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

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