The New Zealand Flag

New Zealand Flag

A short piece on symbols and families

Britain has her bulldog; the Aussies have their ‘roos; the Yanks like their Eagle and the French sport their rooster.  We, of course, have our beloved kiwi; we have our silver fern.  And the others have their lions and thistles and wallabies and warratahs and snails and frogs’ legs … all these are honoured in their way, on rugby jerseys and marketing symbols: strong brands, unmistakably of their country.  When Churchill roused the British people to resistance, he called upon the spirit of the bulldog and the lion; for the French, de Gaulle talked of the rooster being the only animal who could still sing with both feet planted in manure; in their more relaxed moments, the delicacy of French tastes recalls snails and frogs’ legs and garlic-filled evenings of wine and fine culture.  From our own backyard, we are proud of the Silver Fern – emblazoned on our national teams – and the kiwi, symbol of a small but proud, gritty young nation in the Southern Seas.  All these countries are proud of their symbols; all of them are known immediately, around the globe, linked with only one nation each.  And not one of these symbols appears on that country’s flag.

In fact, what all of these countries do have on their flag is the red, white and blue.  This comes straight from the meld of the three-cross Union Flag – St George, St Andrew and St Patrick – fused into one identity from three, to put it mildly, radically different pasts – English, Scottish and Irish – and this melding created a symbol of liberty for the world in dark times, when conquering powers marched across Europe and the world and warred between each other.  Such was the power of that symbol that countries in turmoil soon followed suit: France chose expressly to borrow those colours for their own flag; the United States, newly formed, deliberately took them in turn, and New Zealand and Australia, their inhabitants nowadays almost all of them having ancestors who arrived by ship, chose a naval ensign emblazoned with their past in the top corner: a Union Jack, floating on a Southern ocean, guided by a Southern Cross, forming the larger part of the flag.

Yet two issues are often strangely given in favour of changing the flag: 1) we need our own identity and to “stand on our own two feet”; 2) it looks like Australia’s.

1.  Identity and Ourselves

I don’t know if you’ve noticed, but New Zealand already does perfectly well without our “mother country”, the United Kingdom, running the show.  We cut our apron strings to that mother, in any real governing sense, decades ago.  What we have sensibly kept is the heritage – the family name – once we left home, along with the ceremonial aspects and kindred blood.  We bear the appearance of our mother in the positioning of her flag upon ours – because we owe that much to her historically.  To disown the Union Flag is adolescent tantrum: to claim that we are now “so mature” that we don’t want to be seen in public with our Mum.  The conflicting search for freedom in a teenager is a worthwhile and exciting one – but we must be careful, while still a fresh, young country – yet no longer a child – not to throw out our past wholesale in search of our future identity.  We are what we are.

We are a former colony, frontiersmen and indigenous tribes, all immigrants at one time to a remote country, bound into a new nation.  We can see where we came from at our origin: Britain, and the Southern seas, for most of us.  And those not from those specific places have certainly become so culturally: our language, our rule of law, our individual freedoms, our history, our shared values, our way of doing business, our way of defending ourselves, our institutions: all these things we inherited in large part from Britain – unfashionable though it is to point that out – and we have made them our own, and kept a proud symbol to prove it.  Our flag reveals this heritage: two tribes, one from the Northern hemisphere, and those from the South, bound into one image in an ocean with room for all, which allows for yet more to arrive; and, to show our new sense of place, three-quarters of that image is given over to the Southern part.

2.  The Aussie question

Our flags must be almost as close as any other two nations in the world – with the exception of those mid-European striped-flag nations whose permutations of colour flummox even the most encyclopaedic, pub-quiz-ready mind.  The thing is, I think we *should* look a bit like Australia.  We are “brother countries”, after all.  We mock each other and enjoy rough and tumble across the ditch, as siblings do, but we are, in our values and laws and language and everything already listed, extremely alike.  Why create difference where it does not exist?  Is that a recipe for harmony?  I would rather be mistaken for an Australian than for just about any of those groups whose flag, as often proposed in the flag debate, is based on black: Isis, pirates, fascist dictators and the rest of them.  The silver fern on black may be an excellent sporting symbol – or indeed any graphic design variation on it, or the koru, or the kiwi – but alone it is no basis for a national identity.  Liberty, direction and renowned heritage, on the other hand, are the very best basis – represented by the Union Jack and the Southern Cross combination we have.

We will surely work through this national adolescence – this obsession with image and appearance in our search for a new banner, this rejection of our mother country in the dropping of the Union Jack, this huffy grump of being labelled part of a family we no longer consider cool, by changing a flag so like that of our closest friend and ally across the Tasman Sea.  We will surely work through this phase in our national life – we are no longer a child, doing our mother’s bidding; we are finding our own way and have long since cut the apron strings.  Britain has no real power here anymore, beyond the symbolic presence of the flag and the renowned and still much-loved headship of Her Majesty the Queen and her family, who bring us more attention and clout: so why would we be insecure about her symbols?

It’s as if we can’t handle being from somewhere: we can’t handle our background.  It seems we’ve entered that phase of life where Mum has to drop us way down the road from the school gates, so our friends can’t see our family on the corner.  We don’t realise that our past is what gives us the strength to forge our own way ahead – that adolescents, amidst all their profession of rebellion and rejection, really crave the strong support of their background and family group – that tension between past and present, as a constant reminder to keep going, keep exploring, keep innovating – those things teenagers and New Zealand both do so naturally, and so well, because we both have a strong base and inheritance from which to work.  Yet we run the very real risk of throwing that source of energy away.  Of tearing up the family album, of pushing our past away – our history, our heritage – in the name of revisiting appearance and image.  And if that’s not what we’re doing by throwing out our flag, if it’s nothing so drastic, or so deep and profound; if it does not go to the heart of it all, then why are we doing this at all?  For the graphic quality?  For a marketing strategy?  But we’ve seen that silver ferns and kiwis can be used for all that without being on the flag – just as bulldogs and kangaroos and roosters are.  New Zealand marketers do a superb job of that already.  To find the reason, let’s look at our school days for a minute: excuse this, but I’m a teacher.

Occasionally, there will be a kid at my school, who complains about having to wear a uniform. It’s not even an especially uncomfortable or stuffy one.  It’s a fair question, but the reason is simple: save your energy for something important.  Express yourself in meaningful ways, not just through facile things like image or appearance, or what colour you drape yourself in each morning.  New Zealand, as we mature, has that same marvellous opportunity here: let’s get through our national adolescence not by expending energy on changing some image or appearance.  Not by being so obsessed with loudly proving to everyone that we’ve cut the apron strings that we end up shredding the apron itself.  Don’t be fooled, like the teenager slicking his hair in front of the mirror or popping his collar, by thinking that changing an image says something especially deep, or that it’s time well-spent looking at ourselves and braying about how we’re all grown up now.  Let’s make use of this youthful national energy by expressing and renewing ourselves in some meaningful way instead: in science, in culture, in the arts, in our families, in trade, in useful laws.  Keep the flag as it is: those who survive their teenage years and emerge as healthy young adults are always quite happy to be seen with their Mum in public.

William Gunson

8th August 2015.

New Zealand Flag

Update: for those researchers who have asked for further details on the point, the historical reference to the first origins of the red, white and blue of the British/Kiwi Union Jack, then the French Tricolore and the American Stars & Stripes (et al) is analysed by Prof. Robert Tombs, of the University of Cambridge, in a 2007 publication.