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Symbols of who we are

To explore our patriotic symbols.

by James Lamont

Suitable for Key Stage 4/5


To explore our patriotic symbols.

Preparation and materials

  • Download images of the flags of England, Scotland and Northern Ireland, which make up the Union flag, as well as the Union flag itself, and display at appropriate points in the assembly.
  • You could also use images of the other symbols that are referred to in the assembly.


  1. This month, Prince William will marry Kate Middleton. The wedding will be broadcast on television and is expected to draw an audience from across Britain and the world. Yet apart from the seeming glamour of the occasion, a display of wealth and influence, many people are expecting, or hoping, that the event will have another effect. It is hoped that the wedding will remind people of our shared identity and responsibility. The royal family is as much a national symbol as the national anthem or the Union flag.
  2. Some see the monarchy as an outdated institution: wealth and privilege without election or necessarily public support. When we demand our leaders to face as much scrutiny as we do today, it may seem unfair to them that the royal family gained their position by virtue of birth alone. They may act as a national symbol, but some say they are a symbol of Britain’s past rather than of the Britain we see today.
  3. Yet this is true of many national symbols. The national anthem features a rarely quoted verse wishing victory for an English army heading north to fight a Scottish independence movement: not really the sort of message that is acceptable today. Similarly, the Union flag features a cross for England, a cross for Scotland, and a cross for Northern Ireland, but excludes Wales, long ago taken by the English. The point is that many of the symbols we take to describe our unity and nationhood actually point towards oppression and subjugation in the past.
  4. Yet this does not need to define us. People, nations, and symbols can change. Nowadays, the royal family has little real power but is largely accepted to be acting out of a sense of duty. The national anthem may be sung as much at football matches as in times of war. And the Union flag is displayed on the flags of four former British colonies as a sign of support for the Commonwealth: an attempt made by Britain and the former colonies to reconcile past differences and to move forward together.
  5. So national symbols stand not for a specific set of beliefs and standards, but rather the attitudes of the nation today. The national symbols of Britain have been displayed over atrocities in the distant and not-so-distant past, but they also stand for the achievements of our society: diversity, acceptance and a belief that every person matters. As citizens, it is our job to ensure that our symbols continue to mean what we want them to mean.

Time for reflection

Light a candle, and project the flags as before.

What do we express through our national flags?

How can we ensure that they stand for who we are today?

We give thanks for the long life of this country,
and for the inclusive nation that we are today.
Help each one of us to work towards an even greater inclusion of all.

Publication date: April 2011   (Vol.13 No.4)    Published by SPCK, London, UK.
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