The people of Scotland will vote in a referendum on the 18th September 2014 on the question “Should Scotland be an independent country”. Should the “Yes’ case be carried, some Australian opinion writers have happily concluded that this will mean the Australian flag will have to be changed.
When Ireland left the United Kingdom in 1922, the Australian flag did not change. Why? Because the Union Jack displayed on the Australian flag does not represent a foreign country. It represents the union in Australia of people from Ireland, Scotland and England to create a new people. At first they were called British, then Austral-Britons, then Australians.
That uniting of three peoples that occurred here, not in the British Isles, made today’s multicultural Australia socially, culturally and politically possible. The Union Jack was the vexillological emblem invented in 1801 (thirteen years after British colonization of New South Wales began) to represent the union of the three kingdoms of Scotland, Ireland and England.
In Australia the people of those three kingdoms united with each other and with other peoples to form the new Commonwealth of Australia in 1901, and they chose the Union Jack in combination with the Southern Cross to portray both the success of that union and its future prospects under southern skies. Whether the date of adoption is 1903 or 1954 or any other year, the fact is that the Australian flag, as designed by Australian residents and adopted by Australian authorities, includes St Andrew’s Cross because of that history, not because any Scottish authority gave some permission for its use, a permission that could be withdrawn at any time.
Just as Ireland’s separation from the United Kingdom did not result in the Union Jack design, as used in either the Australian or British or any other flag, being changed by deleting the St Patrick’s Cross, so any separation of Scotland from the United Kingdom in 2014 will not lead inevitably to deleting St Andrew’s Cross from the Australian or British or any other flag.
I am a sixth generation ‘Old Australian’, as the current condescension terms it, with an ancestry that, from the time each stepped of the boat, is 42% English, 37% Irish, 9% Scottish, 8% Welsh and 4% Indian. They all arrived before 1901, and gave me a genealogy that is purely the product of Empire – a genealogy that is representative of many Australians (see 2011 census data ). I can never “go back” to anywhere, to any land of ancestral purity. I will only ever be ‘miscegenated’, for which I am ever thankful. To be Australian is to be more than some generic Anglo-Celtic- Subcontinental blend but at the same time it is not to forget any of those ancestries and how their fusion creates the whole.
The Scots are in the Australian DNA, and we have every right to care about the referendum and its outcomes, to look deeper than the Braveheart nationalism of Australian media opinionistas. Australia’s Scotland, as distinct from Scotland’s Scotland, as represented in the jack’s union of crosses on the Australian flag, stands for a sort of wholeness which nationalists either cannot understand or, if they do, to which they are antagonistic.
While I wish the Scots all the best in whichever course they choose in the referendum, I can’t help thinking that I would feel somewhat diminished by a ‘Yes’ victory that I can only see, from my partly Scottish-descended but not Scottish perspective, as a triumph for a myopic, excluding twentieth century nationalism.
In Australia, over several generations, the unity of three peoples opened the way to more people joining that union, that common wealth, and creating a new people. Without that original union could the success of the 1967 referendum, which metaphorically continued the expansion of that union, ever have been imagined or made possible? These are the patterns I discern, that is the future I want to continue, that I imagine will endure under the Federation Star.
White Australia was the great cul-de-sac in Australian history. Derisively championing the erasure of St Andrew’s Cross from the Australian flag is, on the one hand a fairly cheap shot at a prime minister who gauchely stated, in somewhat mangled phraseology, that while he did not seek to tell the Scots how to vote he saw a value and a freedom in unity; and on the other hand reveals a rather pathetic yearning for the comforts of that old white nationalism.
The only certainty in the gleeful assertions that the Australian flag will have to be changed if Scotland decides to secede from the United Kingdom is the romanticist desire to witness a satisfying humiliation of prime minister Tony Abbott. Schadenfreude is not an attractive emotion, even less so when displayed as ‘humour’.
Changing the Australian flag may or may not be an idea whose time has come, I don’t know. But trying to highjack the decision by the Scottish people on the future form of their state is about as contrived as it gets. Why not extend the logic by banning the use of the colour blue in the Australian flag on the grounds that it, too, seems to be derived from the blue field of the Scottish flag? Just as the humour is duplicitous, the argument is absurd. Even some in the media seem to have realised this, with the Daily Mail Australia’s April Fools Day spoof of the whole story reprinted again this weekend.
Whatever the Scottish people decide on the 18th September, it will not provide any reason – logical, legal, political, rhetorical, vexillological – for tearing St Andrew’s Cross from the Australian flag, and symbolically ripping the idea of unity in diversity from the body politic of our commonwealth.
References in chronological order:
‘Tony Abbott criticized over comments opposing Scottish independence’, ABC News Online, 17 August 2014
Letters, ‘Don’t take the low road to Scotland’, Sydney Morning Herald, 18 August 2014, page 15
Letters, ‘Flagging problems with Scottish independence’, Crikey, 19 August 2014
‘Could the Scottish vote for independence lead to a change in the Australian flag’, The Australian, 19 August 2014
Letters, (no title), Sydney Morning Herald, 20 August 2014, page 16
Simon Leo Brown, ‘Could the Scottish independence referendum change Australia’s flag?’, ABC News Online, 22 August 2014
John Birmingham, ‘From Australia with Love: Double-o Credlin to the rescue’, Sydney Morning Herald News Review, 23-24 August 2014, page 40
Paul Harris,’Scot-free: Union Jack gets a Yes vote makeover: Secret Government papers reveal how flag will look if Scotland votes for independence'”, Daily Mail Australia, 24 August 2014, originally published 1 April 2014