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United Kingdom: Use and Status of the Flag

United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland

Last modified: 2005-03-12 by rob raeside
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[Flag of the United Kingdom] 1:2 | by Graham Bartram


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Use and status of the flag

Whilst the Union Flag has never been officially adopted by law as the national flag of the UK, it has become so by usage (which can count for a lot in the British constitutional/legal system) and the government has stated it is the correct flag for use by British citizens.

Afloat though, the Union Flag has been reserved by the government for specific, military purposes. It is the jack of the Royal Navy and the flag of rank for an admiral of the fleet. These are the reasons why it is illegal for a civilian ship to fly it.
Roy Stilling, 8 February 1996

The "Union Jack" is actually a Royal Flag, used as a national flag by permission of HM the Queen and on the advice of HM's Ministers (i.e., the government told us to use it in a parliamentary answer). It is perfectly acceptable to call it the "Union Jack" - in fact that is the term used by the Government Minister who stated that it should be used as the national flag. Of course a parliamentary answer isn't the same as a law or statutory instrument, so legally the UK does not have a singular national flag, but practically it does. Of course to make up for this we have more official national flags (of a non singular nature) than the rest of the world put together. At the last count we had exceeded 500!
Graham Bartram, 7 February 2001

The Union Jack has never been made an official civil flag by any legal process, but it has been authoritatively stated, on more than one occasion, that on land it may be used as though it were a civil flag. It is also used by the army so I would think that it should be (ooo/xxx)

Some extracts from Public Record Office documents.

When was the Union Jack (Union Flag) first (widely) used as a national flag by private citizens?

Nathan Lamm, 23 July 2002

My guess (for widespread use) would be WW1, 1914-1918. It seems to have been a slow and lengthy process. It had begun by 1887, Queen Victoria's Golden Jubilee, but was not really completed until the 1930s in Britain, and the 1940s in the colonies.

David Prothero, 24 July 2002

I used the phrase 'by 1887' to mean 'certainly in 1887, and probably before'. The use of Union Jacks at a major event such as the Golden Jubilee will be recorded, but it may be presumed that there will have been some previous limited use which has gone unrecorded.

In 1887 the Governor of the Isle of Man wrote to the Home Office objecting to having the badge of the Isle of Man on his Union Flag as he represented the Crown not the Isle of Man. He noted, "a growing tendency among various places of amusement to fly flags, and on one occasion I saw a royal standard and sometimes Union Flags. Uncertain whether I have the right or ought to interfere."

David Prothero, 25 July 2002

Editorial comment from the Times (London)

The Times : Thursday 18 September 1902.

Editorial.

To judge from the correspondence which we have lately printed, there would seem to be no little confusion of mind in many quarters concerning the character, the use, and even the identity of the national flag. There is, indeed, no common agreement as to what the national flag is. Lord Hawkesbury insists that it is the Red Ensign and nothing else. No doubt he is right in the sense that the Red Ensign proclaims the nationality of the unprivileged British merchant vessel, and is the only flag that can lawfully be displayed by such a vessel as the recognized symbol of its nationality. But, if the Red Ensign is the only flag that can properly be called national, how comes it that the flag flying at the Victoria Tower whenever Parliament is sitting is not the Red Ensign, but the Union Jack? The question is not altogether without difficulty perhaps. But, with all respect for Lord Hawkesbury, we must, as at present advised, hold the better opinion to be that the Union Jack is the national flag properly so called, the Red Ensign being that form of it which is prescribed by law as the symbol of the nationality of every British vessel at sea, not being a man-of-war or a vessel otherwise privileged to wear a different ensign. That the Royal Standard is not the national flag, nor a national flag in any sense, is a proposition too clear to admit of dispute. It is the personal flag of the Sovereign, and can be displayed by a subject only by special permission of the Sovereign, and this, from the nature of the case, is very rarely accorded. This is established beyond a doubt by the letter of Lord Knollys to the Vicar of St Michael's, Folkestone, which we printed on June 7. The Vicar stated that his congregation had, spent Ten Pounds in buying a Royal Standard, "thinking that they would be able to fly the flag from the church tower as usual," and he asked that an exception might be made in their favour. Sir Francis Knollys, as he then was, replied "that the Royal Standard, which is the King's personal flag, can only be hoisted at the Coronation. If permission were given in one case, it would be impossible to refuse it in any others. I must remind you," he added, however, "that you can, always fly the Union Jack."

It would seem from this that, in the opinion of the King's Private Secretary -- which we may be sure was not lightly given -- the proper flag to fly on any festive occasion is the Union Jack. Lord Hawkesbury might urge, perhaps, that this is merely an obiter dictum, and that it does not finally establish the title of the Union  Jack to be regarded as the only true national flag. But surely this question is decided by the fact that the Union Jack is a feature common, and the only feature common, to all ensigns, whether white, red, or blue, which are worn by British ships at sea. Ensigns are not merely flags; they are essentially distinguishing flags. White, red, and blue ensigns are one and all symbols of British nationality as distinct from all other nationalities, and, as between themselves, they distinguish different classes or categories of British ships. The display of the Union Jack is the international mark of all three, the colour of the fly being only a municipal distinction, so to speak.

The same conclusion seems to follow, also from the history and structure of the Union Jack. [Details of history and construction]

Such is the historical evolution of the Union Jack, and it seems to us clearly to indicate that the Union Jack is, and must be, the only national flag properly so called. There remains the question of its proper or improper use and display. This is necessarily prescribed with far greater precision and authority as regards ships at sea than as regards its employment by private citizens on shore. [Details of use at sea]

But on land there would seem to be no occasion for the observance of such precision nor for the exercise of such authority. The national pride in the national flag should suffice to restrain its improper use and display, and all that seems to be needed is a wider diffusion of accurate knowledge on the subject. It should be a reproach to every loyal and patriotic citizen not to know what the national flag is, what are its proper form and construction, and what is the proper use and symbolism of the several forms of it; and, were this the case, public opinion might safely be trusted to discountenance the use of all forms of it not properly constructed, or not recognized by established usage and authority.

The form, construction, history, and proper usage of the national flag might well be made a definite subject of teaching in every school in the kingdom. It is full of interest and contains a good deal of history in a very attractive form. It makes no difference for this purpose whether the national flag is, as we think, the Union Jack, or the Red Ensign, as Lord Hawkesbury insists, since no one can understand the Red Ensign or any other ensign unless he first understands the Union Jack. If this were done, the illicit and improper forms of the national flag, badly made and futility hoisted, of which we have seen so many examples of late, would soon disappear altogether. "You can always fly the Union Jack" says Lord Knollys. Provided it is the Union Jack, properly made and properly hoisted, it does not much matter, on shore, whether it is flown in the form of the Red Ensign or of any other ensign duly recognized by authority. But, lest naval susceptibilities should be offended, it had better be, we think, the Union Jack by itself.

David Prothero, 22 May 2004

Use of the Union Flag as a Garrison Flag
The British Union flag (i.e., with the union crosses overall) was created for nautical purposes, and most of the historical information that's available relates to its use at sea. However, it apparently was also used ashore as a garrison flag on forts and other installations. Is there a reference that deals with the authority and regulations for the use of the Union Flag in this role, and the history thereof?
Peter Ansoff, 16 January 2004

There were probably no official instructions or regulations until the introduction of the present flag in 1801. The Proclamation of 1st January 1801, "As to the Royal Style and Titles and as to the Ensigns Armorial, Standard and Union Jack", did not specify when the Union Jack should be flown, but the Order in Council, on which the proclamation was based, did. The following instruction, was issued to Naval Dockyards.

Admiralty Office, 15th November 1800.
Gentlemen,
A Report from the Lords of the Committee of the whole Council, dated 4th instant, having been read at the Council Board on the Day following, in the Presence of the King's Most Excellent Majesty, wherein the Lords of the Council declared as their opinion, if His Majesty should so think fit, that His Royal proclamation to be issued on the First Day of January next under the Great Seal of the United Kingdom, appoint and declare ..........
That the Committee were further of opinion that the Union Flag should be altered according to the Draught thereof marked (C) in which the Cross of St George is conjoined with the Crosses of St Andrew and St Patrick:

And that on and after the First Day of January next ensuing the said Flags and Banners should be hoisted and displayed on all His Majesty's Forts and Castles within the United Kingdom, and the Islands of Guernsey, Jersey, Alderney, Sark, and Man, ................

We herewith transmit to you a Printed Copy of His Majesty's Order in Council of the 5th instant approving the Report of the Lords of the Committee afore-mentioned, and do hereby desire and direct you to cause such Flags and Standards as may be necessary to be prepared conformably to the said Draughts, ......with all the dispatch that may be.

You are also to cause the Colours described in the said Order in Council to be hoisted in all the Dock Yards of the Kingdom upon the 1st Day of January next, and to supply the necessary Colours for the use of the Naval Hospitals at Home, and the Naval Yards and Hospitals abroad, in the manner directed by the said Order in Council;

We are Your affectionate Friends,
Arden, J.Gambier, W.Young. Navy Board.
In one draft of the Order in Council "Flags and Banners _should_ be hoisted and displayed etc." was changed to "Flags and Banners _may_ be hoisted and displayed etc.", but apparently changed back to "should" in the final version.

No doubt a similar instruction was issued to the Army, but the list of Flag Stations was not published in Queen's Regulations until 1873; probably giving formal authorisation to an existing practice. "The following is a list of Stations at which the National Flag (Union Jack) is authorised to be hoisted. (a) On anniversaries only, or when specially required for saluting purposes. (b) On Sundays and Anniversaries. (c) Daily."

David Prothero, 17 January 2005


Use of the Red Ensign as the National Flag

It was noted that in Photographic Memories of Scotland (1995) many Scottish scenes from the period between 1890 and 1905 show flags in them. I noticed in several photos that red ensigns were flown from buildings ashore. I discovered that there seemed to be a break at the year 1900. In no photo prior to 1900 did I see a red ensign flown ashore, only Union Jacks. However in the 1900 and later photos, all flags flown ashore that I could identify were red ensigns, and NO Union Jacks. The pair of photos that brought this immediately to my attention were two of the same scene in different years. The scene is the Argyll Hotel in Dunoon. In a photo dated 1897 the Argyll Hotel and two nearby buildings are all flying Union Jacks. On the same page, in a photo dated 1904, the same three buildings are all flying red ensigns. Why are red ensigns being flown ashore? And why are they flown apparently to the exclusion of the Union Jack from 1900 to 1905 in these photos?

Devereaux Cannon

In 1902 - just about when it appears the Union Jack was eliminated from the scenes in the book described above - it seems that moves were taken to in fact grant it at least semi-official recognition as Britain's National Flag. This transition seems to have started with Edward VII's coronation, and the preparations therefore. In the spring of 1902, St Michael's Church, Folkestone, purchased a new Royal Standard, (for the not inconsequential price of ten pounds), with the full expectation that as loyal subjects they would be allowed to fly it in conjunction with the coronation's festivities. Unfortunately, for the parishioners of St Michael's, the King issued the now well-known general prohibition against the use of His Royal Standard when he was not personally present. Upset at their apparent waste of good money, the Rector of St Michael's wrote to the Palace seeking an exception for his church. Not surprisingly, he was denied special dispensation, but the King's secretary, (Lord Francis Knolly), in an apparent attempt to ease the parish's disappointment, pointed out that "..you can always fly the Union Jack".

This correspondence was revealed in the London Times of 7 June 1902, (p. 12.), and apparently came as quite a surprise to many "in the know" for it seemed to have sparked quite a controversy, with a series of editorials and letters to the editor on the subject, running in the paper through to the end of the year. It is also worth noting, in this regard, that the respected journal "Notes and Queries" also had a spat of exchanges on the subject at about the same time. The debate centred around the question: what is the British National Flag?; with positions coalescing around the Red Ensign (since it is the private subject's national flag at sea); and the Union Flag, (based upon the King's Private Secretary's statement given to the Rector of St Michael's, quoted above). Those in favour of the Red Ensign's usage ashore, claimed that Lord Knolly's statement could only be considered a mere "obiter dictum", (i.e., an incidental remark providing no basis for decision); but supporters of the Union Flag suggested (and I think fairly) that "we may be sure that (his opinion) was not given lightly". He did, after all, speak for the King. Since this debate was in fact national - and included participants right across the UK - it seems reasonable to suggest that the owners (or at least decision-makers) for the Scottish hotels in the photographs (as well as, indeed, Scots in general) must have been aware of the debate. Since the debate was never really satisfactorily resolved, perhaps the owners or decision makers for these hotels (and the people flying flags in the other photos) once becoming aware of the debate, decided that the arguments proferred in favour of the red ensign, vice the union flag, made more sense to them, and as a result simply decided to switch flags.I would never bet my mortgage on this, however; but I am afraid that in the absence of a piece of evidence, in the mode of a "smoking gun" (such as an in-house memorandum specifically explicating the change), I fear that reasoned speculation, (such as I hope I have just presented) is all we have to go upon.

Glen Hodgins


Use at Sea

The Union Flag (union jack) is used in the following ways at sea:

  1. as a jack
  2. to signal a court-martial is in progress
  3. to indicate the presence of an admiral of the fleet
  4. when the monarch is on board the ship (see "Documented Uses with Monarch Aboard" below)

Joe McMillan, 4 June 2003

Documented Uses with Monarch Aboard

This statement might be true if applied only to merchant or other private vessels--anyone know the flag rules for a royal visit to a non-state-owned ship?
Joe McMillan, 4 June 2003

The flags which may legally be flown by a British merchant vessel are exactly defined (as we know) and the UJ is not amongst them? The presence of HM The Queen aboard a civil vessel would (I assume) mean it flying the Royal Standard as a matter of course, but the remaining flags should remain unaltered? If the rules for a royal visit aboard a vessel of Trinity House are anything to go by, the Royal Standard is the only flag which acknowledges HM's presence (although all allowed flags are flown including a jack whilst underway).
Christopher Southworth, 4 June 2003

When under way a naval ship flies a Union Jack at the bow if it is flying the Royal Standard, or if it is escorting a ship flying the Royal Standard. Merchant ships vary. When King George V went to France in 1923 on the Southern Railway Steamship 'Biarritz', Naval Stores supplied a White Ensign, a Royal Standard and an Admiralty Flag, but not a Union Jack. [ADM 1/8650/237]

In 1939 King George VI went to Canada in the RMS Empress of Australia. The Canadian Pacific House Flag was flown at the bow and the White Ensign at the stern. However when the SS Gothic was used for a Royal Tour of Australia in 1951 it was arranged that a White Ensign or a Red Ensign would be flown, as directed by the King; a Union Jack with the White Ensign, and the Company House Flag with the Red Ensign. Princess Elizabeth had to take the place of the King and the arranged procedure was followed, with Admiral Lambe advising which ensign should be flown. [ADM 1/25471]
David Prothero, 4 June 2003

The actual flags flown were:

Jack: house flag of Shaw Savill and Albion Line (which was almost identical to the NZ flag of the 1830s)
Foremast: Admiralty flag
Mizzenmast: Royal Standard
Ensign: Red Ensign

Also note that the year of the tour was in 1953-54
Miles Li, 4 June 2003


Law concerning flagpoles

An amendment to the 1993 Local Government Regulations specifically exempts our national flags from planning restriction. This means that, where before we needed local planning permission to raise a flagpole (often very difficult if not nearly impossible to get), we can now do so without applying for Local Government consent providing it is to fly the flags of the UK, England, Scotland or Wales (if there is an extension of this I would be interested to hear about it).
Christopher Southworth, 17 September 2003

From: http://www.odpm.gov.uk/stellent/groups/odpm_planning/documents/page/odpm_plan_606840.hcsp:
Class 7 in Schedule 3 is sub-divided (by Regulation 6) into Classes 7A and 7B. The present Class 7 in the 1992 Regulations (an advertisement in the form of a
flag on a single flagstaff projecting vertically from the roof of a building) becomes Class 7A but is otherwise unchanged.

From: http://www.odpm.gov.uk/stellent/groups/odpm_planning/documents/page/odpm_plan_606218-03.hcsp#TopOfPage:
A national flag of any country. Any national flag may be flown on a single vertical flagstaff, so long as it does not have anything added to the design of the flag or any advertising material added to the flagstaff.

Thus, if my understanding of all the wordage is correct, a flagpole may be erected anywhere, now, within the curtilage of a property, not just projecting from the roof; if:

Marten Gallagher, 18 May 2004


Flag Desecration in Britain

What constitutes a flag under English Law?
As far as I can find, the term "flag" is nowhere defined in English constitutional law, although the term occurs in (for example) the Local Government Regulations in it is apparently assumed that the definition is as is generally understood. It is very probable, however, that in common law anything which is designed to look like (or represent) a flag could and probably would be so considered. In other words, to burn a paper representation of the Union Flag is to burn the Union Flag?

Is the law different for Scotland?
I don't know

Are there penalties in either or both legal systems for flag desecration?
I cannot comment about Scottish law, but under English law the desecration of a flag is not (in itself and of itself) a crime, however, in so doing the perpetrator could possibly be committing another offence?

Does this apply also to the desecration of foreign flags?
Yes it does.

Ron Lahav and responses by Christopher Southworth, 14 April 2004

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