Monday, October 19, 2015

Something Thoughtful

Nicholas Reid reflects in essay form on general matters and ideas related to literature, history, popular culture and the arts, or just life in general. You are free to agree or disagree with him.

Facebook and other social media in New Zealand are awash with the debate about changing the flag. To my shame, I have a couple of times added my own hasty and ill-considered comments to all the other hasty and ill-considered comments with which New Zealand’s cyberspace is almost choked. The time is long overdue for a more reasoned consideration of the matter.
First, let’s set aside speculation on whether the whole thing has been cooked up opportunistically by the prime minister, in order to distract us from more weighty matters. While this may be a reasonable speculation, it’s no more than saying that politicians act to their electoral advantage, which is kind of inevitable. Complaints about the cost of the exercise have some weight, but the best counter-argument to seeking designs for a new flag is the fact that there has not yet been a referendum to discover whether there is a solid majority for change in the first place. This should have been the first step in any flag-changing process.
Having said this, though, and realising that the project is now underway willy-nilly, I express my approval for changing the flag.
I used to argue that we should change the constitution before we change the flag. My own preference is for a New Zealand republic. But as long as the Queen of England is also the Queen of New Zealand, and hence our head of state, then it seemed to me that having the Union Jack on the flag actually meant something. It points to a continuing constitutional reality. My argument was that the Union Jack should be removed only when it no longer had any relationship with New Zealand’s political identity. But it was pointed out to me, correctly, that Canada changed its old flag with great success fifty years ago, and yet it still has the Queen as its head of state. So, much as I dislike our current constitutional arrangement, I accept that the flag can be changed for reasons of national identity, regardless of our ongoing subservient constitutional status.
Besides, there is the glaringly obvious fact that most of the world cannot tell the difference between the New Zealand flag and the Australian flag, even though New Zealand declined to become part of the Australian federation over a century ago.

I dismiss unequivocally the argument – raised in rural New Zealand and in some RSA clubs – that we should keep the present flag to honour our war dead, who died under that flag in two world wars. I know from my own visits to overseas war cemeteries that New Zealand soldiers were buried with the silver fern on their gravestones. Even a non-rugby-playing person like me can see that the silver fern is a valid national symbol, regardless of its highly-commercialised association with the All Blacks. I note with approval that some old soldiers are coming to the same conclusion. (For the record, Canadian war dead were buried under the sign of the maple leaf, which now graces their flag; but Aussie war dead rest, less distinctively, under the sign of a military badge.)

Now, about this matter of calling for designs and then voting on them.
When you think for a moment, you realize that virtually no flags have ever become national symbols through the democratic process. There are flags with interesting histories. France’s tricolour was created early in the French Revolution by placing the royal Bourbon colour (white) between the traditional colours of Paris (red and blue) and thus creating a symbol of the cooperation of king and people. This was early in the revolution when a constitutional monarchy was still envisaged – yet the flag was kept even in the anti-monarchy phase of the revolution and became the symbol of a new republic. The American flag was created on an original plan to have a star and a stripe for each state, modified as soon as it was realized how cluttered it would look with each additional stripe. There is now a star for each new state, but the stripes have come to represent the original number of states. Interesting stories, but neither of them relying on democratic choice. The fact is that all but a few flag were imposed from above, without any popular consultation. After all, modern flags originally began as military standards – something to rally the troops around on the battlefield. And the standards were usually traditional royal standards.
Accepting what a strange thing it is to base a flag on a popularity contest, I come at last to the designs with which we have been presented. 

None of the four that the panel of “experts” chose from submissions is particularly inspiring. I noted that as soon as the official selection was announced, the game began in which partisans of one design would decry another because, they claimed, it looked like something commercial or something culturally inappropriate. Thus, it was pointed out, the black-and-white fern flag doesn’t really look like an authentic silver kern. And the black-and-white koru flag looks more like a breaking wave (or a snail on the move) than a genuine fern frond unfurling. As for the red-white-and-blue one which keeps the stars, but replaces the Union Jack with the Silver Fern, it was said to look like a Weetbix box. In fact, there was much sniping about how much the proffered designs looked more like corporate logos than flags.
Then there was the “Red Peak” flag, which (backed by a well-organised social media propaganda campaign) a piece of parliamentary grandstanding managed to get added as a fifth official candidate. I did my own piece of Facebook snarkiness on this one, pointing out that it looks like the chevron of a U.S.Army private (hence, perhaps accurately, symbolising our status as an American cultural colony). The reality is that I dislike this candidate on purely aesthetic grounds. It’s an awkward, angular thing and its diagonals lack strength. On top of this, I see all the flags with black in them as being somewhat dismal.

In the end, it will be sheer taste that decides this one – assuming that a majority want to change flags anyway. But it remains a tricky thing. Despite wanting the flag changed, I am conservative enough to suggest that any chosen design has to look serious and rather solemn. After all, unless there is a new flag every decade, what we choose will have to be more durable than this year’s taste.

Footnote: I do hope no pedantic vexillologist points out to me that the British flag is correctly known as the Union Flag, and that the tern Union Jack is strictly used only when this flag is flying off ships at sea. I know this. But I also know that Union Jack is the most common name for the wretched thing.


  1. Your footnote alludes to a contentious issue, and there is evidence to suggest jack be a perfectly reasonable synonym for flag. Indeed, said pedants will argue the jack is flown in harbour and not at sea, where the ensign is the correct vexillum. I am a pedant's pedant.

    Incidentally, "jack" is a diminutive, indicating the smaller version of the flag which was flown from ships' bows. "Vexillum" is also a diminutive, of "velum" = sail. From what I can tell, the jack was originally flown from the bowsprit; when staysails began to be flown therefrom, the jackstaff was invented to carry the... well, the jack. There is not quite a link there but it perhaps entertain you.

    To the actual issue, because the Canadians did something, ought New Zealanders do the same? Your point about the constitution holds, in my opinion, and you do not make it clear why otherwise. Neither do you clarify whether you are for change qua change, to any of the proposals, or to any third option. The gist of your argument seems to be that there should be a good and lasting reason for change, of which I see not a glimmer.

  2. Rerally too much vexing vexillogical pedantry about jacks, old chap. No, I would never suggest that New Zealanders do something simply because Canadians have done it - but I would say that (a.) the Canadians came up with a very distinctive and instantly-recognisable flag; and (b.) that this therefore stands as a symbol of real nascent nationhood, even if they have not yet reached full national autonomy. Of itself, I believe this is a good reason for change - quite apart from the current international confusion of New Zealand and Australiuan flags. AND we're not British, dammit! (If we were, we'd have British passports.)