The Null Device

The Union Flag at 400

The Union Jack (or perhaps the Union Flag, depending on whom you ask) is 400 years old this week; the first early versions of the flag owe their existence to a royal proclamation from 12 April 1606, and initially represented merely the union of the monarchies of England and Scotland (which were otherwise separate states). The red diagonal bits (the "Saltire of Saint Patrick") didn't appear until the annexation of Ireland; oddly enough, there doesn't seem to be much evidence of the Irish ever having used them as a national symbol prior to this. As for the Welsh, they didn't get a look in, because they were considered a province of England at the time.

The Union Jack came into widespread use during the rise of the British Empire, which needed a flag to plant on all those bits of land, not to mention to wave at coronations, victory parades and such. Then came the decline of the Empire, Beatlemania, the Swinging Sixties, Mod (and several rehashings thereof), punk rock, neo-Nazi skinheads, Britpop, Cool Brittannia, New Labour, the Spice Girls and the Austin Powers movies, by when the flag had become a successful lifestyle brand, an example of what the pundits call "soft power". Somehow, in the interim, nobody actually remembered to pass a law enshrining it as a national flag, and hence its status is more a result of habit and precedent than anything more formal, which does seem like an appropriately British way to go about things.

Some other pieces of Union Jack/Flag trivia:

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