Malta is a unique place. Its rich, colourful history has left its mark on the island and on the Maltese people, who are proud of the little country and its many achievements. It is unique too in its national symbols – the Maltese flag being the only one in the world to have a medal on it, and a foreign medal no less.
The George Cross occupies the most important place (the top-left corner, or canton) on the flag, as it has done since independence in 1964. The Cross was famously awarded to the Maltese in 1942, as recognition for their bravery and determination during the dark days of the Second World War. The following year, the George Cross was added, by order of the British King, to the official Maltese colonial emblem. When the country became independent it adopted the traditional white-and-red flag with the George Cross edged in red, and it has remained ever since.
Like so many aspects of national identity, the position of the George Cross on the flag is seen, at least by some, as an inherently political question. A debate has long existed – it is mostly nowadays fought in angry letters to newspapers – about whether the George Cross should remain on our flag or be removed. Those who wish to do away with the George Cross see it as an enduring symbol of British colonialism, or even worse – a sign of just how much the Maltese have internalised a colonial mentality by turning to a foreign stamp of approval to validate their national pride. They see the medal as a noble award which should be placed in a museum but nothing else. On the other side of the debate, those who wish to keep the George Cross are offended by suggestions that we should remove a tribute to the massive sacrifices made in the war, and see the symbol as one of the crowning points of our history.
Most people, of course, dedicate no thought to the George Cross at all. They are simply used to the flag, familiar with it, appreciate its story, and live their lives while leaving the debate to be fought by others. This article is not concerned with the debate around the George Cross, and will not go into the details of the arguments – rather, it will look one step ahead into the future. Assuming the George Cross should be removed, what could replace it?
Out with the old, in with the older
The most obvious option – and one most sought after by purists – would be to ditch symbols altogether and have a plain white-and-red flag. These are the traditional colours that have marked Malta since the Middle Ages, as can be seen from the flag of Mdina. This option, while simple and clean, would give us a rather plain and unremarkable flag, one that would be easily confused with the flags of other countries such as Poland, Monaco and Indonesia, which use similar colour schemes.
And so we might look further into the past, beyond British and French rule and back to the time of the Knights of St John. They had their own flag, red with a white cross, which you may recognise from various historic fortifications and towers around Malta. This flag, however, was always associated with the Knights (who continue to use it, as they still operate today) and not with Malta – it means nothing to the Maltese people.
Which brings us to the obvious answer, because the Knights did leave us another symbol which was very much taken up by the Maltese and made their own. It even carries our name – the Maltese Cross, the eight-pointed symbol we all know and love. Of course, the Maltese Cross also has foreign origins, and is used across the world in a number of different formats. But symbols and their meanings change over time, and undeniably the Maltese Cross has become Malta’s brand – it has become associated with the island and its history in a way that the George Cross has not. The Maltese Cross is on our Euro coins, it’s on the shirt of our national football team, it’s how we promote ourselves as a tourist destination abroad. It is immediately recognisable. The George Cross, on the other hand, has remained a largely foreign item – it has been awarded to over 400 other people and organisations across the world, and still continues to be issued by the British government today.
The Maltese Cross is as close to a national symbol as we have, and it transcends modern political divisions. We don’t need to stretch our imagination too far to picture the cross on a flag – the Maltese maritime flag or civil ensign, known popularly as the flag flying on Malta-registered boats and ships, is a perfect example of a flag that is distinctive, aesthetically pleasing, and uniquely Maltese.
Incorporating the Maltese Cross into the design of the national flag shouldn’t require a design revolution. The same colouring used for the George Cross – grey with a red border – could easily be used in the new design as an elegant nod to its predecessor. And the George Cross doesn’t have to be deleted from history, either – it is also found on the Maltese emblem (or coat of arms), where it can stay. A heraldic emblem is a much more appropriate place for a medal than a national flag. Ultimately, replacing the George Cross with the Maltese one makes a statement, emphasising our European character over our British Imperial one. A statement appropriate in 2021.
Looking to the future
Naturally, changing the national flag is hardly at the top of the country’s to-do list at the moment. Democracies rarely change their flags, as elected leaders prefer to use their scarce political capital on more practical day-to-day issues rather than on spearheading such a potentially divisive issue. But there is some precedent for changing national symbols in Malta – we have had three different coats of arms, each one created after a profound change in government. And Joseph Muscat pledged to begin a debate around symbols such as national holidays as part of his grandiose plans for a Second Republic – like his promises for a new Constitution, however, these failed to materialise.
Though it may initially seem surprising, while the white-and-red colours of the flag require a two-thirds majority vote in Parliament to be changed, a simple majority will do for the removal of the George Cross. Indeed, the two elements of the flag are discussed in separate clauses of the Maltese Constitution.
But with the current political context leading many citizens, especially younger people, to question important structural elements of Maltese society and its political system, the question of the flag may resurface sooner or later. Expect to hear a whole lot about crosses if it does.