After the terrible events in Paris of 13 November 2015, we heard a lot of the French national anthem, the Marseillaise, including the moment when the members of the French National Assembly spontaneously burst into song, and even at the England-France football match at Wembley a few days later. It was all very stirring, not just because the brutality of the terrorist outrage was so horrifying, but also because of the anthem itself. Let’s overlook the fact that the lyrics are overly gory, full of impure blood soaking fields and tigers mercilessly ripping their mother’s breast. The point is that La Marseillaise sounds marvelous, and brings a tear to the eye. In other words, it is does the job of a national anthem, which is rallying les citoyens, superbly.
Here in Britain, the leader of her majesty’s opposition got into trouble recently when observers noticed that he was failing to sing our National Anthem. But I don’t blame him myself. It’s a terrible tune, with banal lyrics. God Save the Queen dates from 1745, when Bonnie Prince Charlie, the Scots Pretender to the throne of Great Britain had just beaten a Hanoverian army near Edinburgh, and the English needed rallying. After 270 years, we have different enemies, and I humbly propose it’s time we had a new anthem.
Last week, I gave my view on House of Lords reform, and this week I want to put twenty-first century British patriotism on a secure footing. Because I agree with George Orwell that while nationalism is an evil in the world, patriotism has its place. Unlike our American cousins, we Brits feel rather embarrassed about patriotism. My friends in Norway and Switzerland regularly fly their national flag in outside their houses. If I did the same, my neighbors would think I was a fascist. I oppose nationalism, and I will vote to stay in the European Union, but at the same time, I’m a patriot. To quote Orwell, “By ‘patriotism’ I mean devotion to a particular place and a particular way of life, which one believes to be the best in the world but has no wish to force on other people”.
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So if we’re agreed about patriotism, what could possibly be wrong with GSTQ? Well, it’s meant to be a national anthem, but it actually doesn’t have anything to say about England, Wales and Northern Ireland and what it says about Scotland isn’t pleasant – that rarely sung final verse is all about crushing the Jacobite rebels. Instead, our national anthem variously discusses saving, protecting and defending the Monarch, and pouring gifts on her. Whatever your views on the royal family, I do not think they fully personify the diversity and vibrancy of contemporary Britain. Our national anthem is very dated. It mentions God in twelve separate places, which may be of some concern to the majority of Britons who no longer believe in the deity. The phrase “Thy choicest gifts in store” sounds like a supermarket advert, and “knavish tricks” is all too reminiscent of the Bullingdon Club.
Above all, GSTQ is a wasted opportunity to celebrate what’s great about Britain. In contrast, I’d point to Advance Australia Fair. “Australians all let us rejoice/For we are young and free/We’ve golden soil and wealth for toil; Our home is girt by sea; Our land abounds in nature’s gifts/Of beauty rich and rare/In history’s page, let every stage/Advance Australia Fair”. The message is all about sharing and working together, the tune’s unquestionably stirring, and it has that great refrain. It’s unquestionably cheesy, but it’s top quality cheese. No wonder the Aussies voted for Advance Australia Fair to replace GSTQ back in 1977.
So if we were to agree to do likewise, what would we choose? We need a song that even the tone deaf have a chance of singing effectively. There is a great advantage to familiarity. The frontrunners among the existing candidates would seem to be Land of Hope and Glory, Rule Britannia and Jerusalem.
In a BBC poll in 2006, 55% of people preferred Land of Hope and Glory as a national anthem for England, and of course it’s sung regularly by supporters of the England rugby team. But Land of Hope and Glory is hopelessly imperialist and also has rather too much God in it, and for those reasons I’d rule it out.
Rule Britannia is very familiar from jingoistic renderings at the Last Nights of the Proms, as well as being associated with the Navy, what with all that ruling of waves. The second verse is perhaps rather smug and inappropriate in these days of the European Union: “The nations, not so blest as thee/Must, in their turns, to tyrants fall;/While thou shalt flourish great and free,/The dread and envy of them all.” I am not sure that dread and envy is quite the tone we are going for these days, what with the emphasis on international trade and free movement of persons.
I heartily approve of Jerusalem, being a fan of William Blake: I remember it from my school days, when we sang it on the last day of the summer term, so for me it has a strong association with liberation. Although Blake was a radical who was interested in building a new Jerusalem, most people, particularly rugby fans, know his poem in the Hubert Parry version. This song was first published at the height of the First World War, to rally the public at a time when there was revulsion at the number of casualties. However, Jerusalem was taken over by the Suffragettes as the Women’s Voters Hymn, with Parry’s approval, which is why it is now the anthem of the Women’s Institutes. Jerusalem was then adopted by the Labour Party after their 1945 election victory, and has also been sung by the Conservative Party and the Liberal Democrats, so it obviously has cross party support. As well as its association with rugby, it’s the official anthem of the England and Wales Cricket Board. George V apparently preferred it to God Save the King. But Jerusalem is very much an English national anthem, not a British one. It’s all about walking on England’s mountains green, which would exclude the Welsh and Scots and Irish, not to mention those of us who live in the fens. Our Northern cities best known for their Dark Satanic Mills might also take exception.
All these memorable songs have limited relevance to how we live today.