Who Doesn’t Like the Union Jack?

Guardian art critic and famed contrarian Jonathan Jones, that’s who.

Jonathan Jones (photo: Simon & Schuster Canada)
Jonathan Jones (photo: Simon & Schuster Canada)

The decision this summer by the British team at the World Athletics Championships in Beijing not to include the Union Jack on team uniforms prompted Jones to write an essay slamming the UK flag.  He titled it We don’t need the union jack on Team GB’s kit – it’s ugly and divisive.  Here are the highlights (or lowlights, depending on your feelings towards that flag) of what he says, in his own words:

  • The trouble with the United Kingdom’s flag, when you come to think about it, is that it is really quite ugly. … It looks crap.
  • [It’s a] jagged, explosive, aggressive flag.
  • [It looks like] it embodies an imperial arrogance or a coercive union that keeps Scotland in its place.
  • With its cluttered burst of both right-angled and diagonal radiating lines, the British flag is heavy and overbearing, forceful and strident.
  • Instead of suggesting unity, its sharp-angled divisions imply fragmentation. In fact, the relentless dynamism of its design evokes the shock and shatter of a cannon ball smashing into a French ship at the Battle of Trafalgar.
  • You don’t see many other countries imitating the British flag.
  • In its very origin, [it’s] a compromise, a merging of different national symbols.
  • Perhaps the union flag itself is a psychological boost to nationalists who want to break up Britain. Its sheer pompous ugliness unconsciously damages the image of the union.

He concludes:

So here is an idea to save the United Kingdom as a political, emotional and cultural entity. Let’s invent a new flag. Let’s visually forget the history of internal compromise and external violence this flag so unattractively embodies. A new flag for a new Britain might help us love our – whole – nation again.

As one might expect, judging by the comments and other internet reactions, the article was not well received, particularly by conservatives (the Guardian is explicitly left-leaning).  For the vexillologist, however, it is noteworthy as a rare example of flag aesthetics being discussed in the popular media, from a standpoint of art criticism.  Whether or not one agrees with Jones’ phrased-to-maximize-controversy assertions, his piece does raise some interesting questions for further research and discussion by the flag studies community:

  • If we are to consider flags as art, what practices of art criticism would help us to see them in new ways?
  • How would a flag convey pomposity and arrogance, or their opposite?
  • What are different tactics for representing unity?  Are some more effective than others?
  • What is the role of compromise vs. individual artistic expression in flag design?  Are the results of compromise always “compromised” aesthetically?
  • Why hasn’t the union jack, unlike the US flag or the French flag, been more widely imitated?  Are there examples beyond the Basque flag and the provincial flag of Newfoundland and Labrador?

2 thoughts on “Who Doesn’t Like the Union Jack?”

  1. A very obvious opinion of someone projecting his own hates and prejudices upon the Union Jack. If I were to do the same to the UJ, I would see democracy, law and order and respect for the individual citizen as symbolised by the flag.

    That it has not been more widely copied shows its inherent uniqueness to the British Isles. What is more telling is how many countries have adopted Westminster style representative government…in that respect, the UK is the most copied country in the world.

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