Wednesday, 13 January 2016

A New National Anthem For England?

This is an issue that has been bouncing around for some time, and it is now set to be debated in parliament. Should England have it's own national anthem to use at sporting fixtures and so on, instead of using the anthem of the United Kingdom, 'God Save The Queen'? It seems a fairly reasonable and obvious question, on the face of it - other parts of the UK use their own anthems at such occasions, so why shouldn't England? Seems fair enough to me, apart from issue that is perhaps more obvious to the rest of the UK than it is to some in England who are holding the debate.

'God Save The Queen' really has very little to do with the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland at all - it's a very English song about the Queen (or King, obviously) of England that has a long association with being used for England teams, and something of an undercurrent of imperialism within it, and perhaps even comes with an implicit assumption that England is 'the important bit', so to speak. Now we could argue all day about the rights and wrongs of that kind of description, but the simple fact remains that many people in other part of the UK do not identify with this 'Anthem' - they don't use it, they don't sing it when it is used, and they don't regard it as in any sense 'theirs'. Quite the opposite, in fact - to many it seems in many ways an anthem being imposed on their nation by another.

Of course, mention this issue and you are inevitably met with accusations of 'narrow Nationalism' and the like. That entirely misses the point, though, that it is in no way a sentiment about the song confined to those who believe that their own nations are somehow 'superior' or to those who believe that their nations should be independent, and separated out from the UK altogether. That is not the case, and that is not what the issue is about. The song itself is very Anglo-centric, and very much identified with England - why would anybody outside England regard it as being 'their song'? The fact is that many of them don't, and that is a real problem for a supposed 'Anthem' that is supposed to represent them, and not one I think we should continue to ignore or dismiss.  Giving England its own, different anthem to use won't help much either - 'God Save The [Insert Relevant Monarch]' is still going to be very much seen as 'England's Song' anyway.

So let's consider the song itself, in the context of the United Kingdom and its gloriously diverse peoples. It's very much based about the idea of the supremacy of the monarch, for a start. It's an obvious problem for those who want to see an end to monarchy itself, of course, as Jeremy Corbyn proved - don't sing because you're not a monachist and you get accused of 'hating your country', and all the other kind of jingoistic nonsense that some corners of the press (and even some far off corners of the current UK political world) seem to delight in. Those two things are not related - despite some of the anachronistic legal language we sometimes use, the Queen and Crown is no longer actually the state, and the UK is not merely an embodiment of its monarch. Holding a view that Monarchy, even Constitutional Monarchy, is no longer a suitable system for government, is no more 'disloyal' to the UK and its people than suggesting that maybe the first past the post electoral system isn't the best one out there.

Then there's the religious element, of course. There is an 'Established' church here in the UK, and some might suggest, I guess, that that makes the UK a nominally 'Christian' country on a formal basis and so that anthem can reflect that. That argument is total nonsense, of course, because the Church of England, as the name suggests, is the Established Church of....England. Other parts of the UK do not have an established church, so how can that religious element be justified for a UK anthem on that basis? It can't, quite clearly. In the modern world, the UK is a multi-religious country - we have many religions, many denominations, and a significant proportion of people who do not believe in any religion at all - if we have an anthem based on the Christian religion, are we not automatically excluding an awful lot of people from feeling the affinity that they could and should do with a song that is supposed to 'represent' them?

So, what of the song's representations of other nations in the UK? Well, one can easily point to the somewhat dodgy, but seldom used, verse about the Scots, but even that misses the point that it really is generally of no relevance whatsoever. It makes no mention, but effectively assumes us all to be one and the same people under the monarch. Indeed, it expressly refers to 'a nation', but within the UK we are several nations, and that's before we start to take account of the many people of many other national origins who now live here, and have in some cases lived here for centuries. There's no reflection of anything other than a Monarchist, Christian, single unified national entity under its glorious master, and that simply doesn't reflect reality in any sense.

In my opinion it is time for a change in anthems, but not in the way that is proposed. What is needed is a new anthem for the whole of the UK. One which is actually reflective of the various different parts and nations, and even perhaps somewhat more reflective of the modern world itself. Whether England wants to keep 'God Save The Queen' is, of course, a matter for the people of England - some of the arguments in favour of the song that don't apply to it as a UK anthem could be said to apply somewhat better to it for England, and it is certainly pretty much regarded universally is 'England's Anthem' anyway by the rest of the UK, and indeed by the rest of the world. Some of the negative arguments still apply, though, but that's for the English to decide. My point is that 'God Save The Queen' is almost entirely unsuitable as an anthem for the whole of the UK. It doesn't work. It never has. It's very often not regarded by the people as 'their' anthem at all.

I fully support the idea of having a new anthem, but I just think the question is currently being asked about the wrong anthem for the wrong thing. I'm not going to argue in favour of any particular song - indeed if anything I would suggest that what would be best would be a brand new song. There are difficulties and dangers there too, of course, especially if we take into account the weight of population that could potentially be used in any democratic consideration to choose a song that once again primarily reflects the English nation, rather than all of the UK. I do think it is possible to reach some compromise on that, though, between the opinions of all.

Finally, I just wanted to say that I'm not attacking God Save the Queen itself as a song in the completely dismissive way that might be assumed. True, it is a pretty dismal tune, and pretty irrelevant to me, and even in places potentially pretty offensive to some, and utterly unsuitable for the purpose to which it has officially been put, but I will defend one particular lesser known (but still sometimes sung) alternative verse from 1836. It may have been written with a slightly more imperialistic slant than that which I am suggesting be taken, and it may again be firmly based in religion and even somewhat aggressive religious evangelism, and it may be a little ambiguous about what it means by 'this land' in the context of 'nations', and it may also be more than slightly male orientated, but it can certainly be interpreted as being in some ways a very noble kind of sentiment that anybody writing a new UK anthem could consider as a good place to start (especially if maintaining some kind of 'link with tradition' is part of their plans). It clearly needs some rewriting before forming part of any new UK anthemic song, but I reckon it's a pretty good basis for the foundations of such a thing in its effective suggestion of worldwide human brotherhood and family as a generally noble and worthwhile concept (and that idea could be taken to apply to the people of the UK specifically, of course, as a family of nations). That is a sentiment we should all be able to unite behind, within and outside the UK, regardless of nationality.

Not in this land alone,
But be God's mercies known
From shore to shore:
Lord make the nations see
That men should brothers be,
And form one family
The wide world over

Tuesday, 12 January 2016

Democratic Social Liberal? Liberal Social Democrat?

OK, so we're back to the politics. What prompted this post was a comment I saw elsewhere about the current common use of the word 'Liberal' with reference to the 'Liberal Democrats', leading on to the relative balance or emphasis that is sometimes used between the original formative parts of the Lib Dems as a party. Briefly, for those (few, I'm sure) who don't know, the party was formed as a result of the merger between the former allies of the Liberal Party and the Social Democratic Party (SDP) in the 1980s. That party was initially known as the 'Social and Liberal Democrats' before being shortened to the current title, while small effectively 'continuity' versions of the two parent parties, using their names, continued and virtually spiralled into electoral oblivion.

 Of course, the term 'Liberal' has a very important association with the party and its members, and is a vital part of what makes the party distinct and different from other major UK political parties. It is not necessarily the fact that we would all class ourselves as being predominantly 'Liberals' by ideology (although many of us would, of course), but the fact that we are all, including those who would thing of themselves predominantly as 'Social Democrats', essentially generally 'liberal-minded'.

On the other hand, even those of us who are 'Liberals' are overwhelmingly modern 'Social Liberals' with a belief in social justice and addressing inequality (especially inequality of opportunity) in society. While we may agree to a greater or lesser extent with various bits of their policies, we are not 'Classical Liberals' or 'Neo-Liberals' or even 'Libertarians' in the sense of L'aissez Faire government non-interventionism - we recognise that inequality and disadvantage exists in society, and that in order to have a truly free society and economy we do need to ensure that opportunity exists for everyone, and that markets are regulated so that they remain free from manipulation by monopolies or cartels (private or government). That does mean using the government as a 'regulator' to ensure fairness for everyone.

We are all, of course, 'Democrats', and all dedicated to improving our democracy and how it works for the people.

In reality, that means that the party is an alliance between liberal-minded Social Democrats and social-justice-minded Social Liberals, and those positions are really not very far apart at all. Indeed, they are so close that, once you accept that any necessary compromise between them should be democratically decided, pragmatic and evidence-based, they are so close to being the same practical position that working together is never an issue, and any disagreements within the party are seldom based along such narrow ideological lines and borders. Nobody will agree with absolutely everything the party as a whole sets as policy, of course (I'd be worried if they did - anyone who agrees with every word of every policy isn't thinking for themselves!), but the overwhelming majority usually seem to find that the position on almost everything is close enough to their own to be acceptable as a compromise solution - it might sometimes not be the option they think is 'best', but it's often a 'reasonable pragmatic and evidence-based solution', and well within their general area of broad thinking (and we all have to accept the reality that we might actually ourselves be wrong, and that the collective body of opinion of like-minded party colleagues might be right, about what solution is ultimately 'best').

Every political party has to be a broad church to some extent in order to have enough members to be able to achieve anything, of course, but those small ideological differences within the Lib Dems are far less wide than the splits that exist between the other major UK parties. In recent times, of course, Lib Dems have had a tough time in coalition government followed by an even tougher time at the ballot box. There were many who expected the party to split into factional in-fighting in the way that some other parties tend to do in such circumstances, with one 'wing' or another trying to 'take control' of the future direction. That really didn't happen, and it didn't happen because we are in so much general agreement over most things.

You may hear of the 'Orange Bookers', and their apparently more overtly 'Liberal' take on things. It's not really a big gulf of position or policy, though - there is much in the Orange book that is agreeable and sensible, and probably acceptable to every Liberal Democrat, though there are, in my opinion, some things that are perhaps taken a little too far as a kind of 'thought experiment'. It was, I would argue, a necessary exercise at the time, though - the party is often perceived as being 'in the middle' (or even 'Labour-lite'), and it would be all too easy to lapse into a comfortable position of just being 'moderate' about everything, especially since we are in broad internal agreement on so much general stuff, and do emphasise evidence and practicality. We do need to challenge that comfort zone for ourselves from time to time, and remember that we shouldn't be afraid of 'thinking outside the box', so to speak - we certainly mustn't shy away from proposing radical solutions if those radical solutions are the ones that seem most likely to produce the results we want in order to improve society.

We also need to remind other people that we are not just the party of  'don't believe in anything much', or 'being moderate about everything', or even (especially) 'maintaining the status quo'. That is not the case, and has never been the case, but we do need to challenge ourselves from time to time in order to remind ourselves of that so that we can tell other people. Part of that can certainly be emphasising the 'Liberal' aspect - that is not something that is inherent in the DNA of any other major UK political party, and it never will be. It is something distinct and different about the Lib Dems, and we should never be afraid of that - individual freedom, equality of opportunity, equality of treatment and respect, resistance to authoritarianism from 'the establishment', reform of government and democracy - the inherent belief that people should look after their own affairs as far as possible, and that decisions should be taken as close to the people as possible, and that the government exists only as an instrument of the people - these are deep within the core beliefs of our party, and nobody else's. To put it bluntly, we are the only major UK political party that doesn't believe that the government should be 'in charge' and 'in control' of the population, and that people should be free to make their own choices as far as possible, and we cannot shy away from that. 'Liberal' is a good thing to be emphasising for a party that is a collection of the 'liberal-minded', even if it is not purely a collection of people who would define themselves as 'Liberals'.

It's not the only good thing to be emphasising, though, and we shouldn't forget that either. We are also a party of 'Social' Liberals and 'Social Democrats', and 'Social Justice' is also a core part of our DNA. Indeed, there are some who would suggest that the term 'Social' should never have been removed from the party's name in the first place (I understand that argument, but personally I don't think I agree, mainly because the party name was a bit on the cumbersome side!). We aren't 'Socialists' who believe in simplistic 'redistribution of wealth' and 'robbing Peter to pay Paul', of course, but we are certainly a party who sees inequality as a great evil to be addressed, and we mustn't be afraid of emphasising that, too, and even advocating solutions that might perhaps be considered as more drawn from the origins of 'Social Democrats' than traditional 'Liberals'. We are the party who understands that Social Justice and equality comes from equality of opportunity, and that means investment in public services, education, housing, infrastructure, and so on - in implementing social measures to create a level playing field for everyone, regardless of background and disadvantage. That is an important part of who we are - we are the offspring of the 'Social Democratic Party' as well as the Liberals, and we should also always be reminding people of that.

By any definition, the difference between a 'Democratic Social Liberal' and a 'Liberal Social Democrat' has to be a pretty small one!

Why is this so important now? Well, context is everything - not only have we been through a difficult period, but other parties have too. Comments have been made about there being 'Liberals' in other parties, and that is certainly true. There, however, also 'liberal-minded' 'Social Democrats' in other parties as well, though, and we can't afford to let them forget that aspect of who we are as a party. It's not just about advocating policies that chime with those as we talk about our 'Liberalism', but about reminding them that 'Social Democracy' is itself a vital part of the core of our DNA - it is a big part of where we come from, and a big part of where we should always be going. We are a party that welcomes 'Liberal Social Democrats' as much as 'Democratic Social Liberals', and we need to keep saying that.

The two original formative parts of what became the Liberal Democrats were never far apart in policy, or ideology, or practical solutions to real world problems. That is why we so easily formed an alliance in the first place, and why we were able to merge willingly into one single party with a united 'vision'. It is why we remain much less divided as a party than the two big parties of UK politics. We always have to challenge ourselves and take a critical view of our own direction and policy, but we also have to always take full account of those slightly different aspects of our origin and make up. We always have to remember to emphasis both parts as being important, equal, and entirely comparable with one another. 'Liberals' should never be afraid of the term 'Social', and 'Social Democrats' should never be afraid of the term 'Liberal', and as a party we should never be afraid of using, and emphasising, both aspects - they are not only entirely compatible and closely related, but they are two parts of the the same thing, and two vital parts of what makes us all 'Liberal Democrats'.