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David Round

David Round

Our Flag

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You will probably not be surprised to hear that I do not have any tattoos. I do not think I even needed the parental admonition ‘For heaven’s sake, whatever you do, DON’T get a tattoo!’ Certainly, for me now to join the tattoo fashion, so late in the day, would merely reveal an undignified yearning for a second adolescence and some unseemly attitudes.

But nevertheless, in younger slightly more adventurous days, when the very idea of a tattoo was rather more daring and dangerous, the wild thought did occasionally strike me that a tattoo might be rather ~ exciting. But the thing was, it could not just be any old tattoo. It would have to be a very special one, a design of particular beauty and distinction, and holding special significance for me. But those circumstances never arose. Which is perhaps just as well. It is a mystery to me, the casualness with which people now ink their bodies with very ordinary random bits and pieces, never to be removed. Call me old-fashioned…

I take some comfort from a cartoon I recently saw in the New Yorker. A woman was in a tattoo parlour ~ ‘studio’, I beg your pardon ~ and had obviously been discussing her forthcoming tattoo with the tattooist. He was fiddling with his computer and said to her, as he was looking at the screen, ‘And here’s what your tattoo will look like in thirty years’ time….’

Such memories have a certain aptness when thinking of the proposal to change our flag. I have no absolute implacable opposition to a change. If the design is a good one ~ no, not just a good one, a special one, like my tattoo ~ and if the people of this nation overwhelmingly desire a change, it is difficult to raise any objections in principle. Those are, of course, two very big ‘ifs’, and they will be considered further below! But leaving them to one side for the moment, I cannot help but think that there is something just ever so slightly ~ well, to be blunt, adolescent ~ about the desire to change the flag. It is nonsense to say that we need a new flag in order to express our identity as a nation. Our current flag expresses our identity perfectly well. There is the blue of the Pacific, across which all our ancestors, Polynesian and Briton, sailed to this new land; there, against the blue of the heavens, is the Southern Cross, the great constellation of our skies; and in one corner, there is the flag of the old country from whom, up until very recently anyway, all of us, Maori included, could trace their descent, the country that gave us our language, our government and laws, our culture, the country which more than any other has shaped absolutely every last New Zealander. I do not see that its presence on our flag is so dreadfully inappropriate. Our current flag does express our identity. I have read the claim that a new flag would represent all of us. The existing one does that. New immigrants to this country come here to become like us. When people talk about needing a new flag in order to express our identity, what they actually mean is that they do not like the identity we have now. They want a new identity. They should be honest about this. But they are not, and they dare not be, because if we were allowed to discuss the question we might come up with some answers that the cultural powers would dislike. So we are just told that we are bicultural or multicultural ~ claims both dubious and, if true, dangerous.

The flag question, therefore, has never been presented in its proper context, of who we are and who we might or might not want to be. It is presented as an issue just all by itself ~ this piece of cloth, or that piece of cloth? The entire discussion presupposes that the flag is not actually very important at all. Matthew Galloway, a design lecturer at Otago Polytech, put this well in the Press. ‘A good flag needs to go beyond branding and involve a deeper conversation about national identity. I think branding is a very hollow way of talking about identity ~ branding is the shallow stamping of a mark on top of something without considering all the underlying history and viewpoints that make up a place.’ Spot on, Matthew!

Even if our flag were outdated, however ~ which it is not ~ I do not necessarily see that as an argument for change either. I am reminded of the bitter arguments in Christchurch concerning the restoration or replacement of the Anglican cathedral in the Square. One argument put forward by the demolition-and-replacement party is the need for a new building which will be more appropriate to modern liturgical needs. But liturgical needs change all the time. They have changed quite a few times since the great mediaeval cathedrals of England were built by the Roman Catholic Church, yet it has always been possible to adapt those old buildings, rather than replace them, in order to accommodate those changes. If the Christchurch cathedral were to be replaced because of liturgical need, then what is going to  happen in fifty or a hundred years’ time when liturgical needs have changed again? Demolish the new cathedral and build yet another? Once one starts updating, there is no stopping. So it is, surely, with the flag. The cross of St George may not in itself be deeply relevant to many modern Englishmen, yet they revere it simply because it is England’s ancient flag. How ‘relevant’ to modern times are the royal arms ~ the leopards of England, lion of Scotland and harp of Ireland? How ‘relevant’ are the New Zealand arms? A white woman on one side, a Maori chief on the other as supporters ~ where are all the other cultures of an allegedly multicultural society? And the items on the shield ~ sailing ships, a wheatsheaf, a fleece, the crossed hammers of a factory worker or miner. Dear me, we will have to update that! We need a dairy cow, a tourist bus, an Auckland motorway and a morally bankrupt politician selling us out to Chinese investors and big transnational corporations. And then, before too long, we will have to change again. The cow will go to the works when the farmer goes bust, the tourist bus will grind to a halt amid global financial disaster and peak oil. As for the politician….

Once we start updating, we never stop. Better not to start. The constant urge to change things is a childish one. ‘Stop fiddling!’ my mother would say. ‘Leave it alone!’ Good advice. One of these days, one of these centuries, after some great event or series of events, it may seem entirely appropriate to adopt some new national banner. Let us wait for the event. Let any new flag appear organically, out of actual circumstances. Any flag originating from a huckster politician and a committee will be beginning life under serous disadvantages.

In the 1960s, in the Youth Revolution and the aftermath of the Second Vatican Council, many Christian denominations made some cringeworthy attempts to be ‘relevant’. Weird new buildings and vestments, vicars with guitars, priests preaching world revolution, the works. Someone observed of these  unfortunate innovations that ‘The Church that weds itself too firmly to the spirit of one age runs the danger of finding itself a widower in the next.’ So too with producing a ‘relevant’ flag. Better to accept the accidents of history until the moment comes, the true moment we all recognise, when change is appropriate. Otherwise the new flag will soon be as outdated as flares and platform shoes.

I must say that, looking at the forty designs, I am distinctly underwhelmed. If these are the best of the more than 10,000 designs submitted by the public, then the rest must have been pretty dismal. This view appears to be reasonably widespread. I am not alone, either, in thinking that it is an exaggeration to speak of ‘forty’ designs. About seventeen or so designs feature spirals, twelve or so feature ferns, and twenty-one feature the Southern Cross. Those are just about the only emblems the designs have ~ spiral, fern, stars, either by themselves or in some combination, and in slightly different colours. Only about three designs do not have one or more of these three elements, and they are particularly obscure, and highly unlikely, I would imagine, to make the shortlist.

Really, after all the talk of an exciting new flag, I am surprised at how ordinary, mundane and unimaginative all the designs are. There are several that one could live with ~ one or two that we might identify as low profile lighthouses in a sea of mud ~ but no more.

Greatly to my relief, not to mention surprise, very few designs show any particular Maori influence. The standard ‘Maori sovereignty’ flag is absent. The nearest we get is with two designs, showing a pyramid or triangle of some sort in shades of white, red and black. I do not think they are going to go much further ~ what on earth does the triangle mean? There are also a couple of other southern crosses on a background of black, white and red. The combination of red and black is a particularly Maori one, and several more designs also feature red and black prominently in their colour schemes without any further element in the design.

Red and black, however, are also the Canterbury rugby provincial colours. It is hard to find any colour combination which does not have some other resonance, but all the same I wonder if the Canterbury connexion would cause difficulty. Speaking personally, and although a Cantabrian myself, I do not think red and black are colours that usually work well together. Although the combination seems to be culturally pleasing to Maori, it is one long forbidden by the rules of heraldic art ~ it would count as ‘a tincture on a tincture’ ~ and in that respect is culturally unpleasing to the European eye. For both aesthetic and cultural reasons, then, I have to object to red and black as strong elements of any new flag.

All the same, I do not know what a certain Press columnist was referring to when she spoke of the shortlist as a competition between Maori and non-Maori designs. I imagine she must have been referring to the numerous spirals, but they are not Maori ~ the spiral is a motif known to many peoples ~ the Celts, for example. The spiral and the fern could even be said to be the same ~ the spiral could really be a stylised fern frond or curling wave. It recalls A.R.D.Fairburn’s Conversation in the Bush:

‘Observe the young and tender frond
Of this punga: shaped and curved
Like the scroll of a fiddle: fit instrument
To play archaic tunes.’

‘I see
The shape of a coiled spring.’

But coiled spring or curling wave, wholesome and environmental, ancient Celtic symbol from the Hill of Tara or whatever, a spiral, full of beautiful associations as it is, cannot stir my heart. Does anything stir yours? The Australians are already mocking spiral designs as ‘a snail going for a swim’ or some such description, and I can see the spirals lending themselves very readily to parody. Does any design really say ‘yes, this is who and what I am, and we are’? That is the acid test, surely, and even the best of these designs I would have to describe as worthy but dull. None of them has the simplicity and straightforwardness of the Canadian maple leaf.

Some people have complained that no design shows a kiwi. Unless a kiwi motif were to signify that we were really determined to do something to stop kiwis and other native birds from continuing their slide to extinction, and to bring them back to their once common status, a kiwi on the flag would be nothing short of hypocritical. Quite apart from that, a kiwi is difficult to draw, and on a flag would be nothing but a strange and awkward silhouette. I am glad none of the designs feature one.

In one sense, it is prudent to draw on existing elements for a new design; but at the same time, to do so advertises that the new design is but a mere exercise in modernisation. That might well suggest that updating will continue in future, as the flag is regularly brought up to date. What a disaster that would be.

There is one word that I cannot recall ever having heard in this debate. It is not, I imagine, a word that features in the vocabulary of many of the advocates of flag-changing. What is it? I think of another cartoon, this time by Pont, a magnificent English cartoonist who flourished between the wars. A rather unattractive vegetarian-looking intellectual is talking to a very nice little old lady, who is fuming as he drawls condescendingly ~’Oh, you’re a patriot. How amusing.’

Patriotism. Where has that been in all this debate? Is it an outdated concept now? The love of ones country. I think patriotism is a step beyond our self-conscious and self-important talk of ‘identity’. It is love for something else, not the quest for self-discovery. It is certainly far more than the ‘branding’ which the Prime Minister regularly speaks of. ‘Branding’ is what one does with some commercial product or venture. We brand our country as a ‘100% Pure’ tourist destination, for example; we put a distinctive logo on our vehicles and stationery to set them apart from everyone else. And then in due course, when the brand has ceased to serve that function, it is replaced by another. But New Zealand is more than NewZealandCorp, and a flag is more than just something to print on our sacks of milk powder. New Zealand, we like to think, is a ‘nation’, and a nation is more than just a group of strangers who happen to live on the same piece of ground. A nation is, in its original Latin meaning, a giant family, a body of people who are united by more than divides them ~ who are different, as members of a family are, and who have their little squabbles, but who nevertheless accept each other as belonging to the same community. They must all sink or swim together. A nation is bound together by its common experiences ~ by its history. We cannot escape from our history. It is what made us, and what we are. Yet the adolescent desire of flag-changers seems to be an attempt to do just that.

George Orwell in the 1930s described the government of England as like that of a family ~ ‘in which the young are generally thwarted and most of the power is in the hands of irresponsible uncles and bed-ridden aunts.  Still, it is a family. It has its private language and its common memories, and at the approach of an enemy it closes its ranks. A family with the wrong members in control ~ that perhaps is as near as one can come to describing England in a phrase.’  It could be claimed of any country that the wrong people are in control. But in a family, we put up with something less than perfect, because we are a family. We put up with the accidents of history. We put up with the flag we already have, for example, because some of the family really like it, and it is going to be impossible to agree on any replacement.

There can be little doubt that a significant section of the population, many of Orwell’s uncles and aunts, are going to dislike any new flag. I understand that there is already an acceptance by the government that the RSA, for example, would be allowed to fly our current flag beside any new one. It is hard to imagine that any law would forbid private citizens to fly the present flag even if it were officially replaced. So the net result of any change, then, might well be a more apparent division of the country, into New Flaggers and Old Flaggers. The two rival flags might well become the focuses and symbols of an old and a new way of doing things. That is not going to be helpful.

It does not matter if more than 50% of the population vote for a new flag. It must be a much much greater percentage. 90%, perhaps? That would seem to be a tall order; but even to have 10% of the population alienated by a new flag is not good or desirable. To have 60% of the population, say, in favour of a new flag, and 40% in favour of the old, would be most unfortunate. 40% of the population alienated from one of their most important deepest rallying-points and symbols? I do not see how this is going to do anything but promote division and bitterness.

Orwell spoke of the family closing ranks at the approach of an enemy. Traditionally, we do speak of flags ~ meaning, the nations they represent ~ as things worth dying for. Men and women have died for our present flag. I wonder how many people would be sufficiently proud of our new one, and the country it represents, to die for it. The battle over the flag is not just a battle over the flag, but, like the battle over the monarchy, a battle between an older and newer way of life. The flag and the Crown are symbols ~ they are flags, indeed, waving over the battlefield. I do not like many aspects of where our country is going. What would happen, I wonder, if a war that we had to fight in broke out? What would the politicians and the recruiters for the armed forces tell us then? Would they urge us to lay down our lives for a new inclusive multi-ethnic and multicultural Aotearoa, where proper respect is paid to sexual equality, gender diversity and Maori rights under the Treaty ~ and the rights of foreign investors and capital to buy up our country and exploit our own people? Is that going to push many of your buttons? It does not reach any of mine.

My response, indeed, would be similar to the response made by dispossessed Highlanders in the aftermath of the cruel clearances of the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. The Highlands had long been a fertile recruiting ground for the finest regiments of the British army. Many great battles and wars were won with Highland lives. But after the dispossession of the people from their ancestral lands their young men felt less inclination to die for the new regime that had stolen their own country and old way of life from them. Their landlords, their hereditary chieftains, had betrayed them, and had preferred to graze sheep where once their clansmen had run their herds. And so when their chieftains now came around with the army recruiters, the young men replied ‘You have preferred sheep to men. So let sheep defend you!’

What is left of our country to defend? If the flag goes, not only the flag will pass. It will be another assurance that a new breed of person is in charge. Someone who does not understand us, someone who has very different ideas about how things ought to be done ~ someone, perhaps, who knows the price of everything and the value of nothing.