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United Kingdom: Use and Status of the Flag

United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland

Last modified: 2011-07-08 by rob raeside
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[Flag of the United Kingdom] 1:2 | image by Clay Moss, 16 December 2006

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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 United Kingdom has two official royal flags; the Royal Standard and the Union Jack. Since the United Kingdom is a monarchy I reckon they are official national flags. What was, at one time, not clear was whether private individuals were entitled to use the official flags. The flags were ratified and confirmed by the First Article of An Act for the Union of Great Britain and Ireland, Proclaimed 1st January 1801.
    Departmental Blue Ensigns and, before 1894 Colonial Red Ensigns, were authorised under the Order in Council, July 9th 1864 (Admiralty Orders In Council, Vol.2, p.46).
    Colonial Blue Ensigns were authorised under the Colonial Naval Defence Act 1865 (28 vic. cap.14)
    Colonial Red Ensigns after 1894 were authorised under the Merchant Shipping Act 1894 (57 & 58 vic. cap.80): 73(1).
David Prothero, 10 June 2005

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.

  • "It was the view of the King in Council 5th November 1800 that the Flag of Union could be flown on land only from His Majesty's forts and castles, and from His Majesty's ships at sea. It is the national official flag."
    Sir A.Scott Gatty, Garter King of Arms in 1907. [HO 45/10287/109071]
  • 31st October 1887. Governor of the Isle of Man wrote to the Home Office about, "the 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."
  • Minute on question to be asked in the House of Commons on 22nd October 1902. What is the correct Flag to be flown on land by civilians ?
    There is no Flag in existence answering to this general description. Civilians generally are not authorised to fly or display any Flag. Peers and gentlemen entitled to bear Arms have a right to fly from their Castles or residences a banner of their Arms. The Royal Standard appertains to the Sovereign alone.
    The Union Flag of the United Kingdom is used by authority throughout the Army and Navy, and the State Departments, usually with some modification or addition by way of distinction. The Union Flag, being a National Flag, appertains to the Nation as a whole, and cannot be considered as specially distinctive of individuals or groups of individuals. The common practice on occasions of national rejoicing of displaying the Royal Standard and the Union Flag indiscriminately with other Flags must be regarded as an attempt to express loyalty by means of decoration.
    As to Public Buildings, Schools etc.,- State Buildings should fly the Union Flag. Schools etc. should fly the Flag displaying their proper Arms. Municipal Buildings should fly a banner of the Arms of the particular Corporate body.
    The issue of a Royal Warrant touching this matter would, in my opinion, be inexpedient.
    Albert W.Woods. 21st October 1902. [Garter King of Arms 1869-1904]
    [National Archives (PRO) HO 144/602/B22911]
  • "Wednesday 22 October 1902. Mr. Martin to ask First Lord of the Treasury whether he will consider the advisability of issuing a warrant defining what is the correct flag to be flown on land by civilians and what flag should be flown on public buildings and schools in Great Britain and the colonies.
    "Mr Balfour (answered). The questions which have been raised as to the proper use of flags have received careful consideration by the Government, but they are unable to adopt the course of action suggested. Nor does it appear desirable to undertake the legislation that would be necessary in order to regulate the general use by civilians, or any class of civilians, of any particular flag on land. It is a matter which is best left, as hitherto, to the guidance of custom and good taste."
    Parliamentary Debate 4th series Vol 113, Col 467. [HO 144/602/B22911]
    See also: Editorial comment from The Times (London)
  • "Union Jack is the national flag and there is no objection to its general use by private persons on land." and
    "It appears to Mr. H. Gladstone (Home Secretary) that the Union Jack can be used on land without impropriety by any private person."
    Home Office Memorandum of February 1907. [HO 45/10287/109071]
  • In 1908 reports that the police had been removing Union Jacks in various places under the impression that an offence was being committed [TS 28/417], led to a statement by the Earl of Crewe in the House of Lords on 14th July, that the Royal Standard could not be flown without the permission of His Majesty, but that the Union Flag could be flown on land.
    [HO 45/15534]
  • This disturbed some of the Lord Lieutenants of Counties, the personal representative of the sovereign in each county. They flew the Union Jack as a symbol of their office, and on 25th February 1910, the Duke of Bedford representing the Association of County Lieutenants sent a Humble Petition to Winston Churchill (the Home Secretary) for presentation to His Majesty.
    "That whereas the Union Flag has recently been declared by authority to be the National one, and therefore available to be hoisted by any British subject, His Majesty should be petitioned to grant a distinctive Flag for the exclusive use of His Majesty's Lieutenants of Counties."
    As a result of this, the Lord Lieutenants of Counties were, in 1911, granted a special flag; the Union Jack defaced with a horizontal sword.

    However there was still uncertainty, particularly in some colonies, as to what flag could be flown on land. It was known that the Blue and Red Ensigns were for use only at sea and widely believed that the Union Jack could be flown on land only by the governor or his representative.

    In 1917 the Governor of the Windward Islands wrote to the Colonial Office that, "Residents of St.Vincent are reluctant to fly the Union Jack because it might have the appearance of discourtesy to the Administrator who is required by Colonial Regulations to fly the Union Jack on Government House."
    [CO 323/1830/20]

    The question was again raised in parliament, and on 27th June 1933 the Home Secretary, Sir John Gilmour, announced in the House of Commons that, "The Union Flag is the National Flag and may properly be flown on land by any of His Majesty's subjects."
    Question 34 column 1324 of Hansard [CO 323/1272/21]

    Much of the confusion in the colonies was caused by the fact that the governor flew a Union Jack with the badge of the colony on it when afloat, but a plain Union Jack when on land. The obvious solution was for the governor to fly the Union Jack with the colony badge whether he was on land or afloat, thus making it clear that the plain Union Jack was not the flag of the governor and could thus be flown by any British subject. In 1941 answers to a circular asking governors for their opinion on this matter revealed differing practices. The Governor of Ceylon wrote that the Union Jack was often flown in Hong Kong and Ceylon but not in Straits Settlements, adding that at the Silver Jubilee of George V (1935) a large British shipping firm had applied for permission to fly the Union Jack believing the flag to be the privilege of the governor.
    [CO 323/1830/22]

  • The event that finally led to the decision to permit use of the governor's defaced Union Jack on land, and generally encourage the use of the Union Jack in the colonies, was the 1940 arrangement whereby the United States transferred 40 destroyers to Britain in exchange for bases in the West Indies. It was observed in a minute on the subject that unless something was done to encourage the use of the Union Jack, "bases in the West Indies leased to the United States would be a sea of Stars and Stripes with no Union Jacks in sight."
    [CO 323/1830/20]

    David Prothero, 23 August 2001

According to the BBC, the new UK Prime Minister has relaxed the rules regarding the flying of the Union Flag. Presumably, though, this will not apply in Northern Ireland.
Michael Carchrie Campbell, 7 July 2007

This is not quite the correct interpretation and illustrates perfectly the dangers of relying on half written news stories, such as this. The first thing to be borne in mind is that the Prime Minister is the head of 10 Downing Street, which is his office and thus he is ultimately responsible for deciding which flags appear above the building. Moreover, he is quoted in the BBC article "When I came into government I realised that you could only fly the flag on 18 days in the year and I thought that was wrong" as referring to the regulations which are posted at and are issued by the Department for Culture, Media and Sport (DCMS). This is the Government department which is responsible for issuing regulations at Her Majesty's Command governing the flying of flags on Government buildings only. These regulations do not apply to privately owned properties.

On 03 July, the Prime Minister issued a Green Paper on constitutional change, 'The Governance of Britain', which was one of his first announcements of new initiatives upon taking office. Included in this paper was the statement (Box 6) that "The Government will therefore consult on altering the current guidance that prohibits the flying of the Union Flag from Government buildings for more than 18 set days in the year." In the meantime, the Secretary of State for Culture, Media and Sport has announced that "government buildings in England should have the freedom to fly the Union Flag when they want" - which was the case, in any event.

The Prime Minister - if the BBC quote is correctly attributed - it appears to me as if it has been a comment from his Spokesman's weekly press briefing - and the rest of the Government, are wrong in their interpretation of those regulations, as published on their own web site. There is nothing in them to prevent the flying of the Union Flag, or any other flag, on any other day of the year.  Indeed, the DCMS states that the Red Ensign may be flown by Government departments on Merchant Navy day. The regulations merely stipulate a list of dates, mainly notable anniversaries and the suchlike, on which the Union Flag is to be flown. It has historically tended to be the practice that Government buildings have not flown flags on any other days of the year.

Thus, both the Prime Minister and the Secretary of State for Culture, Media and Sport, in his web site are giving the impression that they are in fact taking decisive action on this issue, when they are simply confirming the status quo. Some people might argue that this is a prime example of Government spin. Other news sources have even reported that the Prime Minister has made this announcement to encourage the wider flying of the Union Flag as a response to the recent terrorist attacks in London and Scotland.

The background of the BBC article, quoted by Michael, that the new Prime Minister is seeking to promote Britishness and is using the flag to do this, is a reasonable assessment of the situation. In fact, he has been doing this for some time before he became the Prime Minister, as he is conscious of the following factors. That the last three leaders of the Labour Party have been Scottish (less Margaret Beckett's interregnum), of the coming to power in Scotland recently of Alex Salmond's minority Scottish National Party administration which advocates independence for Scotland, of increased powers for the devolved administrations in Wales and Scotland whilst England is represented by the British Parliament at Westminster, of the over representation of Scottish MPs at Westminster, of the still unresolved West Lothian Question whereby Scottish MPs at Westminster can vote on issues affecting solely England whereas those same issues in Scotland and Wales are devolved to their respective assemblies and more than anything else, of the fact that he needs Scottish MPs in order to sustain an administration.

Flying the flag isn't really a constitutional issue at all. It is a matter of individual choice - but it has been put into the Government's Green Paper so that they can use it to promote their notion of Britishness and that they are actually doing something, when in fact they are not, because there was nothing in the previous rules which prohibited the flying of the flag on their buildings on days which were not prescribed.

In respect of Northern Ireland, Michael is quite right that this new announcement does not apply to government buildings in Northern Ireland, as there are "particular sensitivities" there. The Government believes that the Flags Regulations (Northern Ireland) 2000 continue to be the most appropriate way to deal with this matter there. Moreover, the situation in respect of Government buildings in Northern Ireland is different from that in the rest of the United Kingdom in that no flag is permitted to be flown at any Government building at any time, except as provided for in the regulations.

(1) British Broadcasting Corporation (BBC) News,, last updated Friday, 06 July 2007 0853, as consulted 07 July 2007
(2) Her Majesty's Government, The Governance of Britain, CM 7170, July 2007
(3) Department of Culture, Media and Sport (DCMS), web site, Flag Flying,, undated but clearly reflecting recent announcements, as consulted 07 July 2007
(4) Her Majesty's Government, The Flags Regulations (Northern Ireland) 2000, Statutory Rules of Northern Ireland, 2000 No. 347, ISBN 0-337-01075-7, 08 November 2000

Colin Dobson, 7 July 2007

A Dominions Office file of 1950, about the use of the Union Jack in the Dominions, included a curious comment about the flag.
"The Union Jack has always been the flag of the whole Commonwealth and not exclusively the flag of the United Kingdom, where however it is always flown, because the United Kingdom has no flag of its own." [National Archives (PRO) DO 35/3288]
David Prothero, 10 February 2009

Editorial comment from the Times (London)

The Times: Thursday 18 September 1902.


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 and Status of the Flag continued