Tomorrow history will be made if Scotland votes for independence. A lot has been written in the press and debated about the reasons for and against leaving the union with England. It’s a confusing issue, even for the English. The actual union is between the Crowns of England and Scotland, not the nations. Scotland has always kept its own laws, legal system, church and even public holidays. As the centuries progressed and power moved away from the Crown and onto Parliament after the English Civil War, London gained more control over new laws that applied to both nations – tax, economy, defence and the health system.
I’m sure there’s one
specific historical person who’ll be turning in his grave at the thought of
England and Scotland going their separate ways. And the surprising thing about
him is that he was Scottish.
King James VI of
Scotland, who was also King James I of England, fought several years against
his advisers in favour of a union of the two crowns.
James inherited the
English throne in 1603 on the death of Queen Elizabeth I. After such a strong
female monarch England was slightly taken aback by the less macho James. There
were leaflets being printed which summed up what a lot of people thought –
“Elizabeth was king, now James is Queen”.
This sentiment was felt
generally around the country. Everywhere he went he was met by cheering crowds
who, it is claimed, shouted out “God bless Queen James”!
But this wasn’t just a
reflection of his style of rule in his first years but because he had a
reputation for having a young toy-boy on tow most of the time. This started
before he came to England. He had several aristocratic young men as his
“favourites”, and even after he inherited the English throne and had married
there were several young men close at hand. After the informal separation from
his wife two particular young men attracted his attention, and the concern of
the court. They were the Earl of Southampton and the Duke of Buckingham.
James was also keen on
uniting the two countries in some way. He wasn’t keen on uniting the
governments and wanted the Scottish laws and government to remain separate. But
he DID want to unite the Crowns, the thrones and defence of the realms into one
new kingdom. He gave this kingdom the name Great Britain.
The main defence of any
island kingdom is the navy, and the English navy was the best in the world,
famous for its defeat of the Spanish Armada and for its mastery of circumnavigation
and exploration. It was also a period of piracy. The English preferred to call
this privateering (one of my Tudor cousins, Hercules Foljambe, was a
To prevent ships from
being attacked on the high seas by others from their own country they flew
national identification flags. With his united navy King James decided a newidentification flag should be used, so he asked the admirals and heralds to
come up with a suitable design. They tried to unite the English and Scottish
flags (still, officially, the ONLY national flags for the British people). What
they came up with are the designs below.
King James didn’t like
any of them. He told the admirals and heralds to go away and try again. Perhaps
he gave them an idea of what he envisaged, I don’t know, but when they came
back they had produced a design so unique, so distinctive, and so classic that
it’ll be very familiar. This is it –
At this stage Ireland
was not united to Great Britain so its red diagonal cross is missing from this
original design. James liked this a lot, probably because it inadvertently
disregarded the rule that no precedence should be given to the English or
Scottish flag. Why? Because it’s a heraldic flag – when described in official
heraldic language the background is described first as the important base upon
which all the other elements are placed. The background is the blue of the
Scottish national flag. Scotland has heraldic precedence! Perhaps James
realised this – he hasn’t been called The Wisest Fool in Christendom for
You’ve probably had a
thought by now – if Scotland becomes independent what happens to the Union Jack
(or Flag, it doesn’t matter what you call it, trust me, I’ve been a member of
The Flag Institute since 1988)? Will it lose the blue? The Flag Institute asked
its members a vote on what should happen. Most of them said a new flag should
be designed. I didn’t, and for one reason. The Union Jack and the name Great
Britain signify the union of the Crowns of England and Scotland, not their
political parliaments or governments. All through the independence campaign it
has been made clear that the Queen will remain as the Head of State and Queen
of an independent Scotland. So really there should be no change. Think of it
like the situation when Australia and New Zealand, both realms formerly within
the British Empire, became independent. They retained the Queen as head of
state and the UK naval ensigns they had used while colonies. The political
independence of Scotland is similar.
Whether the people in
power, or indeed fellow members of the Flag Institute, are fully aware or
understand the historical background is questionable.
Its all very confusing.
At least if parliament decides to consign the name Great Britain to history
we’ll still have the United Kingdom. The full name of the country is the United
Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland. The only change will be the
words “Great Britain” being substituted by “England”.
Before I go, an
explanation about the UK’s national flag. The Union Jack is the flag of the
Crowns not the people. There is NO national flag for the British people apart
from the individual flags for England, Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland.
Within the present century the Prime Minister, Tony Blair, had to state in
parliament that the government “permits” the British people to use the Union
Jack “as if it was the national flag”. No Prime Minister has yet declared that
it IS the national flag of the people. It is only in the last ten years that
people in the UK didn’t have to get permission to fly the Union Jack outside
their own homes!
No doubt the politicians
won’t care about any of this. Whichever way the vote goes tomorrow I hope that
the two most important things about any nation on an international stage – it’s
name and it’s flag – will not change. I’m sure King James would think the same.
After all, he chose them both, and I can’t think of any other queer creations
that have made a bigger impact on world history in the last 500 years than the
Great Britain and it Union Jack.