Motion made, and Question proposed, That this House do now adjourn.—[Liz Blackman.]
I am pleased to have secured this debate on the important issue of the flying of the Union flag on Government buildings. The Government are currently consulting on the flying of the Union flag and, more broadly, the consideration of the United Kingdom’s national culture and citizenship are very much to the fore. The Government’s consultation document says:
“The Union Flag is one of the most recognisable symbols of the UK.”
It is recognised worldwide and its history is an expression of the history of the United Kingdom, of Great Britain and of Northern Ireland.
The Union flag was first introduced in 1606, following the accession of James VI of Scotland to the English throne. James I of England, as he became, had a strong vision of a unified kingdom of Great Britain. The combination of the cross of St. George and the saltire of St. Andrew was the physical expression of that vision. The flag represented the novel constitutional arrangements of Great Britain. That principle was carried forward in 1801 when a new version of the Union flag was introduced incorporating the cross of St. Patrick, following the Union with Ireland Act 1800. The Union flag used today has therefore changed in the past to reflect the developing constitutional relationships within the United Kingdom.
As a Member of Parliament from Wales, albeit one born in England, I am conscious of the integral role of Wales in the United Kingdom. The Act of Union of 1536 was not a merger; rather, it was a constitutional takeover of Wales by England and can be distinguished from the Act of Union with Scotland of 1707, which was approved by the Parliaments of England and Scotland. As a consequence, Wales’s identity was suppressed within the Union for far too many years. It was only in the 20th century that Wales’s identity began to be recognised. The creation of the Welsh Office was ultimately the precursor of devolution and was a formal constitutional recognition of Wales’s distinctiveness.
Following the Government of Wales Act 1998, further new constitutional arrangements exist for Wales. Wales’s role as one of the four constituent nations in the United Kingdom is recognised formally by our constitution, which now has a Parliament in Scotland and Assemblies in Northern Ireland and in Wales. The Union flag, on the other hand, represents only three nations in the United Kingdom. Just as the Union flag has changed in the past, to reflect a new constitutional settlement when Ireland came into the United Kingdom at the start of the 19th century, I believe that the Union flag should now change to reflect the four nations of the United Kingdom: England, Scotland, Northern Ireland and Wales.
How could that change be achieved? The three crosses making up today’s Union flag are the crosses of the patron saints of the three countries represented on the flag. We could add the cross of St. David, but for me yellow and black would not create an ideal design. The recognised symbol of Wales is the Welsh dragon. I would like to see the incorporation of the Welsh dragon on to the Union flag, so that it would represent the four constituent nations of the United Kingdom. This is the Union flag that I would like to see—[Interruption.]
Order. I must tell the hon. Gentleman that visual aids are not encouraged in the Chamber. He must describe the flag verbally.
The flag that I would like to see would represent all four parts of the United Kingdom, with the cross of St. George, the saltires of St. Andrew and St. Patrick and the red dragon of Wales. I appreciate, however, that that would require widespread consultation. Matters of taste will come to the fore. I would like the Government to consider the case that I have made and consult throughout the United Kingdom on changing the Union flag, just as it has been changed before, to give Wales an equal place on the national flag of the United Kingdom.
I thank the hon. Gentleman for his generosity in giving way. I am listening to his speech with interest. What is his estimate of the likely cost of such a consultation across the whole United Kingdom for the proposals that he is outlining?
I have no estimate of the cost, but this is an extremely important matter. It is right and proper that we should consider the views of the people of Wales and the fact that they are not represented on the national flag. I find it disappointing that I do not appear to be commanding the hon. Gentleman’s support on this matter. Similar changes have been made before, and this change would be to the benefit not only of Wales but of the United Kingdom, because the true constitutional picture of the nation that we are would be reflected on our flag.
As someone whose father was born in Wales, whose name is Welsh and whose grandfather was a headmaster in Wales—I should say that I do not speak Welsh, however—may I say that I am interested in the hon. Gentleman’s approach? Will he tell me how many people, by number, in his constituency have raised this issue with him as a matter of great importance? I do not think that it could be very many.
I should like to continue for a moment, then I will give way.
The United Kingdom has a flag that is recognised throughout the world. If that flag were to be changed, it would encourage debate across the world and bring to the fore the representation of Wales across the world. I would hope that the hon. Member for Preseli Pembrokeshire (Mr. Crabb) would welcome that.
I have enjoyed the hon. Gentleman’s history lesson so far, and I applaud the way in which he has spoken up in defence of the United Kingdom, and of the symbolism surrounding the United Kingdom. Does he not think, however, that many of the people who read this debate will find it strange that these arguments are coming from a man who is a member of a party that has governed this country for 10 years and engaged in a decade of constitutional vandalism that has left us with a divisive and unstable devolution settlement that is ultimately going to pull this country apart?
I should like to commend to the hon. Gentleman an excellent book called “The Isles” by Norman Davies. It is a constitutional history not only of England but of the isles of Great Britain and Ireland. It shows that we have always had changing and developing constitutional relationships within the United Kingdom. I am surprised that the hon. Gentleman is not aware of that fact. We did not exist in a constitutional state of grace before 1997, as the Conservatives seem to think.
The prime mover for devolution in the United Kingdom was Margaret Thatcher. Her ignorance of and disrespect for the people of Wales and Scotland, as well as many people in England, meant that devolution was inevitable. I am asking today for the existing constitutional relationships in the United Kingdom to be represented on the flag on our Government buildings.
My hon. Friend is making an interesting and radical proposal. As someone who supports both devolution and the Union with the United Kingdom, I do not believe that there is any contradiction between being pro-Welsh and pro-British. That is the crux of his proposal to reflect the diverse nations and indeed regions of the United Kingdom on our flag. I am interested to find out what he would call the new flag. Would he call it the Union jack, or would he propose that we rename it the British flag?
I like “the Union flag”, which is the flag’s correct name, although it is commonly known as the Union jack. I would like the name “the Union flag” to be retained. It is the true flag of the United Kingdom, and I would simply like it to reflect the four countries of the United Kingdom in a way that it does not do at the moment.
I do not believe that this is a dry, constitutional matter. As someone who was born in England, I believe that the people of Wales have good grounds for dissatisfaction that their nation is not represented on the national flag. If we want the Union flag to fly in Wales, we should include Wales on it. As I have shown, it is not as if we are talking about a change that has not happened before. In today’s media age, changing an iconic image such as the Union flag may appear to be more difficult to achieve than it was 200 years ago, but none the less I believe that change is right.
Let the debate begin. Let the rest of the world know that the iconic symbol of the United Kingdom may change and that the reason is that we have a new constitutional settlement that affords Wales its true place in the Union. I believe that such a debate will increase the recognition of Wales not just across the United Kingdom, but across the world.
May I congratulate the hon. Member for Wrexham (Ian Lucas) on obtaining this debate? I was interested to hear that the debate had been called and I wanted to be here because I have always believed that the flag of this United Kingdom should fly on Government buildings. I am thus delighted that we are having this debate, but it seems that the hon. Member for Wrexham has a different agenda. I did not recall him saying in his speech—I am sure he will correct me if I am wrong—that he actually supports the view that we should fly the flag, as I believe, throughout the year on Government buildings. He seems to be proposing an agenda that amounts to ripping up the current flag of our country and redesigning it to incorporate the Welsh dragon.
I am sorry that the hon. Gentleman was not listening to the debate. “Ripping up” was not a description that could be attached to my speech. What I said was that the continuing and evolving constitutional relationship within the UK should be reflected in its flag. As he heard—at least, he would have heard if he had listened—the flag has changed before because the United Kingdom has changed before. I want change to happen again.
I am one who does not want to see the United Kingdom changed. I believe in the United Kingdom. As the hon. Gentleman said, Wales was in fact connected to England long before the Act of Union, which created the Union flag—today’s Union flag—and to change it at this stage would be a great mistake that would not be supported by the vast majority of people throughout the United Kingdom.
When the hon. Gentleman speaks about the Union flag, which is commonly known, as he rightly says, as the Union jack, he should realise that it does not just represent the people of the United Kingdom. It is used by nations, territories and dependencies all around the world. The Union flag is not simply the flag of the United Kingdom because it is represented in the flags of Australia, New Zealand, most of the British overseas territories such as the Falkland islands and many other places, as he will know. It is also depicted on the flags of the states of Australia and Canada and even of countries that no longer retain the British monarchy, such as Fiji. Even Fiji retains the Union flag. The Union flag now represents far, far more than simply the United Kingdom. To change that flag today would have implications for nations, territories, dependencies and countries far and wide.
The hon. Gentleman is making an interesting point about the Union flag being part of other nations’ flags where the Queen is Head of State. Actually, in Wales there is an anomaly in that the Queen is Head of State, but the Welsh or Wales as a nation do not have any representation on the flag, which is the crux of my hon. Friend’s proposal tonight. If the hon. Gentleman does not think that the Union jack should be changed, does he accept that the problem should be rectified in some other way?
The hon. Gentleman is quite right. I understand that many people in Wales perhaps feel that they are not properly represented on the Union flag. However, what about the people of the Isle of Man? Are they represented on the Union flag? Is he also suggesting that we should include the symbol of the Isle of Man or any other British territory or Crown dependency? To keep changing what is now an established and recognised symbol would, I think, be grossly irresponsible and very unpopular. It would denigrate the flag, which I am sure he would not want.
Of course I am not. I acknowledge that, as the hon. Members for Wrexham and for Anglesey (Albert Owen) have pointed out, the people of Wales are not represented on the Union flag, but I have also made it clear that Wales was connected with England for many centuries before the Act of Union. If Wales was to be included it should have been included at the time of the flag’s creation, and I think that it would be entirely wrong to do it now.
I do not, however, want my speech to be dominated by the agenda of the hon. Member for Wrexham. I want to talk about the title of the debate as it appears on the Order Paper, “Flying of the Union Flag on government buildings”. That is what the Government are currently consulting on, and I have a copy of the consultation paper issued by the Department for Culture, Media and Sport, “Flying the Flag”. I have submitted my own opinions on the subject.
I passionately believe that the Union flag, or the Union jack as the vast majority of people describe it, is a symbol of unity—not only unity in our own country and the United Kingdom, but a unity that cuts across divisions such as religion, ethnic background and class. All those things are overtaken by the fact that the Union flag represents all British people. It is a flag under which my father and both my grandfathers fought in the first and second world wars. It is a flag that I think the vast majority of British people are proud to see flying from Buckingham palace, as it does every day of the year except when the Queen is there and the Royal Standard flies. It is a flag that, sadly, we see flying from the Palace of Westminster only when the House is sitting. I have said in many debates that we should change that tradition. I am a traditionalist, but sometimes we need to change our traditions, and I think that we should fly the Union flag throughout the year.
Those who visit France, the United States or, particularly, Scandinavia will see that those countries’ flags are flown all the time. Many people even have flagpoles in their front gardens. A public building in Denmark would never fail to fly the Danish flag—and can anyone imagine the French flag not being flown from Government buildings in Paris, or the United States flag not being flown from buildings in America? Yet there seems to be a problem in this country. We seem to be hung up about whether or not we should fly the Union flag.
Before I became a Member of Parliament, I fought a campaign in my constituency for the flag of our country to be flown from the town hall throughout the year. I regret to say that it was bitterly opposed by the then Labour administration of the London borough of Havering.
I fully take on board the points that the hon. Gentleman is making. Will he join me in congratulating my borough, the Labour borough of Sandwell in the west midlands, on flying the Union flag over council properties, and does he share my slight concern at the fact that the neighbouring Conservative borough of Dudley has taken the advice of its officers and is flying it only on the 16—or however many there are—so-called official days?
The right hon. Gentleman and I tend to agree on a number of matters, and this is one of them. I think that the Union flag should fly from all civil buildings—town halls, council buildings—and from all Government Department buildings. I also believe that it should fly from every school building. I would like to see a flagpole at the front of each school, with a different pupil each morning given the honour of raising the flag. I would also like to see the flag in each school assembly room.
There is nothing wrong with the Union flag; we should be extremely proud of it. Sadly, however, there are those who over the years have either denigrated the flag and tried to make out that it represents only people with supposedly right-wing views, or tried to hijack it for their narrow political ends. I am completely opposed to both. Without trying to turn this into a party political debate, I must say that I was saddened when the Labour council in Havering in 2000 voted against my plan to fly the Union flag. Many people said that to do so would ignite bad feeling between races. Nothing could be further from the truth. People from ethnic minorities wanted the flag to fly more than anybody, because they see that flag to be as much theirs as the rest of us do. It is wrong to allow the far right—the British National party, the National Front or other such parties—to hijack the national flag.
I would like all public buildings to fly the flag. I welcome the fact that the Union flag now flies from a number of Government Department buildings, but we are merely scratching the surface. We need a policy such as that in Australia and New Zealand; I think that they have flag Acts that clearly set out when the flag should fly. It is sad that the Department for Culture, Media and Sport suggests that we fly the Union flag for only 14 or 15 particular days a year, such as the Queen’s birthday and the anniversary of the coronation. It would be a jolly good thing to see the flag flying throughout the year—all 365 days. Not only that, but I strongly believe that we in England should fly the cross of St. George—as my town hall now does. Practically everybody in Scotland flies the Scottish Saltire and I am sure that in Wales they do the same with the Welsh flag. Not only should we fly the Union jack, we should also be proud to fly the flags of the individual countries that make up the United Kingdom.
The hon. Gentleman also said that he would like the flag of St. George to fly alongside the Union jack. Does he not understand that in Wales there is some hostility to having the Welsh dragon and the Union jack, because people do not feel part of the Union jack as their flag is not reflected in it? That is the point my hon. Friend the Member for Wrexham (Ian Lucas) is making in this debate. My father served as a British serviceman and was very proud to do so; he was a proud Welshman serving what was then King and country. The fact is, however, that the Union flag is not representative. We are all patriots—we are Welsh patriots and British patriots—but we in Wales do not feel part of the Union flag because the dragon or the cross of St. David is not on it. That is the issue.
The hon. Gentleman makes some valid points, and I understand and accept what he is saying. Perhaps there should be some discussion of how to resolve those issues, but I do not believe that the answer is to change the Union flag. Without trying to make out that Wales is a Crown dependency or an overseas territory, the fact is that the Isle of Man and Jersey and Guernsey have been linked to the British—[Interruption.] They might not be part of the United Kingdom, but the Union jack is accepted as a flag for them as well. It is the British flag. It represents all British people. Their flags are proudly flown. If we were to go to the Isle of Man, we would see its flag flying proudly alongside the Union jack. There is no problem there. I have recently been lucky enough to visit Guernsey, which is a Crown dependency. Guernsey has been linked to the British Crown since way back in 1066. For that reason, there has never been a problem. The Union flag can fly in St. Peter Port alongside the flag of Guernsey.
I understand completely that Members from Wales have a particular point of view, and we ought to talk about that. However, the title of the debate on the Order Paper is “Flying of the Union Flag on government buildings”. Most of the comments from Labour Members have not been about that; they have been about how they would like the Welsh flag to be incorporated in the Union flag. I do not believe that that is the most pressing issue that people in Wales are arguing for; I accept the points that have been made, but I think there are probably more important issues.
The most important thing is the Union—keeping the Union together, preserving the United Kingdom and not undermining it any more. That is why I am completely sympathetic to Members from Wales who have a problem with the current flag; nevertheless, I ask that we broaden this debate. A consultation is going on and I hope that all the Members in the Chamber this evening have taken the trouble to send a submission to the DCMS. I will give way if anyone would like to comment on that. Well, perhaps they have, perhaps they have not, but I have, because I think that this issue is very important.
As I said before, how many children are taught in schools what the Union flag represents? How many schools fly the Union flag? In America, there is pride in the flag and an understanding of what it represents. It would be absolutely right if we claimed our flag for the vast majority of British people, who see it as a symbol of unity, not a divisive emblem. I refer not only to the United Kingdom but to people of other backgrounds who, some may argue, perhaps see themselves as being excluded from that flag. I do not believe that most people think like that, although there may be one or two who do.
However, we have a duty, as Members of Parliament, to ensure that the flag of our country does not become associated with groups on the far right or any other particular cause or project—that it is seen as everybody’s flag, the flag for all British people, whoever they are, whatever background they come from and of whatever supposed class they are. What better way could there be to demonstrate that than to see the flag flown every day throughout the year from every school, every town hall and every Government building, and by businesses, as well? Why not? Many businesses in my constituency have since decided to fly the flag following its being raised above Havering town hall.
I hope that Labour Members will reflect on this. I have been in politics for a number of years now, and I have grown up in a period in which many Labour politicians—certainly from my area—have denigrated the flag, saying that its use implies that one is somehow right wing or of the far right. Nothing could be further from the truth. I do hope that there has been a change of attitude in the Labour party, as there has been across the country. The Union flag is now a modern symbol. It is used by young people on so many different things. They wear it on their clothes; they have belts with the Union flag on, for example. I am sure that many Members now have a Facebook page. Many youngsters have Facebook pages, as do I, and those who look at mine will see that it carries a Union flag. Those who are English can also have the flag of England, and those who are Welsh can have the Welsh flag. People are proud of their flags, and so should we be.
The hon. Gentleman, who is being very kind in allowing interventions, mentions Facebook. I should point out that there is a Facebook site dedicated to discussing the absence of Welsh representation on the Union flag; indeed, there is a separate website that raises the same issue. I am not the only person who has seen this difficulty. Does the hon. Gentleman agree that we have made some progress in this debate, and is he prepared to continue the discussion?
I have been discussing this issue for some 10 years now with people of all different parties. It has been a pleasure, because I have seen everyone shift toward the argument that I have always put forward—that we should be proud to fly the flag of our country. The issue raised this evening—the lack of representation of Wales in the Union flag—is quite valid and we should of course debate it. I do not think, however, that too many people will be convinced that we should change the design of our current flag, but there should at least be an acknowledgement that Wales is not represented. This issue can of course be looked into further, but I do not believe that we would gain anything from opening up a contest for redesigning the flag of our country. It would be divisive, and while it might receive some support in Wales, I fear that there would be a backlash in the rest of the United Kingdom. I have also made it clear that the hon. Gentleman is not taking into account the implication that it would have on territories, countries and states that also use the Union flag, as currently designed, in their flag. On that basis, redesigning the flag would be wrong and I would oppose that, although I would be happy to continue discussing the matter.
Where do we go from here? We can do all kinds of things. I hope that when the Government review this policy and when the consultation is completed, they will follow the example of Her Majesty the Queen. In the week of the death of Diana, Princess of Wales, the Queen decided that the Union flag would fly from Buckingham palace, and since that day it has always done so—the only exception is when the Royal Standard flies. If the Queen is able to decide that the flag should be flown from Buckingham palace, surely the rest of the country should take that as an example.
I hope that the result of this consultation will be that the Union flag will be flown from public buildings, including town halls and schools, and that the Government will consider issuing an official guide to the flag so that every young person in every school, and everyone else, will understand the history of the flag, the purpose of flying it and its importance. Other countries produce an official guide, why does the United Kingdom not do so?
Other countries have a flag Act, so perhaps we should consider having the same. A great example of that is Australia and New Zealand, which regularly fly their flags—flags are flown all over the place—and do so with great pride. I understand that in both those countries any member of Parliament can obtain a flag and present it to a local group, organisation or individual. They can also obtain portraits of Her Majesty the Queen and present them to a local group if they so choose—in Australia, those are provided by the Australian Parliament. I have checked that myself. Perhaps such a system could be considered under the Government’s review of flying the flag from public buildings.
I have referred on a number of occasions to the Crown dependencies and overseas territories. It is a great shame that we do not give recognition to their flags in our country. I am told by the Flag Institute that countries such as North Korea, Syria, Iran and Burma can fly their flags anywhere in this country—they are legally recognised—but if one wants to fly the flag of Gibraltar, the Falkland Islands, Jersey or the Isle of Man, one must get advertising consent. A review of the rules must take place, because surely the flag of any territory or nation that retains the same Head of State as us—Her Majesty the Queen—should be given recognition.
Perhaps the Minister will also answer the question about the flying of flags at trooping the colour. Hon. Members may recall that last year there was publicity about that, because the flags of republics, such as Mozambique, were flown at Horse Guards Parade for the Queen’s birthday, yet flags of the overseas territories were not. In the week that we were celebrating the 25th anniversary of the Falklands conflict, no Falkland Islands flag was flown in Horse Guards Parade, yet Mozambique’s flag, complete with what I believe to be a Kalashnikov, was flown next to the Union jack there.
We must review our policy on flying the flags. I hope that the Minister will agree that precedence should be given, certainly on the Queen’s birthday, to countries that retain Her Majesty as Head of State. Mozambique has never had the British monarchy, and it is wrong that flags of republics should be given prominence at an event such as trooping the colour when flags of territories and dependencies that have been linked to the Crown and the United Kingdom for hundreds of years are not displayed. I hope that the Minister will look into that and report back to the House on it at a later date, in advance of trooping the colour.
In conclusion, I once again congratulate the hon. Member for Wrexham. This has been a worthwhile and useful debate. I hope that some of the points that I have made will be taken on board, as will the points that he made. There is no firmer believer in the United Kingdom than me, and that is why I have always campaigned and fought for the recognition of all parts of it. I hope that all the issues raised in this debate will be considered and I leave the Minister with one final thought.
We may have different political ideas on the opposite sides of the House, but there is a feeling in the country today that the Union flag is no longer a symbol of division. People no longer think, “Oh, we’d better not fly it in case it upsets someone.” We have moved on from that period, which was only 10 years ago. There has been a mood change and people now want to see the flag of this country flown. It is high time that we, as Members of Parliament, and the Government took the lead. If we do so, we will simply be doing what Her Majesty the Queen has done for the past 10 years. If we follow her example, we will take the right step and show that we are true to our flag, our country and—most importantly—the unity of all peoples of our United Kingdom.
It is a pleasure to follow my hon. Friend the Member for Romford (Andrew Rosindell). I know that he has long been a passionate patriot and advocate of the monarchy and the flag.
We have, over the years, seen a degree of eccentricity in Adjournment debates, and tonight is no exception. As my hon. Friend has said, we may have been brought here on false pretences, but I wish to raise a few key issues. I believe that the people of Wales are practical and pragmatic people, and they have not concentrated on the power of symbols in the way that their Celtic brethren north of Hadrian’s wall have perhaps done over the years. The Welsh people support the 1997 devolution settlement and they are much more interested in transport, the health service, schools and social services than in symbols and flags.
The hon. Member for Wrexham (Ian Lucas) was sincere and well-meaning in his remarks, but he missed the point. A consultation process would be expensive and I do not think that it would result in a settled view across the UK. The hon. Gentleman admitted honestly that his suggestion does not even command the support of his own constituents. Far from being unifying, it would be divisive—
I have learnt a great deal about the United Kingdom by learning about the history of the flag. The consideration of what the flag means, and what it could mean if it were changed, could increase the understanding of my constituents and others of what the UK is and what the Union flag represents.
I listen with interest to those points, but let us consider the practical issues in relation to the representation of our constituents. The hon. Gentleman’s constituents have a National Assembly to represent their views on a range of devolved issues. In addition, they have the House of Commons and local authorities. They have parliamentary constituencies that are significantly smaller than those in England, so they are well represented in our constitutional system. There is no clamour in Wales for the divisiveness of new flags and symbols. When I talk to people on my many trips to Ynys Môn and Aberffraw it is evident that there is no clamour for symbols such as the red dragon. Indeed, there would not even be consensus in Wales about whether the red dragon should be used on a new flag—it could be a leek, a fleur de lys or one of a number of other symbols.
In conclusion, the proposal is eccentric, albeit well-meaning, and it would not add to the unity of our country. Members who, like me, attend citizenship ceremonies are no doubt moved by the sense of unity around the Union flag. The hon. Gentleman’s proposal would go in the opposite direction, and would not be in the best interests of the whole of the United Kingdom.
I join other Members in congratulating my hon. Friend the Member for Wrexham (Ian Lucas) on securing the debate. He raises an issue of concern to all our constituents across the UK. As he knows, it is subject to consultation at present. We published our Green Paper in July, and the consultation came to an end on 9 November. We received more than 300 responses, which are being collated as we speak, and we hope to put them on our website shortly. The Government will respond in the new year when we have had time to consider the various responses.
At present, the Union flag is flown on 16 days in England, and on 18 days in Wales, Scotland and Northern Ireland. We consulted on whether it should be flown all the time, on working days only or on an increased number of fixed days, or whether Departments should be able to choose when to fly it. The consultation covered a range of points. The hon. Member for Romford (Andrew Rosindell) raised the issue of the flags flown at the trooping of the colour. If he writes to me, I shall consider the issue and get back to him.
The interesting point about tonight’s debate is that there are varying views—between Dudley and Sandwell, and between Members. The hon. Member for Peterborough (Mr. Jackson) thought that the proposition by my hon. Friend the Member for Wrexham was expensive and eccentric, whereas the hon. Member for Romford thought we should give it serious consideration. People do not agree.
I see the debate on the role of the Union flag in the context of our wider debate about Britishness—a debate initiated by my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister—which has resonance across the Chamber and across the country. The debate is relevant for several reasons. We are concerned about the impact of recent changes on our cohesion and sense of identity—whether in relation to issues of terrorism or migration. We are concerned about the loss of civic and political participation. We want to maintain what is commonly described as the social capital aspect of our infrastructure, whereby people feel they are part of a whole and contribute to it.
It is right that we think about those things and debate them. We have to recognise that action is required locally as well as nationally. The debate is about iconic symbols, of which the flag may be one, and mundane local issues in our communities or in parts of British society. We want people to feel loyalty to their country, but at the same time we understand that we must entirely recognise cultural difference and different communities. We want an inclusive, integrated Britain, but one that accepts diversity and difference.
That is a difficult concept in a global society, so I hope Members will bear with me while I talk about the British Mini. The Mini is an iconic 1960s British institution, but it was the brainchild of Alex Issigonis, who was born in Turkey to Greek and German parents and came to the UK as a refugee. If we look at the new Mini that has just been designed, we see that it is still essentially British—
Order. I am sorry to interrupt the right hon. Lady, but this debate has travelled some distance from its original terms. However, her latest remarks have altogether gone far too far. I urge her to talk about what the debate is meant to be about.
Order. When I get to my feet, the right hon. Lady should resume her place. My job is to keep the House in order, even on a relatively relaxed occasion like this. We cannot go too far beyond the scope of the motion, and I urge her not to do so. She can of course develop the subject in all sorts of different ways, but that must be within the terms of the Standing Orders of the House.
Thank you, Mr. Deputy Speaker. However, I hope you will allow me at least the observation that a number of symbols and institutions reflect our Britishness. One of them is the flag. Parliament is an institution of importance and the monarch is another. Iconic institutions such as the British Museum also reflect our Britishness.
The debate on the flag appears in the wider context of the debate in the White Paper on “The Governance of Britain” in which we talk about such symbols and how they can help to embody a national culture and citizenship. The Union flag is one of the most recognised symbols of unity.
The Minister has just said that the Union flag is a symbol of unity, and I agree with her. Perhaps she can tell the House whether the borough of Barking and Dagenham flies the Union flag from its civic offices in the same way as the neighbouring borough of Havering does. If not, will she support a campaign to fly the Union flag in Barking and Dagenham as it is flown in Havering?
I genuinely think that that decision ought to be taken by the civic leaders who have responsibility for determining such things locally. It was an interesting part of the hon. Gentleman’s contribution, but I am not sure whether dictating what all our democratic institutions across the UK should do, and when and how they should fly the flag, is appropriate for Government to decide. It again goes back to my point about how we define our unity. We define it both locally and nationally. The flag is a national symbol, but I honestly think that how it is used ought to be a matter for local, and not national, determination. His party itself has said that it supports such decentralisation of decision making. He might like to reflect on his view as to whether this Parliament should decide whether all national and local government buildings should stick to a national diktat decided by himself.
I thank the Minister for being so generous in giving way, and I am sorry, but I want to pursue the point a tiny step further. She is a civic leader in Barking and Dagenham, as I am in Romford, so does she think that the flag should be flown? The neighbouring borough of Havering flies the flag, so does she think that Barking and Dagenham should do the same? What is her personal view?
I hate to say to the hon. Gentleman that I think that this is not an issue for me to dictate to the elected members of the local council, who are responsible for the civic building to which he refers. I genuinely think that it is a decision for them. Although I engage in debate with them on a number of issues, this is one that is quite properly left to them to determine.
I agree with the hon. Gentleman that in countries such as France and the United States, the national flag is regarded as a source of pride, and in recent years the Union flag has all too often become the preserve of political extremists—a symbol of discord rather than harmony. One of the good reasons for flying the Union flag more often on official buildings could be to reclaim it from those who distort its meaning and use it for political ends.
In many ways, we have already started to recapture the flag for good, patriotic purposes. I like to reflect on seeing some of our black British athletes draped in the Union flag at the Olympic games in Sydney and Athens, and I look forward to seeing many of them draped in that flag in Beijing next year. I was in a primary school in my constituency last week where the flag was used as a way of explaining some of the history of the Union. That was an interesting way of using the flag in the classroom—and something that had not been dictated by Parliament.
I welcome the fact that discussion of the Union flag has been a key part of the ongoing conversation about the appropriate role of the state in helping people to shape and define their identity in recent times. Some commentators have said that it is somehow not British to talk about symbols of Britishness, and that that is just not what we do in this country. However, the considerable debate that has been engendered—and brought to the House by my hon. Friend the Member for Wrexham—about the issue of flag flying seems to suggest that that is just not true. It seems just as British to talk about the flag as it is to talk about the weather.
What we are looking to achieve in the discussion about symbols of our country’s identity is something that is both representative and personal—something that allows us immediately to recognise and take pride in the fact that we are part of a larger coherent community, and can find our own place in that community and take an active part in it. For that reason, the opportunity presented by the discussion of the Union flag is timely. The flag is representative of the wider community of the United Kingdom, but it can also be intensely personal—a symbol of our own personal commitment to the values and beliefs of the United Kingdom.
The proud history of the Union flag shows that it is a potent symbol of the diversity of the United Kingdom. It may be an artificial construction, but let us be honest: its origins do not differ from those of many other countries’ flags. There is something in that history—the decision to bring together existing flags in a new Union flag, to which my hon. Friend the Member for Wrexham alluded—that speaks to the task of building cohesive and integrated communities, which sits before us at the moment. The creation of the flag was a moment of pragmatism, but also of vision. That approach speaks as much to long-established British communities as to new communities and new citizens.
I do not want to prejudge the outcome of the official consultation, but hon. Members will not be surprised to know that there have been a number of suggestions—some no doubt put forward by the hon. Member for Romford—about how we can better recognise and celebrate the origins of the Union flag, and how to use it in different ways. It was suggested that it could be used at citizenship ceremonies or at the birth of children. It needs to be used in a way that ensures that it speaks to everyone, regardless of their background. I hope people will be able to pick up those ideas when the summary of responses is published. I hope the debate will continue, and I would like to see what sort of response it receives.
The Green Paper introduces the possibility of the wider use of flag flying on Government buildings. Although the flag-flying guidance applies only to UK Government buildings, the impact of the changes is likely to affect other public organisations, because so many of them choose to follow the Government’s lead. That includes many local authorities.
I acknowledge the comments of my hon. Friend the Member for Wrexham and my hon. Friend the Member for Ynys Môn (Albert Owen) on the Union flag, and the need for Wales to be represented. A valid point has been raised. The redesigning of the Union flag was not part of the consultation that we are considering. However, I am aware that a number of respondents have raised the point. I am also aware of the issue being raised in correspondence to the Department in the recent years. It has been suggested, as my hon. Friend the Member for Wrexham said, that the Union flag could be modified by including either the red dragon or the cross of St. David, to represent Wales.
We are aware that a number of respondents from all over the United Kingdom are not happy flying the Union flag, as they feel that it does not truly represent the United Kingdom. We have already discussed this evening the way in which the flag came about. The Welsh dragon was not included on the Union flag, as the Principality of Wales was already united with England by 1606, when the first Union flag was created. I can assure all hon. Members that the issue of the design of the Union flag will be considered, along with all other points raised, and consideration will be given to whether and how we should take those forward.
There are implications for redesigning the Union flag to include Wales, including interesting design issues, and the fact that in a diverse country we will never please everyone. As the current Union flag is formed by merging three heraldic crosses representing the three kingdoms of the United Kingdom, the original design was a challenge. Thinking of a new design that would meet everyone’s aspirations would be an even greater challenge.
The Government are keen to make the Union flag a positive symbol of Britishness, reflecting the diversity of our country today and encouraging people to take pride in our national flag. I am committed to ensuring that any changes that we make following the consultation ensure that that is promoted.
Whether we can trace our history back in these British Isles for 500 years or for only five, the Union flag, as we have all acknowledged in the House tonight, is a powerful symbol of our pragmatic, but principled, decisions on how to give everyone a sense of collective belonging, and at the same time our personal pride in being citizens of the United Kingdom. It is on that basis that I welcome the debate and thank hon. Members for their contributions.
Question put and agreed to.
Adjourned accordingly at four minutes to Ten o’clock.