attack, within 48 hours the people of the United Kingdom had donated over one million pounds. I want to produce a flag that captures this very spirit of the United Kingdom, what the media doesn't show – a flag that portrays our grit, loyalty and bravery as a collective.
Should the people of Scotland vote yes in the independence referendum, The United Kingdom would be made up of 3 countries, England, Northern Ireland and Wales – each of these could bring something to the flag equally. England is recognised globally by the three lions motif, but can also be recognised by the traditional symbol of the rose from the Tudor dynasty. Wales' global image is that of a dragon and more close to home we associate the country with daffodils and leeks. Ireland is known for being a very green country, hence its poetic name of the Emerald Isle, but is also famous for its agriculture and shamrocks in particular.
Each of the countries in the United Kingdom have a common factor in that they all have a national plant, flower or root. One option would be to produce a flag that incorporates all of these in one way or another. Alternatively, an amalgamation of the Lion (England), Dragon (Wales) and the Harp (Ireland) would be an idea worth exploring. I went for the greener option.
The above flag incorporates the English Rose, the Welsh Daffodil and the Irish Flax, which is currently represented on the pound coin, flags and symbols throughout Northern Ireland. Each element of the flag is constructed based upon the Flower of Life, the culturally significant, symmetrical geometrical figure, to ensure uniformity throughout.
Finally, we need to remember the far reaching influence of the United Kingdom. The influence of Great Britain stretches far beyond the British Isles and as such the Union Flag can be found throughout the commonwealth. So, how would this new design affect other flags when placed in the upper left corner?
The flag of Australia doesn't look quite the same, does it? The rebranding of the Union Flag is a global issue and the weight of a potential redesign needs to be considered. Hopefully, regardless of the result from Scotland's referendum, we get to keep the flag we're so famous for.
As design briefs go, rebooting brand Britain is about as complex and difficult as it gets. The political interests, religious issues and economic implications guarantee that any designer who steps up will be on a hiding to nothing.