Tuesday, 15 March 2016


New Zealanders are currently voting in a referendum on the national flag. A lot of us are not happy about it. Last year some of us voted (I didn’t) to pick one of five replacement flags, and now we’re voting on whether we want to go with the replacement flag or stick with the old one. After much thought, I have decided not to vote. I hate them both. I think there is one clear best choice, with more apt symbolism and a greater weight of tradition behind it than either, but it was never on the ballot. I’ll show you what I’m talking about at the end of this post.

The story of the flag begins with St Andrew, one of the Twelve Apostles, who tradition has it was crucified on an X-shaped cross at his own request because he didn’t want to upstage Jesus. A similar story is told of St Peter, who to this day enjoys heart-warming loyalty in the Goth crowd – he was crucified upside down. Given what we know of the mechanics of crucifixion, both stories were probably made up in the Middle Ages to sell hagiographic icons. But anyway, that’s the tradition.

Fast forward to 9th-century Scotland, when the Picts and Scots were trying out the idea of merging their kingdoms for mutual defence against nasties like the Vikings and the English. The Pictish King Óengus II prayed to St Andrew for victory on the battlefield. Why St Andrew in particular instead of any other saint I’m not sure. A cloud in the shape of a diagonal cross appeared in the sky and Óengus’s forces were duly victorious. From then on the Cross of St Andrew became the national symbol of Scotland. It looks like this:

The “blazon” or heraldic description for this is Azure a saltire argent – that is to say “Blue, with a white diagonal cross.” Heraldry is a much-overlooked chapter in the history of Western art and graphic design. If you’re unfamiliar with it, think of the House sigils on Game of Thrones and you’ve got the general idea. I remember finding a comprehensive book on heraldry in the library at my high school and being captivated by all the archaic words and images. Here was a system, centuries old, for capturing complex images in a verbal formula which could be repeated exactly and used to reproduce them.

England also has a cross emblem belonging to a saint from the opposite end of the Roman Empire. St George is of course best known for saving a maiden from a dragon, a story likely derived from the Greek legend of Perseus and Andromeda. The detail of the dragon’s demand for sacrifices in return for access to the town’s only well was almost certainly added to the story during the Crusades to stand for the Saracen tax on Christian pilgrimage to Jerusalem. The red cross on white was the prime symbol of the Crusades, and it’s not surprising it became associated with St George, though exactly when and how or what either one has to do with England isn’t clear. The Cross of St George’s blazon is Argent a cross gules.

In 1603 King James VI of Scotland became King James I of England. Clearly the two flags had to be combined somehow. Generally when two devices are combined on a coat of arms, they either go side by side or into four quarters, and I think both of those approaches were tried. But flags are a little bit different from a coat-of-arms. The idea that eventually caught on was to lay one device over the other. Now, since James VI was a Scottish king taking over the English throne, technically Scotland had conquered England, and the Cross of St Andrew should have gone on top. We of the Otago University Highland & Gaelic Society once made a few of these flags when there was a big sports match with England, and hung them around Dunedin:

To be honest, in hindsight, that looks a bit naff. The blue and red don’t sit well together on the eye, do they? Some forgotten graphic designer must have figured that out a millennium ago, because there’s a rule in heraldry about which colours can and can’t lie next to each other. There are “metals” and “colours” and also “furs”, and the rule is that you can’t put metal on metal or colour on colour. For the seven most common colours of flags, this means that

  1. Black (the fur sable) can go next to anything.
  2. White and yellow (the metals argent and or) can go next to anything but each other.
  3. Red, blue, green, and orange (the colours gules, azure, vert and orange) can only go next to black, white, or yellow.

After we’d made all the flags and hung them off bridges over the main routes into town and the statue of Queen Victoria in Queen’s Gardens, we discovered that somebody back in the 17th century had in fact proposed a flag design with the two crosses the right way over:

But of course the flag that became the official emblem of the Kingdom of Great Britain reflected not the idiosyncratic trajectories of the dynastic houses but the long-standing power relations between the polities of Scotland and England:

Wales and Cornwall don’t even appear; England had long since done to them what it was now doing to Scotland, and swallowed them up. And it didn’t stop there. In 1800, another Act of Union brought Ireland into the United Kingdom. Now Ireland has a patron saint too, who unlike Scotland’s and England’s actually did spend much of his life in the country. St Patrick did not have his own cross-based emblem, but fortuitously an Anglo-Irish group calling themselves the Order of St Patrick had pinched one from the coat-of-arms of the Duke of Leinster about seventeen years before the Union, and its blazon was Argent a saltire gules:

By their powers combined, the three saints’ crosses became the Union Jack:

Yes, I know, officially this flag is titled the “Union Flag”. But “Union Jack” is more widely recognised, and also less ambiguous. If you happened to be discussing the American Civil War you might well use the term “Union flag” to mean the Stars and Stripes. “Union Jack” can only mean the flag of the United Kingdom.

Now you may be wondering, as I did for years until recently, why the red diagonal bits on the Union Jack are all skew-whiff like that. Wouldn’t it be neater if they lined up across the middle? The answer has to do with the power relations expressed by the positioning of the emblems, plus that heraldic colour rule I mentioned before. The two saltires merged, with St George’s Cross out of the way, look like this:

The red and white saltires are supposed to be side by side, not superimposed. St Patrick’s Cross cannot lie over the top of St Andrew’s Cross, because that would imply that Ireland stood before Scotland in the Union. The red would touch the blue beside it if it weren’t for the heraldic rule that red doesn’t touch blue. What this says is that St Patrick and St Andrew are equals. And having made that clear, we then go and plonk St George over top of them both. The Union Jack tells the world that England is the boss.

This attitude was not confined to flags. The power of the British Crown spread out in the 19th century to encircle the globe, with the Union Jack flying from the ships of the Royal Navy. All ships had to fly flags to show which kingdom was responsible for protecting them; if you didn’t have a flag you were presumed to be a pirate and could be seized and have your cargo confiscated. But only royal vessels are allowed to fly the Union Jack proper. Other ships flew flags called “Ensigns” with the Union Jack in the canton, and one of them was the Blue Ensign. Here, because the Union Jack is being treated as a unit, the red ends of the crosses are allowed to touch the blue of the field it lies on.

To this, the British colonies in the Southern Hemisphere added the stars of the constellation Crux Australis, the Southern Cross. And here we have the main reason for the flag referendum. Readers who are not from New Zealand or Australia, can you tell which of these flags belongs to which country without scrolling down or Googling the answer?

Nor can the organizers of an embarrassingly large number of sporting and other international events. The first one is Australia, and the second one is New Zealand. The Australian stars have one point for each of Australia’s six states plus one for all its territories lumped together; the New Zealand stars have red in the middle, as requested by the Māori chiefs back when it was first designed, because red is the colour of dignity and status in Māori culture. That remains the only concession to tikanga Māori in the whole thing.

Apart from our Prime Minister, most New Zealanders are against the change, but the reasons are many and various and some are better reasons than others. It is not true that the Queen will suddenly cease to be the Sovereign of New Zealand if we don’t have the Union Jack on our flag any more, nor that without the Queen we would become a dictatorship or be open to annexation by the United States. That silly conspiracy theory has thankfully died down on Facebook lately.

New Zealand’s veterans’ society, the Returned Services Association (RSA), argue that changing the flag would dishonour the soldiers who died for it. This is almost as frivolous as the conspiracy theories. First, soldiers risk death for their brothers in arms, not for symbols. Second, a flag is only as honourable as what it stands for, and the new flag would stand for the same New Zealand that the old one currently does. And third, soldiers also fight for the government of New Zealand, but no-one would suggest that electing a new government dishonours soldiers.

A better argument is that replacing everything official with the flag on it will cost more than we can afford right now. We have a child poverty problem and a housing crisis in our biggest city and piles of rubble in our second-biggest city and a slump in our major export commodity which no-one foresaw except every environmentalist in the country but tree-hugging hippies don’t count. In the light of all that, the flag looks suspiciously like a deliberate distraction. But where do you draw the line? Everything could always do with just a bit more money than it’s got. Anything you put off until everything else has enough money will never get done.

No, the really convincing argument against changing the flag is that the new one looks like this:

I must admit, if I heard that a country had named its two major landmasses “the North Island” and “the South Island” and the enduring high points of its cultural life were rugby and Shortland Street, this is the sort of flag I would expect them to have. I haven’t studied graphic design formally, I don’t know the technical words to explain why it looks as if the top left corner is about to fall over.

Overseas readers may not know what’s going on here. That plant is the Silver Fern, Cyathea dealbata; it’s been a national symbol for over a century. New Zealand schoolchildren are taught, I don’t know how truly, that the spiral motifs known as koru found throughout Māori art are derived from the appearance of its immature fronds. Be that as it may, the adult form you see here does not have that significance. Mostly the Silver Fern has become recognised because of its use as a sports team logo – and no, I’m not talking about women’s netball, even though our national team are called the Silver Ferns.

You can’t escape the All Blacks in New Zealand. Oh, there are plenty of other countries that like their sports as much as we do – Australia is an obvious example – but I don’t believe there’s another country in the world whose entire national identity rests as much on the shoulders of one team as ours does. Once upon a time the All Blacks were seen as ambassadors of the common man (I’m afraid I do mean man). Now that they’ve gone professional and are just as out-of-touch as any celebrity, their popularity is kept pumped up with massive marketing campaigns. That’s what the Silver Fern on black now stands for.

One could still see the shift of symbolism as an improvement; the All Blacks have after all killed fewer people so far than the British Empire. But the British Empire is a relic, reduced to a fox-terrier at the United States’ heels, whereas the supremacy of rugby is doing real harm to my country as I write. I have no particular moral objections to the sport itself, but I do object to the culture of toxic masculinity it’s steeped in, and to the amount of public money that gets poured into stadiums and the like to keep it going.

To me the definitive objection to the Silver Fern flag is that it can’t fulfill one of the most basic functions of a flag. It looks like a corporate logo, and that is not a good thing. Granted, a national flag shares some of the functions of a logo; it’s a recognised symbol that stands for a larger entity, thus telling people quickly who they’re dealing with and what they can expect. But there is also a fundamental difference, as I shall now demonstrate. All but one of the flags on this post, I made freehand in a few minutes in MS Paint. This is what happened when I tried that with the Fern:

Um, yeah, I kind of gave up after I’d done the black side, and just filled in the blue side randomly so I could say I was finished. But if we change the flag, this is the sort of thing we will see decorating school classrooms coming up to public holidays. This is not a trivial objection; it’s the whole reason why flags, unlike coats-of-arms, corporate logos, or money, are simple in design. They’re supposed to be easy to reproduce. Money needs to be hard to counterfeit, and coats-of-arms and corporate logos are intended to be used only with the authorization of their owners. A flag needs to be something an ordinary person can make and hang off their deck-rail in a spontaneous expression of loyalty.

That also puts a limit on how much you can nitpick the details of a flag. I made all the flags on this page at an aspect ratio slightly over 8:5, whereas the Union Jack and the New Zealand flag are usually displayed in 2:1. I had to squish the Silver Fern sideways after I copypasted it, and maybe that shows. But again, you have to be able to do that with a flag. The government can specify what aspect ratio and which exact shades of red and blue they themselves will use for official purposes, but they can’t tell citizens that if they deviate from those specs it isn’t the real flag.

So we need something simple, something unique to New Zealand, something with a bit of history behind it, and something that carries a message which isn’t either “We joyously grovel beneath the English yoke” or “Our entire country is the rugby team’s support crew”. In my short history of the flag above, I left out most of New Zealand’s history, as I hope you noticed – because I was saving it for last, not because I’d forgotten. But I did mention that the Māori input into the current flag was minimal, indeed insultingly so. If we’re going to change the flag, we need to change that in particular. The new design doesn’t.

Some have suggested that we adopt the Tino Rangatiratanga flag, which looks like this:

That is the most beautiful flag on this page, and it stands for a value which I dearly wish all New Zealanders subscribed to – the equal right of Māori New Zealanders to prosper and hold authority on their own terms, rather than having to squeeze into the colonial system imposed on them by Pākehā. And for that very reason, I can’t support the call to make it the national flag. Not until the Treaty of Waitangi is embedded in our constitution, and the values of tino rangatiratanga become part of every New Zealander’s worldview. We can’t have this marking John Key’s place when he embarrasses us at diplomatic events. That would be an act of cultural theft.

But there is an alternative. When Māori people discovered there were people across the sea who wanted to trade goods with them, they were quick to the mark. They were exporting food to Australia decades before the Treaty. Remember the law I told you about, where ships could be seized if they didn’t fly a flag to show whose protection they were under? The chiefs of the United Tribes responded to that by designing one. (The emblazonment was inspired by the British ensigns they had seen, which is why it looks like it’s based on St George’s Cross; and it’s had a minor adjustment to comply with the no-red-on-blue rule). Here is the original flag of New Zealand, the flag under which the chiefs declared independence. Here is the only flag I would have voted for.


  1. Wonderful blog. Thank you for educating me in such a riveting manner! It was a pleasure to read. Though might I suggest a revision of your use of the word 'we' and what 'we' historically did though as this seems to presume the ethnicity of the reader or at the least sounds eurocentric in regards to New Zealanders (you address foreigners then refer to what 'we' did). 'We' didn't do anything 'they' did, or perhaps it was that which was done by your people as in 'my' (your) ancestors? I could just be nitpicking while on my period, but it would sound so much nicer liberated from language that sounds like all of us have UK ancestry.

    1. I thought I had avoided that? I'm looking for instances of "we", "us", and "our" here.
      A lot of us are not happy about it. Last year some of us voted... now we’re voting on whether we want to go with the replacement flag...: New Zealanders.
      Given what we know of the mechanics of crucifixion...: the academic "we", i.e. the researchers, those who read their research, those who've read popularizations of their research, etc.
      We of the Otago University Highland & Gaelic Society once made a few of these flags... After we’d made all the flags... we discovered that somebody back in the 17th century had in fact proposed a flag design...: me and a couple of my mates in the Highland & Gaelic Society.
      ...we then go and plonk St George over top of them both: anyone reproducing (or, by extension, displaying a reproduction of) the Union Jack.
      It is not true that the Queen will suddenly cease to be the Sovereign of New Zealand if we don’t have the Union Jack on our flag any more, nor that without the Queen we would become a dictatorship: New Zealand.
      ...replacing everything official with the flag on it will cost more than we can afford right now. We have a child poverty problem...: New Zealand.
      ...even though our national team are called the Silver Ferns: New Zealand.
      ...other countries that like their sports as much as we do... another country in the world whose entire national identity rests as much on the shoulders of one team as ours does: New Zealand.
      So we need something simple...: New Zealand.
      “We joyously grovel beneath the English yoke”: New Zealand if we keep the old flag.
      “Our entire country is the rugby team’s support crew”: New Zealand if we adopt the new flag.
      If we’re going to change the flag, we need to change that in particular: New Zealand.
      Some have suggested that we adopt the Tino Rangatiratanga flag...: New Zealand as a nation.
      We can’t have this marking John Key’s place when he embarrasses us at diplomatic events: New Zealand.
      I have certainly used "we" to mean New Zealand or New Zealanders a lot -- even sometimes excluding myself (I'm not voting in the referendum and I don't like sports). But I can't find anywhere where I have used it to mean New Zealanders of UK ancestry particularly.