Over the next three weeks, New Zealanders will vote in a referendum. Will we change our flag? We face a choice between the flag we have had since 1902 and an alternative chosen in a referendum last year. The significant difference between them is that the proposed new flag replaces the Union Jack with a silver fern. Both flags have the Southern Cross on the right hand side.
You may wonder what is going on. Is New Zealand becoming a republic? Is the rejection of the Union Jack a rejection of the Queen as New Zealand’s head of state? Will an ex-captain of the All Blacks, perhaps Richie McCaw or Buck Shelford, soon be anointed president of New Zealand?
None of the above. The Prime Minister, John Key, who initiated the Change the Flag movement, has no interest in constitutional reform. He and his governing National Party have made this clear. Changing the flag entails no change in anything else.
Then why do it?
According to the Prime Minister, it’s “about who we are and what we believe is the right symbol to represent us going forward”.
Then the question is whether the Union Jack or a silver fern better represents “who we are”.
Here are some facts about New Zealand which seem to favour the Union Jack. Well over half of New Zealanders are of British decent. We speak English. We have a Westminster parliamentary system. We have an English Common Law system. Our national sports are rugby and cricket. We are fond of fish and chips and pies. The British monarch is our head of state.
What about the silver fern? What does it say about who we are? The botanical object itself is a characteristic feature of New Zealand’s native forests. And its image has long been used as the emblem of our national sports teams. So, to put the matter simply, the silver fern represents “who we are” better than the Union Jack does if our flora and sports count for more than our history.
Most New Zealanders care more about sport and “the environment” than their history. But representing what now concerns many New Zealanders is not the same as representing who we are. Our language, manners, tastes and legal system are explained by our British heritage, not by our plants or our sporting enthusiasms.
Some in favour of changing the flag claim that it will show that we have “come of age”. They are right, but only if the age they have in mind is 17.
Around that age many of us are overtaken by the idea that we can create ourselves anew, independent of the unchosen circumstances of our lives and, especially, of our parents. And we try to signify this self-definition. Those lucky enough to be naturally cautious limit themselves to reading Nietzsche, dressing tastelessly and getting foolish haircuts. The less cautious find themselves looking in the mirror 25 years later, seeing their father looking back, except with “fuck the system” tattooed across his chest.
New Zealand’s Change the Flag movement displays a kind of nationalistic adolescence. They want a flag that represents us. But by “us” they can only really mean “some of us as we are now”. Like a teenager too immature to realise that “me as I am now” is not very important, and certainly not worth permanently representing on your body, the changers would give us a new national flag for no better reason than satisfying their current tastes.
By what reasoning will the Prime Minister, then retired, discourage the government of 2036 from changing the flag again? How will he respond to those who say that his favoured fern flag, which embodies the aesthetic sensibilities of those who now design beach towels, is simply too dated to be tolerated?
Nor are future generations the only problem with designing a flag that represents “us”. In the 2015 referendum that selected an alternative to our current flag, the winning fern flag received only 40 per cent of first-preference votes. Current polling suggests that the run-off between this minority winner and the current flag will be close run. Whichever flag wins, many New Zealanders will end up with a flag they feel does not represent them.
But this feeling will be an artefact of the process. Prior to the Change the Flag movement, it had never occurred to most New Zealanders to ask whether the flag represented them. What does the question even mean?
Does your family name represent you? Does your old school’s emblem represent you? Of course they do, in the trivial sense that Jones (or whatever) is indeed the name of people in your family, and the emblem of your school is indeed a dragon. They are just givens. To want something more, to want symbols that express something you deem important about yourself, is mere vanity.
The Union Jack represents who we New Zealanders are better than any plant can. But that is not my reason for wanting to keep the current flag. I want to keep it simply because it’s the flag we New Zealanders alive today were given. I want to keep it precisely so that we do not have to choose a flag that represents “who we are and what we believe is the right symbol to represent us going forward”. Never mind the result. The very endeavour is embarrassing.