25 November 2015

In hoc vexillo vinces

New Zealand has begun a process to decide whether to keep the old 'blue ensign' or to substitute another design. The voting will be a two-step exercise, first to select from a set of alternative designs, and then to have a run-off between the winner and the current flag. There has been some controversy over a consultation exercise about alternative designs that received many submissions opposed to the process generally, and specifically to the need for a different flag. The first round will conclude on 11 December.

Of the four Commonwealth settler colonies, two have already changed their flags. South Africa's current flag dates to 1994, after the old apartheid regime had been brought to an end. However, South Africa had more traditional British Empire flags in the shape of a red ensign, then a blue one, until in 1928 a flag that was less obviously related to the British one was adopted. The flag debate was tinged with controversy, as the change was seen as an attempt by descendants of the original Dutch settlers of the Cape, the Afrikaners, to reduce the visible significance of the Imperial tie, while raising that of the old Boer republics. The annoyance of the British-descended settlers was tempered by placing a smaller-sized Union flag in the central white stripe.

Canada, by contrast, replaced its old red ensign with a design that eliminated the symbolic representation of the British connection altogether. The Maple Leaf Flag was not the first choice of the prime minister who pushed for this change, but the parliamentary flag committee offered it as a compromise. The new flag was the product of a particular generation of Liberal party politicians who came to maturity between the world wars. It is important to remember that this period was marked by Canada moving from an autonomous domininion to a fully-fledged independent member of the international community following the Balfour Declaration of 1926. Besides this political transformation, Canada was also undergoing a significant economic change. Between 1922 and 1930 the US supplanted Britain as the largest holder of Canadian foreign debt. Yet the symbols of the old Imperial connection remained, despite being emptied of any practical authority. The challenge to the symbols began after 1945, with Britain burdened by the debt of the war against Nazi Germany and in retreat from the most prestigious parts of its empire in South Asia.* C P Champion's book on British Canada during the middle 1960s suggests that they symbolic recognition of the end of British authority over Canada allowed Liberal Canada to assemble a nationalistic narrative of a rise from mere colony to vibrant post-dominion. However, at the same time this narrative's climax coincided also with serious political questions about Britain's long-term commitment to any of the settler dominions. The crumbling facade of Imperial leadership was being torn down by the US assertion that Britain was strictly a European power, and one that should be in the Common Market, itself committed to 'an ever closer union'.

Despite the tremendous success of the Maple Leaf Flag as a national symbol, the retirement of the old red ensign in Canada does raise some questions about whether the accompanying narrative was genuinely appropriate to Canada. It is hard to divorce it from the Liberal party's older political agenda of trying to make Canada more like the United States than like Britain. As the power of the United States grew during the nineteenth century, Britain became wary of antagonising the country and arguably neglected Canadian interests in treaty negotiations with the administration in Washington. A commitment to ensuring the independence of Canada through military action grew inconvenient as the European balance of power was threatened by a Germany frightened of an encircling alliance, thus suggesting that the American analysis of Britain's true place in the world was far from unsound. The victory over Germany in 1918 can above all be presented as a victory of the Britain, its empire and the dominions. However, during the decade after that victorythe empire had unravelled, with the dominions asserting more independence and India achieving a national cohesion it perhaps did not possess in 1757. Canada did not need a national liberation struggle. Britain quite willingly handed over increased autonomy whenever asked by the Canadians, culminating in the repatriation of the constitution, when the Thatcher government ignored the link between provinces and the British Crown in order to privilege the demands of the federal government. What has been described as 'the other Quiet Revolution' was as much about creating an imagined community as any myth about Founding Fathers or the Norman Yoke. Reviewing Canadian history it can seem that the Past, in J H Plumb's formulation, is as much a tool of liberation as it is of oppression. In this Liberal narrative, throwing aside the maternalistic symbols of the Mother Country allowed Canada to be 'itself', and led to decades of fretting over Canada's national character, which has still not stopped.

Flags are vital national symbols, and it is not my place to comment on the New Zealand referendum more than to place it in context of comparable moments within the Anglosphere. However, I would say that changing the flags in South Africa and Canada raised very real issues that in the former case were only resolved in time for the current banner, and in the latter have not been solved in any practical way still, although the problem is gradually going away. And all that is a blog post for another day.

PS-In researching this post I was surprised to find out who the current largest foreign direct investor in New Zealand is Canada has almost as much as Australia and the US combined. Britain, by contrast, has less invested than Hong Kong.


* We should be wary of interpreting Indian independence as a sign that Britain was beginning a general retreat from empire. At this point some British politicians believed that the empire could persist in some form in other parts of the world, especially Africa.

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