The Union Jack
In 1603, Scotland and England were united for the first time under a common monarch, King James I. To represent this union a new flag was created, a combination of the English flag of Saint George – a red cross – and the Saint Andrew’s Cross of Scotland – a white saltire (diagonal cross) on a blue background. And thus the Union Jack was born, and for better or worse it’s been the symbol of the United Kingdom ever since.
The present flag design was completed in 1800, when Ireland joined the kingdom of Great Britain, and a new red saltire was added to represent the Cross of Saint Patrick. The Welsh are not represented in the design at all - a long standing grievance in that part of the world.
Note that the red diagonals mean that the flag has a right side up: it’s easy to accidentally fly it upside down. To check it’s correct, in the top left hand corner, the broad portion of the white cross should be uppermost.
The Union Jack is easily one of the world’s most recognizable flags, partly thanks to the zeal with which Victorian colonizers spread it all over the world. Indeed, even today it remains an element in the flags of ex-colonies Australia and New Zealand, both of which have a Union Jack in the ‘canton’ - the upper left-hand quarter. Many more countries used to do the same thing, among them Malta, India and Nigeria, but they all ditched the Union Jack as they became independent. The last time this happened was in 1997, when Hong Kong’s flag was lost with the transfer of the colony to China.
Though it’s a iconic design, in recent years many British people felt uneasy contemplating it, as the Union Jack had become tainted by its association with right wing anti-immigration groups. That has changed in the last decade as strident public assertions of national identity have become to be seen as positive rather than dubious – and you’ll see many more flags flying than you used to; indeed, Gordon Brown has ordered that government officials get more into the habit of flying the flag from their buildings. Designers have been quick to latch on to the symbol, which now pops up in all sorts of places – on Converse shoes and Chanel bags, for instance, and Gerri Halliwell of the Spice Girls famously wore a daringly short Union Jack dress on stage. It seems the Union Jack is flying high again.