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The Australian Flag

Threats to the integrity of the United Kingdom, occasioned by those whose ambitions would take devolution further than the Government of Mr Blair would wish, have inevitably thrust the subject of national flags into popular consciousness. In Northern Ireland, newly respectable republican politicians ask to see the Irish tricolour flying alongside the Union Flag on Government buildings. In Scotland the red lion rampant "Royal Standard" is waved by supporters of the SNP while the Union Flag is scorned. Wales, too, now expects to see a greater use of its dragon banner to reflect the recent establishment of its own national assembly.

In Australia there is very strong support for a new national flag to replace the ensign illustrated here. However much this sentiment may be excused as the proper right of an independent nation to select its own flag, we must deplore that so much of the argument so far has been based on the ignorance of a recent Prime Minister who, in his rabble-rousing speeches, pretended that the Union (as it is correctly termed) in the upper corner next to the staff symbolised Australia's subordinate position in its relationship with "England" and "the British".
Australia's national ensign
bears the Union as a quarter

(The blue may not be accurate on all monitors.)

In a speech in January 1992 he announced it was high time the "Union Jack" was removed and suggested:

"I suppose people around the world are entitled to say: 'Well, look at your flag. You've got the flag of another country in the corner. I mean are you a colony or are you a nation? ' "

To which the only informed answer, if such a bizarre question were ever asked, would be:

The device "in the corner" (as Mr Keating expressed it) is a quarter (an heraldic charge) bearing the Union (the crosses of Saint Andrew, Saint George and Saint Patrick) as borne on the national flag of the United Kingdom and thus representing the patron saints of the three principal nations which founded Australia. An heraldic quarter, or a canton (its diminutive), does not symbolise a subordinate relationship, certainly not one of one country owning another. If indeed it did so today, as in mediaeval times it sometimes could, then it would mean that Australia owned or had a claim to the United Kingdom, not vice versa.

We need look at only one example to see the use of the quarter and the canton (the diminutive, in area one-ninth of a shield or banner, rather than one-quarter), as these are well portrayed by the Earls of Richmond descended from Eudon, a younger son of Geoffrey, Duke of Brittany (d. 1008). The arms of Brittany were ermine, which means that the shield was white and featured the black tails of the winter stoat. Piers de Braine, who was Earl of Richmond in his own right, married the Brittany heiress, Alice, and became Duke of Brittany in her right. He subsequently surrendered the dukedom to his son by Alice and continued as Earl of Richmond. His arms were chequy or and azure, a quarter ermine ~ as shown here.
Some later earls bore the Brittany ermine on a canton, but no great significance may be attached to such a diminution at this early stage of heraldry's development. What is important is that the use of the quarter (or canton) did not signify any claim of the ownership of Richmond by Brittany. The quarter has never been used in such a way, despite Mr Keating's fancies. Such quarters can, of course, allude to a family relationship, a blood connection or an alliance, and thus the presence of the Union quarter on the Australian ensign is highly appropriate. The use of another's arms in this manner usually reflects honour on both parties, as the Government of the United States of America intended when the arms of George Washington were used as the basis of the flag of the new country. (No American, then or since, has claimed that this showed America to be a Washington fief.)
A reader in Australia has asked us to publish the following poem. We did not know the identity of the poet, and asked that anyone who did might pass on our compliments and good wishes and let us know the name. We have since gratefully received from the Librarian of the State Library of Queensland the information that the poet is Robin Northover, that the poem dates from 1986, and that full details were published in the Australasian Post on 20th April 1996.


Our Australian Flag

Our Flag bears the stars that blaze at night our southern skies of blue;
And that little old Flag in the corner,
.......that's part of our heritage, too.
It's for the English, the Scots and the Irish,
.......who were sent to the ends of the earth;
The rogues and the schemers, the doers and dreamers;
.......who gave our Australia birth.
And you who are seeking to change it, don't seem to understand;
It's the Flag of our law and our language,
.......not the Flag of a faraway land.
There are plenty of people who'll tell you
.......that when Europe was plunged into night,
That little old Flag in the corner
.......was their symbol of freedom and light.
It's not that we owe allegiance a forgotten imperial dream:
We've the stars to show where we're going;
.......that old Flag to show where we've been.

Our Australian colleague on the editorial staff has identified the
principal difficulty met by all who would attempt to design a new
national ensign. The problem, he says (and we cannot but agree),
is that the existing flag is aesthetically and heraldically beautiful.

If to that irrefutable fact Australians add the sentiment owed to the
memory of those who fought for King and Empire under that flag,
they must recognise that they dishonour their own patriots if they
choose to forget them in the pursuit of an Australian equivalent of
Cool Britannia (the invention of the mad advertising men and spin
doctors employed by Mr Blair to rubbish the history of Australia's
British forefathers).

Australia has a beautiful flag. Why replace it with a meaningless
and second-rate substitute? Why bow to the cultural barbarians?

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