Inside Story

Current affairs & culture from Australia and beyond

1605 words

The British ensign

24 January 2012

Australia’s attachment to a flag with the Union Jack in the top corner puts it in odd company, writes Henry Reynolds


Photo: memphysema/ Flickr

Photo: memphysema/ Flickr

HE WAS a big bloke, tall and barrel-chested. He was walking quickly, elbowing his way through the crowd. But what caught my attention was his shirt. It sported a large Australian flag and underneath it the slogan: “Love It or Leave It.” It was not the flag itself that was eye-catching or distinctive. On that Australia Day in Sydney they were everywhere. They were carried on poles, worn as cloaks, printed on shirts and skirts, shoes and socks and shorts. Some people were content with one flag, others, more demonstrative in nature, had multiple copies. Some family groups wore so many flags in so many places that it was hard with a quick glance to guess the collective tally. In all, there must have been hundreds of thousands of flags on display in downtown Sydney alone.

I had never seen anything like it before. Red, white and blue clearly ruled. There was a scattering of yellow and green shirts but, perhaps more significantly, during a day spent wandering among the crowds I only saw two Aboriginal flags and one was flying from a public building. I found it hard not to contrast Australia Day 2010 with that of 1988, when I had also been in Sydney. Back then the Aboriginal march in the afternoon had rivalled the official ceremonies in the morning, which greeted the arrival of the tall ships. Aboriginal flags may well have outnumbered Australian ones. Even-handed patriots carried both. The only Aboriginal presence in Sydney on this occasion was a low-key cultural ceremony at dawn, which received no publicity at all as far as I could see.

The instinctive, ubiquitous embrace of the flag pleased neither those who professed great respect for the blue ensign – the version of the flag with which we are most familiar – or those who wished to see it replaced. Sticklers for protocol wrote to national newspapers decrying the promiscuous use of the flag pointing out that it was not meant to be a garment, should not be allowed to touch the ground, should never be sat on or used as a covering or tablecloth. Those who wanted a new flag were perplexed that the outpouring of sentiment seemed to be quite untouched by the debates on the subject or the research which had been published about the provenance of the blue ensign and what it actually signified.

For me, the shirt’s injunction to love the flag brought back other, much older, memories. I remembered that as a child I didn’t love the flag at all. I recalled those times at the end of the war when flags must have been made available for marches and parades. We had three in our family – the Union Jack and versions of the Australian flag with blue and red backgrounds. And there was a fixed hierarchy of desirability. My big brother always took the Union Jack, my sister always had the red ensign and, being the youngest, I had to make do with the blue ensign. It symbolised my lack of status.

Years later, when researching the history of the flag I realised how my childhood memory reflected the usage common up until the 1950s. The blue ensign did not become the official Australian flag until 1954. Up until then the Union Jack had been the most widely flown flag and when it was used in conjunction with the two ensigns it took precedence over them, being flown always in the dominant position.

The overwhelming impression of Sydney’s festival of the flag was that it was, above all, about Britishness. Both visually and aesthetically the flag is dominated by the Union Jack in the upper left-hand corner, or the quadrant as it is called. And the British flag is just too well and too universally known for there to be any ambiguity about its provenance or its meaning. It is one of the best-known brands in the world. As a history of the flag illustrates, there is no accident in this.

It is true that the Australian flag was chosen following a national competition in 1901. But the competition was a British, not an Australian, idea. And it was to choose not a national flag as such, but an ensign to be flown on ships. It was for this reason that the two ensigns could not be formally adopted until they had been approved by the admiralty. And it was clear at the time that the only possible design for such an ensign was one that carried the union flag in the quadrant and a local symbol on the fly, or “defacing the fly” in the language of flags. With its two ensigns Australia joined the fifty or so other British colonies that had blue or red ensigns defaced with a local symbol. In other words, it was one of the least original flags in the world. But it was the only type of flag that Australia was permitted to have. The Britishness of the flag, apparent to everyone in 1901, was re-emphasised in 1954 with the passage of the Flags Act, which for the first time declared the blue ensign to be Australia’s national flag. But in doing so the preamble of the act declared that the Australian flag was the British blue ensign. And if it was the British blue ensign then it must still be so. No other interpretation seems possible. It is, therefore, a very odd symbol to be carried about and worn by true-blue patriots who demand you love it or leave.

The Union Jack in the quadrant declared that Australia, though federated, was still subject to British sovereignty. The flag displayed the reality of the constitutional relationship between the two countries. It was an entirely appropriate flag in 1901. It ceased to be once the Empire fragmented. It was for this reason that so many of the British colonies took down the old colonial flag and ran their own distinctive banner up the flag pole at independence. It was a symbolic act of great resonance. It was a course followed too by those countries that had attained Dominion status in the 1920s. Ireland, South Africa and eventually Canada all took down the old ensigns and most of the Canadian provinces subsequently followed suit.

But what is not often appreciated in Australia is that even the constituent parts of the United Kingdom have adopted new distinctive flags during the last generation. Northern Ireland has had its own flag since 1953, Wales from 1959, the Shetland Islands from 1969, the Orkney Islands from 1975, Jersey from 1981 and Guernsey from 1985. The Cross of St Andrew flies throughout Scotland , not the union flag. Even in England itself the red cross of St George is increasingly used.

There are still places in the world that have flags very similar to Australia’s blue ensign. With the exception of New Zealand and Fiji they are the tiny island remnants of Empire: Tuvalu, the Pitcairn Islands, Niue and the Cook Islands in the Pacific; Bermuda, the Virgin Islands, the Cayman Islands, Montserrat, and the Turks and Caicos Islands in the Caribbean; St Helena, South Georgia, Tristan da Cunha and the Falkland Islands. They vary in population from Bermuda, the largest, with 68,000, to the Pitcairn Islands, with fifty. Ten of the islands have fewer than 10,000 people; all of these are administered as British Overseas Territories. It is strange company for Australia to find itself in. If this does not produce any embarrassment, there is also a proliferation of blue ensigns in Britain itself, where they are used by government departments and even more prolifically by yacht clubs, which have been able to adopt blue ensigns since 1922. There are now about one hundred of them.

BLUE ensigns may not be as common as they were at the height of Empire but there are still many of them around, flying from flagpoles on small dependent island territories, above yacht club marinas or outside British government departments. They are perfectly appropriate for those venues. But on any objective assessment it is a very strange flag for an independent, self-confident middle-sized power like Australia.

The inescapable link between the blue ensign and dependent colonial status was discussed in the early 1950s when it was decided to formally adopt a national flag. A departmental committee set up by prime minister Robert Menzies in 1950 reported on the need for a flag that would be an emblem of the international status, national ideals and aspirations of a people “occupying a portion of the land surface of the globe.” The blue ensign was inappropriate for this purpose, the committee declared, because it did not denote national sovereignty. Indeed international practice pre-supposed that a flag like the blue ensign signified a state or territory “not enjoying full international sovereignty because it embodied the national flag of its superior state.” The blue ensign was typically colonial and its continued use perpetuated the country’s colonial status. “It was,” therefore, “an anachronism to retain the Union Jack in a truly Australian flag.”

Menzies’s government paid scant regard to the views of its bureaucrats. At a time when the old order was undergoing unprecedented change, when countries all around the world were choosing new flags to express their ideals and aspirations, Australia’s leaders opted for the blue ensign, thereby choosing dependence and anachronism. But even Menzies, the quintessential Anglophile, would probably be surprised that sixty years later so many people choose to drape themselves in the flag which they believe is an expression of Australian nationalism. •

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Julia Gillard (above) has threatened to revoke $450 million in reward payments to the states and territories.
Photo: Australian Services Union, NSW & ACT

Julia Gillard (above) has threatened to revoke $450 million in reward payments to the states and territories.
Photo: Australian Services Union, NSW & ACT