A nation’s flag is a precious thing. It arises out of a long history; it grows with a people and tells their story. The New Zealand flag is no exception. On the blue of the Pacific Ocean shines the Southern Cross, the great guiding constellation of our skies, and in one corner the crosses of St George, St Andrew and St Patrick ~ England, Scotland and Ireland ~ tell of our British ancestors ~ the explorers and pioneers who found New Zealand a barbarous, albeit beautiful, wilderness of warring tribes, and created by their patient heroic labours the land of peace and comparative prosperity we have inherited.
Certainly, there is nothing specifically Maori here, and it might be nice if there were, although Maori crossed the blue Pacific guided by the stars, and all Maori, after all, have British ancestry, even if they prefer to ignore or deny the fact; but this is our flag. It is a pretty accurate reflection of our nation and of the traditions and ideals which have shaped and made us and, until recently anyway, inspired us. We shall need those ideals again in future. It is perhaps a bit of an accident of history, but then so are many things.
We have never been a great flag-waving nation; we are an undemonstrative, laconic people; but all the same, this is what we are. Our ancestors, Maori and British, have fought and sometimes died for it. A flag is not just a pretty piece of cloth. It is not just a corporate logo, to be updated or perhaps completely changed the next time the business is redefining itself or repositioning itself in the global marketplace. It is not just ‘a symbol’, as three gold balls, say, symbolise a pawnbroker, or a blindfolded woman with scales and sword signify justice. It is more than that; and that is why the Prime Minister’s decision that the Maori sovereignty flag will fly from Parliament, Premier House, government buildings and the Auckland Harbour Bridge next Waitangi Day is so foolish and ominous a sign.
The word ‘nation’ comes ultimately from the Latin verb nascor, nasci, natus sum, meaning to be born. A nation was all those people born of a common ancestor. It was, then, a giant family. Apart from total conquest and absorption, other peoples could become part of ones nation only by adoption, an arrangement far commoner in the ancient world than it is now. By adoption the incoming people became the descendants of the same ancestor; they could therefore participate in the state religion, which usually involved the worship of the deified ancestor or of the god or gods who had entered into a solemn covenant with the ancestor, and who were the guardians of the state.
No-one would suggest that our citizenship ceremonies go quite so far. But there is a profound truth underlying these arrangements. A nation is not just a group of people who happen to live on the same piece of land. We could not call the inhabitants of China , say, or the formerYugoslavia a nation. A nation is made up of people who have a great deal in common. There are always differences and interests, of course, but the members of a nation believe that more unites them than divides them. They therefore are prepared ~ not without grumbling, certainly, from time to time ~ to put the common good before the interests of their particular tribe.
One of the common unthinking slogans of those who a couple of years ago were agitating for a new national flag was that we needed one which would ‘reflect our diversity as a nation’ This is complete nonsense. Diversity is difference. The more diversity there is in anything, the less there is in common. That is what diversity means. It is impossible to have a flag (which epitomises who and what we are ~ what we have in common) which reflects the fact that we are ‘diverse’ and have nothing in common.