New Zealand’s Flag Referendum and Theories of Voting

by Erik Herron, PhD
Eberly Family Professor of Political Science
West Virginia University
(from Vexilloid Tabloid #57)


The disciplines of vexillology and psephology (the scientific study of elections) have many commonalities: both focus on how design and representation intersect. New Zealand’s 2015–16 Flag Referendums caused these two worlds to collide. This article assesses the process and the results of the first round of voting and links the flag referendums to fundamental theories from the scholarly literature on voting. While the first referendum produced a winning design that is facing off against the current national flag during the second round, the outcome of the vote may not reflect the “people’s will”.

Choosing Among Five

In the first Flag Referendum, held 20 November–11 December 2015, New Zealanders voted on five designs to determine which would challenge the current national flag in March 2016.

The incumbent

The ballot included images of all five options arrayed horizontally in random order, an empty box below each design for voters to enter their rank-order, and the question “If the New Zealand Flag changes, which flag would you prefer?”  To cast a valid ballot, the voter had to indicate a first preference for at least one design, and was permitted to rank-order the five alternatives.1

A - Silver Fern A
Option A: Silver Fern A

The first design (Option A), features a white fern frond extending diagonally from the bottom left and dividing the flag into black (left) and blue (right) sections. The black section occupies the canton area, but is roughly triangular in shape. The blue section   covers approximately three quarters of the flag area and includes four red stars, outlined in white, in the shape of the Southern Cross (I call it Silver Fern A).

B - Red Peak
Option B: Red Peak

The second design, Option B, is called “Red Peak”. The flag features a large, white chevron, with the upper left colored black, upper right colored blue, and the center triangle colored red.

C - Koru
Option C: Koru

Option C, called “Koru”, features a black and white design. The right half of the flag is black, with a black spiral extending into the white (left) half. The Koru is a traditional Maori fern symbol, representing “…new life, growth, strength, and peace…” and is featured on the national Maori flag as well.

Option D: Silver Fern D

Option D (Silver Fern D) is also black and white, with a fern frond extending from lower left to upper right. The right side of the flag is black with a white frond; the left side features the opposite colors.

E - Silver Fern E
Option E: Silver Fern E

The final design, Option E (Silver Fern E), is virtually identical to Silver Fern A stylistically, but features a different color palette.  Notably, the areas of Silver Fern A that were black are instead red.

To win the first round of voting, a flag design needed to garner 50% +1 of the first-preference votes. If no design received a majority in the first round, the lowest-performing design would be eliminated and its second-place votes would be distributed to the remaining designs. Any ballots from the losing design that did not have second-preferences selected would be eliminated from the count, and the majority needed to win would be recalculated based on the new valid vote total. If no design were to receive a majority in the second round, the next lowest-performing design would be eliminated and its lower-level preferences would be distributed among the remaining designs. In the third round of preference vote distribution, third preference votes might be included as supporters of the design eliminated in the first round may have chosen the design eliminated in round two as their second preference. Ballots without valid second- or third-preferences would be eliminated and the victory threshold once again recalculated. The process would continue until an option received the requisite majority of valid votes.



1,546,734 citizens submitted votes, constituting 48.8% of registered voters. Overall, turnout was lower than in national parliamentary elections, and toward the low end of public referendums. Of the thirteen past referendums held in New Zealand, the Flag Referendum has the third lowest turnout, surpassing only the Fire Service Referendum of 1995 (27.0%) and the Energy Referendum of 2013 (45.1%).

The turnout data suggest that participation by Maori citizens was lower than non-Maoris.  New Zealand has two types of districts: general and Maori.  The Maori districts overlap general electorates, but are designed to accommodate and better represent the Maori people in parliamentary elections.  Turnout in Maori constituencies, and in Manukau City (South Auckland), was substantially lower than in most other districts.  While participation ranged from 37.9% to 60.1% outside of these areas, turnout in the Maori regions and Manukau City ranged from 23.7% to 30.5%.

Voter Preferences

Unfortunately, New Zealand did not publish constituency-level data on voting preferences in the first round. If those data were available, we would be able to investigate how preferences in flag design varied by region, and we could develop some sense of the rank-ordered preferences of different regions.

The first round results produced clear preferences for fern-based designs. Options A, D, and E garnered 87% of the valid first-preference votes. Red Peak took 9%, and Koru 4%.

The first flag to be eliminated was Option C (Koru); its second-preference votes were distributed to the remaining competitors.  If no second-preference was listed, the votes were rendered non-transferable. Koru’s 52,710 votes were distributed to Silver Fern D (37%),  Red Peak (24%), Non-Transferable (22%), Silver Fern A (10%), and Silver Fern E (8%).  The second preferences for Koru voters demonstrated greater support for the designs that did not feature the Southern Cross. The second-preference votes of the two Southern Cross designs did not exceed the non-transferable sum; in short, more supporters of Koru preferred no other option than the sum of those who preferred to retain the Southern Cross. The top second-preference for Koru supporters was the other black and white design, Silver Fern D; and Red Peak.  With caution interpreting individual preferences from aggregate vote tallies, it seems that Koru supporters generally desired a replacement flag with limited references to the status quo design.

Because the first round of vote redistribution did not yield a majority winner, a second design was eliminated and the votes were redistributed. Interpreting the second round of vote redistribution becomes more complicated as the second preferences of the eliminated flag are redistributed along with the third preferences of Koru supporters who identified the eliminated flag as their second preference.  Silver Fern D was eliminated second, with 12,708 of its 98,595 votes (13%) deemed non-transferable. The remaining votes were allocated to Silver Fern A (49%), Silver Fern E (23%), and Red Peak (15%).  This redistribution favors both design and color scheme.  The black-oriented Silver Fern A design garnered far more preference votes in this distribution than the alternatives. These votes likely include second-preference Silver Fern D votes, and third-preference Koru votes.  In other words, voters who supported black/white designs seem to exhibit a preference for the version of the Silver Fern that refers least to the current national flag.

Red Peak was eliminated in the third and final distribution round. This round of voting produced the winner: Silver Fern A. Red Peak’s 149,321 votes were distributed to Silver Fern A (39%) and Silver Fern E (32%), with 29% non-transferable.  Red Peak’s votes—emanating from first-preference votes for it as well as lower-level preferences for Silver Fern D and Koru—were divided almost in thirds, with somewhat more support for the winning design and somewhat less support for no alternative. If 35% of the voters whose ballots contained no additional preferences in the third distribution round had selected Silver Fern E, it would have been victorious.

Overall, New Zealand’s voters expressed substantially stronger preferences for designs featuring the Southern Cross than the alternatives.  Combined, Silver Fern A and E received 82% of first preference votes. Silver Fern E, which received the most first-preference votes, ultimately lost the balloting because transfers from losing options—especially Koru and Silver Fern D—favored the less traditionally-colored alternative.

New Zealand’s Referendum and Theories of Voting

Does the victory of Silver Fern A in the first Flag Referendum accurately reflect the preferences of the New Zealand electorate? Two issues raise questions about the outcome: the distribution of non-voter preferences and the problems inherent in selecting a winner among more than two alternatives.

From a normative perspective, the turnout for New Zealand’s Flag Referendum could raise questions about the representativeness of the outcome. Fewer than half of eligible voters participated, and the final design was ultimately preferred by just over 50% of the voters. This means that only around 25% of eligible voters cast a vote for the winning option. If we assume that the distribution of preferences among non-voters is similar to the distribution of preferences among voters, then no concerns arise about the appropriateness of the choice. Under these assumptions, full participation would yield the same outcome.

But, if the distribution of preferences among non-voters differs from participants, and non-voting is related to an important feature of voters, then the outcome may not reflect the “people’s will”. As noted above, turnout in Maori regions seems to lag behind general districts, suggesting that non-participation may be linked systematically to meaningful population features. Whether or not these features are related to voting preferences for one or more of the designs is unknown.  However, if non-voters systematically favored an alternative design, their non-participation could have altered the outcome.

While some might dismiss this potential concern as citizens in democratic societies exercising the right to abstain from voting, election research raises another issue.  The scholarly literature on voting, especially in the area of Social Choice Theory, raises doubts that any method of voting for more than two alternatives can unambiguously reveal the “people’s will”. Contemporary Social Choice Theory,2 developed from Kenneth Arrow’s Nobel Prize-winning work in the 1950s, demonstrates that no method of choosing a winner among multiple options satisfies all conditions of logic and fairness commonly associated with elections.3

The New Zealand Flag Referendum illustrates the voting problems noted in the Social Choice literature. A voting outcome that reflects the “people’s will” should not be contingent upon the rules used to select it. In the case of the New Zealand Flag Referendum, different methods of selection, given citizen preferences, could produce different outcomes. If we assume that citizen behavior is fixed, a plurality vote would have selected Silver Fern E as the victorious design.4  But the ranked-choice method used for the referendum yielded Silver Fern A as the winner. The rules selected to adjudicate among the choices affected the outcome. Since different rules could produce different winners, even if the voters’ preferences do not change,5 the “people’s will” may be unknowable. Thus, the policy outcomes produced by voting procedures should not be interpreted as equivalent to the “people’s will.”

The only method of choice that satisfies the conditions of logic and fairness outlined by Arrow is a majority vote with a binary choice.6 But true binary choices are rare. Often they are manufactured by a mechanism designed to reduce choices to two, but this mechanism does not meet the criteria for logical and fair choice.

The second Flag Referendum is an example of ersatz binary choice. Thousands of original designs were constrained to four by a committee, and this choice was subsequently expanded to five through a petition and legislative action. The final step to a binary choice was the first round of the referendum.

However, if New Zealand voters had been asked a question about retaining or replacing the current design (status quo) with a majority vote, the outcome could have been interpreted as reflecting the “people’s will”. While it would not have yielded a new design, the results of this vote would have answered a binary choice: to keep or discard the current flag. But, even if the people of New Zealand supported the replacement of the current flag, the method of choosing the replacement cannot unambiguously yield an outcome that can be labeled the “people’s will”.


The first round of New Zealand’s Flag Referendum gave citizens unprecedented influence over the design of the national flag. An open process permitted thousands of designs to be solicited and considered; a petition process allowed a fifth design to be added to the ballot; and preference voting provided citizens the opportunity to cast sincere preferences rather than voting strategically. The 3–24 March 2016 vote will determine if Silver Fern A will replace the current flag; a majority vote of participants will determine the fate of the flag.

If Silver Fern A is victorious, it is important to remember that it may not be the most preferred alternative to the status quo, but simply the design that successfully passed through the process. Similarly, if Silver Fern A fails to defeat the current flag, it does not mean that New Zealanders are rejecting a new flag. It will only mean that they prefer the status quo to the alternative presented; a different alternative potentially could have emerged victorious in a head-to-head battle with the current flag.

Regardless of the outcome, New Zealand has set a valuable precedent for engaging the public in flag design questions. Flags serve a critical symbolic role, providing a focal point for national pride and illustrating how a society views its past, present, and future.  New designs imposed without public votes can be embraced, as in Canada in 1965, and they can be rejected, as was the proposed flag for Iraq in 2004.  By engaging the public in the process, the final decision may have a better chance of being embraced quickly, whether or not it can be portrayed as a manifestation of the “people’s will”.


  1. Ballots without clearly defined first preferences were deemed to be “informal votes”. The total number of informal votes was 148,022.
  2. Riker, William. 1982. Liberalism Against Populism: A Confrontation Between the Theory of Democracy and the Theory of Social Choice. Prospect Heights: Waveland Press.
  3. The specific voting rules used for the Flag Referendum, a variant of Single Transferable Vote (STV), can fail the condition of monotonicity. This condition requires that if a society makes a decision to select social choice x over the alternative choice y, and the preferences expressed for x are not lowered in any individual rank-ordering, then x should remain the social choice.
  4. It is important to note that counterfactuals—or examples that assume a different historical path was chosen—can be problematic. It is possible that voters would have behaved differently if a plurality rule were used, voting strategically instead of sincerely. That is, if supporters of Koru, Silver Fern D, and Red Peak understood that their preferred designs were likely to lose, they may have voted for a more likely winner if the formula was plurality. STV systems encourage sincere voting whereas plurality systems encourage strategic voting.
  5. Saari, Donald. 2001. Decisions and Elections. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.
  6. Black, Duncan. 1948. “On the Rationale of Group Decision Making.” Journal of Political Economy. 56(1):22-34.

That Australian Flag Bathing Box

At Brighton Beach not far from downtown Melbourne, Australia is a famous row of colorfully painted “bathing boxes” (19th century huts built as shelters and changing rooms for beach goers).  Box Number Two, painted to resemble the Australian flag, is a popular photographic subject.  Very popular.  Consider this selection of postings found on Instagram.

Is there a vexillographic structure anywhere else in the world that enjoys such popularity?

For more #flagpix, follow us on Instagram.

Whitney Smith’s Flag of Guyana

The last issue of The Flag Bulletin (Number 233, July 2008-October 2011) is titled Celebrating 50 Years of Vexillology and commemorates the launch of the Bulletin–the first flag studies journal–on 1 October 1961.  More specifically, it is a celebration of the life of Whitney Smith, upon his retirement, through a long series of personal recollections of his friends and family.

One of these is by his sister, Sybil Smith, and includes a story about how Whitney Smith learned that his design for the flag of Guyana had been selected, and what happened then:

When Guyana showed signs of political upheaval Whitney designed a flag for them and our mother stitched up a prototype and Whitney sent it off. It wasn’t until years later that Guyana adopted a new flag that looked similar to the one he had designed. Writing to the powers that were in charge, he questioned the origin of their new flag only to find out they had been looking for him. It was then that we started calling our mother “the Betsy Ross of Guyana.” Whitney was later invited to Guyana’s Independence Day celebration. They were slightly surprised to find out he wasn’t a native, but rather a white American. An invitation from The White House came from President Lyndon Johnson when he hosted a luncheon in honor of the Prime Minister of Guyana. Whitney was sort of low man on the totem pole seated at table #10 with the president of the Stock Exchange and others, but table #10 was right next to table #1 where the president and prime minister sat.


The Guyanese flag’s entry in the Flags of the World database gives some addition context.  In anticipation of British Guiana achieving independence in 1962 an international flag competition was held, to which Smith submitted this design:

Smith’s proposal. Illustration by Kazutaka Nishiura / FOTW.

The actual flag issued  by the British College of Arms for Guyana’s independence in 1966 has this design:


FOTW contributor Jaume Ollé wrote:

In Smith’s original design, the red and the green altered their positions. I believe that it was because that those who participate in a contest want to win the contest. Smith made his design prevaling the red color according to the leftist inclinations of the premier Mr. Jagan (a ethnic Indian pro-Soviet). The design of Vaclav Kalikova also show a gold triangle (but single) from hoist to fly and rest is green (and a blue star is in the yellow triangle). Perhaps the College of arms made a mixture of both designs. I believe that the five colors were in fact requested by the government (I read it) but I don’t remember if for Mr. Jagan or Mr. Burham. The fimbriations are against the heraldic principles and it is strange that the College of Arms (always precise) added unnecesary fimbriations.

To give Whitney Smith the last word, here is the entry for Guyana from his book Flag Lore of All Nations:

In 1960 the author of this book sent a flag design to Prime Minister Cheddi Jagan of British Guiana, who added it to the many other proposals received. When the British finally agreed to independence for their colony, the author’s flag design was slightly modified. Parliament officially adopted it, and when Guyana became independent on May 26, 1966, the flag was first officially raised. Green stands for the jungles and fields, white for the many rivers of Guyana; black is for perseverance, and red for nation building. The golden arrowhead [the flag’s nickname] symbolizes a thrust forward toward a golden future for the country and recalls the original Indian inhabitants of Guyana.

Dancers in Independence Day celebration. From iNewsGuyana, 26 May 2015.
Dancers in the annual festival Mashramani (“Mash”) celebrating Guyana’s becoming a republic in 1970. From the Guyana Chronicle, 26 January 2014.

Fiji Still Looking for New Flag Designs

UPDATE: Fiji has cancelled its plans to change its flag.

The website hasn’t yet been updated, but according to the following media release from late last year, the process to choose a new flag for Fiji is once again moving forward and will be completed this year by the 7th of September.  Note that design submissions are currently being accepted, up until Leap Day, Monday, 29 February 2016.


The Fijian Government has announced the extension of the feedback period for designs for the new national flag to February 29, 2016.

The Government has received a number of new submissions since the 23 designs were published earlier this year.

From March 1 to 19, five designs will be chosen, through the PM’s Office, for members of the public to vote on. Members of the public will have 3 months to vote on the 5 designs through public consultations, social media and text messaging.

It is expected that the design with the most votes will be announced on 1 July to be our new national flag. The new national flag will be raised on Constitution Day which is on September 7.

Submissions for new designs can be sent to, hand delivered to the Department of Information, Ground Floor, New Wing, Government Buildings, 26 Gladstone Road, Suva or mailed to the Department of Information, PO Box 2225, Government Buildings, Suva.

Furthermore, yesterday Luke Rawalie of The Fiji Times published a short article summarizing Prime Minister Voreqe Bainimarama’s recent statements regarding the flag change process.  It’s entitled New flag ‘inevitable’, and contains this information of particular interest to anyone wishing to submit a new design:

Responding to calls from members of the public on the island for the retention of the coat of arms because of its symbolic status to the people of Fiji and its history, Mr Bainimarama said the only feature of the flag to be retained would be its navy [sic] blue colour. Apart from that, Mr Bainimarama said everything in the new flag would change and be replaced including the coat of arms.

Designers might also want to consider the aforementioned 23 selected designs from Fiji’s 2015 competition:

Designers might also find inspiration (or, on the other hand, examples of what not to do) from these submissions to Reddit’s /r/vexillology January 2013 contest to design a new flag for Fiji.


Flag Art at Art Basel

Art Basel is a series of international contemporary art fairs with a large online catalog.  Their Miami Beach 2015 event is happening now, with 10,665 artworks by 3086 artists.  Here are 15 works that feature flags.

US Flag

Other Flags

Flutterings (from VexTab #54)

from Vexilloid Tabloid #54

Note: “Flutterings” — notes from the editor on our last meeting — is a regular feature in The Vexilloid Tabloid.

September 2015 Flutterings You Need to Know

In our September meeting, hosted by Larry Snyder in a small theater—complete with fresh popcorn—at the Oswego Pointe development in Lake Oswego, 8 PFA members enjoyed a lively evening of flags.  As the host, Larry led the introductions and moderated the discussion.

Jerry Fest (left) and Larry Snyder (right) talk flags as Michael Orelove (left) and Fred Paltridge (center) look on. The flags are those of the Portland Flag Association (left) and South Africa (right).
Jerry Fest (left) and Larry Snyder (right) talk flags as Michael Orelove (left) and Fred Paltridge (right) look on. The flags are those of the Portland Flag Association (left) and South Africa (right).

We welcomed a new member,  Jerry Fest, a flag collector from Fairview (originally from Philadelphia).  He flies a different flag at his home each week, and posts it on Facebook (see  He’ll bring something for show and tell next time.

Michael Orelove gave an update  on his latest flag solicitation project:  to collect from the respective municipal governments the city flags of all 50 US state capitals.  He presented the flags of Carson City, Nev.; Cheyenne, Wy.; Frankfort, Ky.; Jefferson City, Mo.; Lansing, Mich.; and Montgomery, Ala. A popular motif:  capitol domes.

Helen Rogers’ Poppy Flag, recently acquired by Michael Orelove.
Helen Rogers’ Poppy Flag, recently acquired by Michael Orelove.

He also showed off a flag he recently purchased:  Helen Rogers’ Poppy Flag, which he learned about from her article in Flagmaster 153 (and ordered from her website,  Rogers was inspired by the 1915 poem by John McCrae:

In Flanders fields the poppies blow
Between the crosses, row on row,

That mark our place; and in the sky
The larks, still bravely singing,  fly

Scarce heard amid the guns below…
In Flanders Fields.


A rare US-made stick flag.


The Union Jack in FLOR.
The Union Jack in FLOR.

David Ferriday presented what appeared to be an ordinary American flag on a stick.  But looking closer, it was labelled MADE IN U.S.A.—a true rarity!  He also passed around a clipping from the housewares catalog FLOR, advertising Union Jack floor tiles (

A hinomaru yosegaki donated by the family of a US serviceman who captured it in the Kwajalein Atoll, Marshall Islands. (OBON 2015 flag 2014-1209.)
A hinomaru yosegaki donated by the family of a US serviceman who captured it in the Kwajalein Atoll, Marshall Islands. (OBON 2015 flag 2014-1209.)

He recommended we visit the Oregon Historical Society, which  is hosting an exhibit through December 7 on WW II that includes Japanese “good luck flags” (hinomaru yosegaki) taken from captured or killed soldiers.(An Oregon non-profit, OBON 2015,, is working to reunite these flags with soldiers’ families in Japan.)  He passed around a clipping from The Oregonian highlighting the flags.

David Ferriday with his Flag for All Mankind in the 21st Century.
David Ferriday with his Flag for All Mankind in the 21st Century.
The exception that proves the rule:  David Ferriday admires how South Africa’s flag uses all six basic flag colors to profoundly meaningful effect.
The exception that proves the rule: David Ferriday admires how South Africa’s flag uses all six basic flag colors to profoundly meaningful effect.

He also had on hand two of the flags in the last “What’s That Flag?” puzzle he had put together for the Vexilloid Tabloid: the flag of South Africa, and the Flag for All Mankind in the 21st Century (his own design).  The theme of the puzzle stumped everyone; it was: “flags with too many colors (5–6) according to Good Flag, Bad Flag!”.

Some sketches for a new Boston, MA flag by Larry Snyder.
Some sketches for a new Boston, MA flag by Larry Snyder.

Larry Snyder presented some designs he’s been playing around with for a redesign of the flag of Boston, Massachusetts.  (On Flag Day the Boston Globe announced a design competition.)  He based his designs of the flag of the town of Boston in Lincolnshire, England, replacing the fleur-de-lis on the English flag with the star and Indian from the Massachusetts state flag.

Larry Snyder reveals the flag of the Veteran Exempts militia of 1812–15.
Larry Snyder reveals the flag of the Veteran Exempts militia of 1812–15.

He also presented a strange flag design he had encountered:  the flag of the “Veteran Exempts”— possibly used in the last battle of the War of 1812, the Battle of Plattsburg on Lake Champlain. The Exempts were a New York militia made up of veterans of the American Revolution (who were thus exempt from required military service); their flag design survives only as a verbal description and it’s unclear if it was ever actually made and used (see

Patrick Genna with a flag fairly often found at Goodwill -- New Zealand, Australia, or something.
Patrick Genna with a flag fairly often found at Goodwill — New Zealand, Australia, or something.
Patrick Genna sympathizes with the current plight of the Greeks.
Patrick Genna sympathizes with the current plight of the Greeks.

As is his generous habit, Patrick Genna brought with him flags he had bought at Goodwill to give away at the meeting.  This time they were those of Greece and Australia.

Scott Mainwaring’s stumper: the flag of the shipbuilding city of Bath, Maine.
Scott Mainwaring’s stumper: the flag of the shipbuilding city of Bath, Maine.

Scott Mainwaring’s show-and-tell flag stumped the crowd:  it was the flag of the shipbuilding city of Bath, Maine.  The striking heraldic design was created in 2013 by Keith Hammond “with the assistance of the city council’s flag committee”, and manufactured via a successful Kickstarter campaign.  See

Our next meeting will be at the home of Michael Orelove on Nov. 12th.   Michael took the Portland Flag Association flag for him—the customary task of the next host.

[Thanks to Scott Mainwaring for text and Patrick Genna for photos.]


Flags, Peace, and World War I

To commemorate today’s Veterans Day holiday, which arose out of World War I Armistice Day, here are a few flag-related items.

The Imperial Russian National Flag during World War I.
The Imperial Russian National Flag during World War I, according to Pete Loeser’s Flags of the World War I Era and the FOTW website. (There is some controversy regarding the appearance, use, and status of this flag; e.g., see Wikipedia.) 

The Whipple flag.
Popular historian Wayne Whipple designed this 48-star “American History Flag” in 1912, and the Dettra flag company produced it as a “peace flag” following the war. The 13 stars for the original states in the center are taken from the US Great Seal. The circle of 10 stars represents the 25 states admitted during the country’s first century.  The outside 10 stars represent states added from 1876 to 1912. Dave Martucci has a great writeup on this flag,  as does the Zaricor Flag Collection,  Pete Loeser, MetaFilter, and Blaine Whipple.

A 48-star US flag with a white border
A white-bordered US Peace Flag.  The Universal Peace Congress of 1891 proposed that each nation be represented by its national flag bordered in white “to signify non-violent conflict resolution”. The US version was used by various religious and peace organizations (e.g., by Christian Scientist Mary Baker Eddy, and by the Daughters of the American Revolution), and the white-border practice was endorsed at a 1913 Peace Conference convened by Tsar Nicolas II in the Hague.

From The Primary Plan Book by Marian M. George. Chicago: A. Flanagan Co., 1912.
From The Primary Plan Book by Marian M. George (Chicago: A. Flanagan Co., 1912).  An example of the use of the US Peace Flag in schools around the time of World War I.  Such use is also the basis for a story by Mary Stebbins Savage, The Peace Flag, which appeared in The Christian Register of April 1915. In it, Jesus appears to a dreaming boy scout and miraculously causes national flags to “blossom” into white bordered ones at His touch.

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?

Whitney Smith: Flags of the Arab World, 1958

It was 57 years ago this month that the word vexillology first appeared in print, in an article by the founder of flag studies, Whitney Smith, in the now discontinued journal The Arab World.

Whitney Smith, Jr. Flags of the Arab World. In the journal The Arab World, volume 5, October 1958, pp. 12-13.
A photocopy of Smith’s two-page article.  Click for a larger image.

Here is a transcription of the article.



One of the most interesting phases of vexillology — the study of flags — is the important contribution to our heritage of flags by the Arab World. The fringes and tassels so often used on banners are derived from those that decorated the robes of religious leaders of the ancient Middle East; triangular flags are another Arab innovation. The custom of attaching one end of a flag to a pole while the rest is allowed to fly free is Arab in origin: the Romans and Greeks suspended their ensigns from cross-bars affixed to staffs or spears. And the designs in use today in many countries have been directly influenced by an Arab tradition, unfettered by European heraldic rules, which developed new and striking flags to command the allegiance of millions. Pictured below are the present-day National Flags of the members of the League of Arab States.

League of Arab States. The League flag has a green background symbolizing the fertile lands of the Arab World, such as the Nile and Tigris and Euphrates River Valleys. The prosperity of the members of the League is represented by the white wreath of grain and their solidarity by the golden chain; the white crescent has long been a symbol of the Islamic religion and of Arab states. In the center the Arabic words “The League of Arab States” appear in conventionalized form.

Algeria. At the time of the landing of the French army of invasion in Algeria, and when Emir Abdel-Kader led the resistance of the Algerian people against the French forces, the Algerian flag was half green and half white, with a golden open hand (signifying friendship). The green was the color of the prophet, while the white meant purity. In the early twenties, when the first nationalist movements for independence were organized, the Red Crescent and Star replaced the golden hand. The Crescent and Star are symbols of Arab lands in general and they fly in the skies everywhere.

Iraq. The Iraqi tricolor of black, white, and green is the newest Arab flag; it was first used officially on 14 July 1959, the first anniversary of the Republic of Iraq. In the center is a red star surmounted by a white-bordered yellow circle, this being a modification of the new National Seal. These designs replace a flag and coat-of-arms of the same colors, but different design, which had been used since 1924.

Jordan. The Jordanian flag is like that of Iraq with stripes of black (top), white (middle), and green (bottom), but there is only one star and a red triangle replaces the trapezium at the hoist of the Iraqi flag. These so-called “Pan-Arab” colors are sometimes interpreted as meaning the fertility of Arab lands (green), the past centuries of disunity and oppression (black), the hope for a great future (red), and Arab chivalry and hospitality (white).

Kuwait. Kuwait, although not presently a member of the League of Arab States, has recently participated in various activities of the Arab League. Since the word “Kuwait” which is in white on the flag reads from right to left and shows through on the other side, the flag must be pictured with the pole to the right. The flag has the characteristic red field of Arab flags and was first hoisted in 1914.

Lebanon. The green cedars of Lebanon mentioned in the Bible have long been an emblem of that nation and it is appropriate that there should be one on the National Flag which was adopted in 1943 when the country gained its freedom. The red stripes symbolize self-sacrifice for the nation, the white denotes peace, and the cedar tree is a sign of immortality, strength, and holiness.

Libya. Libya became an independent nation in 1951 after many decades of foreign rule. The flag designed at this time was based on the black flag with a white star and crescent used by Cyrenaica (one of the Libyan provinces); a red stripe was added for Fezzan and a green one for Tripolitanian. The star and crescent motif has been used by Arab countries for 500 years and appears on flags of countries stretching from Morocco on the Atlantic to the Malay States near the Pacific.

Morocco. A red background has been employed in many Moroccan flags; one of these had two crossed white yataghans (a type of sword) and a border of white triangles and one was solid red with no device at all. The present flag, adopted in 1915 and now flown from Tangiers to the Sahara, has in the center a green five-pointed star with interlaced sides which also appears in the National Coat-of-Arms.

Saudi Arabia. On the green background of the Saudi National Flag is written the Muslim creed la illaha illah allah wa muhammad ur-rusul allah — there is no god but God, and Muhammad is the prophet of God. The white Arabic script reads from right to left and must be sewn separately on each side of the flag so that it does not appear backwards. The basic design is like that of a banner carried centuries ago by an Arab general in the time of Omar.

Sudan. The Sudan flew the Egyptian and British ensigns together for the decades that it was under their condominium. Then, upon gaining independence in 1956, a new National Flag was adopted of three equal horizontal stripes. The blue (top) stands for the Nile River that enriches the nation, the yellow (center) for the deserts found there, and the green (bottom) for the fertility of the land.

Tunisia. Long under the domination of the Ottoman Empire, Tunisia continued to employ the red banner and star and crescent used by the Turks but put a distinctive white circle in the centre when independence was won. This flag, like that of Libya, is pictured as flying from right to left because a waxing moon (increscent) is considered more favorable than a waning one (decrescent). The true heraldic crescent has the horns pointing upwards, as in the League flag.

United Arab Republic. The United Arab Republic was created last year by the union of the independent nations of Syria and Egypt; a flag for the new nation became official on April 10, 1958. It retains the four colors of the former Egyptian and Syrian flags by having three horizontal stripes of black, white, and red (from top to bottom) and two green stars in the center to represent the two geographical regions of the country.

Yemen. For centuries Yemen had flown a red flag with Arabic script on either side, but in 1927 this became the King’s Standard and Ensign of the National Guard. The new flag adopted then is still red but carries five white stars, one for each of the geographical regions that the country is composed of, and surrounded by the stars a white sabre much like that on the Saudi flag.

[Published in the journal The Arab World, volume 5, October 1958, pp. 12-13.]

Whitney Smith in 2007.
Whitney Smith in 2007.