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National anthem traditionalists should note that “God Save the Queen” was once one of many

God Save the Queen” is not the oldest anthem, and it hasn't always been our only one. An English anthem is not such a groundbreaking idea.

The National Anthem is back in the news, for the first time in – oh, four months – and this time the debate is in Parliament itself. Toby Perkins MP (Labour, Chesterfield) is proposing that England gets its own anthem, for use on sub-UK occasions.

Anyone throwing their hands up and crying “tradition!” would do well to remember that the very concept of a national anthem is a historically-contingent, artificial idea: the product of 19th-century nation building that went hand-in-hand with empire and the growth of far-right ideologies.

“God Save the Queen” has a particularly complex and mixed history, beginning as a Scottish song in defiance of the English, and it is only the tendency of the past two centuries to sift and to canonise that has seen it become a song apart. Once, it was one of many “anthems”.

In 1808, The Satirist, a London magazine, wrote that, “Perhaps there never was (assuredly there does not now exist) a nation more zealously attached to its ODES, of all sorts, than Britain”, going on to judge that “God Save the King,” “Britons Strike Home,” “Conquer to Save,” and “Rule[,] Britannia,” are compositions that deservedly claim the lead; although thousands, I am well aware, may be cited from among our songs of corresponding excellence.

Times have changed. Two of those songs, along with other stalwarts like “Hearts of Oak”, have passed from the public consciousness, while I would defy anyone to sing me a verse, rather than the chorus, of “Rule, Britannia”. The United States, meanwhile, has surely taken over from Britain when it comes to zealous attachment. “The Star-Spangled Banner”, of course, was originally a London drinking song sung in a tavern by a society of hedonists – but that’s another story.

“God save the King/Queen” has at least stuck: the epitome, though not the oldest, of anthems.

In the 21st century, the western anthem’s main use is to give crowds something to get behind at sporting occasions. It is here that Perkins’ proposal carries most weight, as England often competes as a separate nation. One has only to watch the Six Nations rugby tournament to witness the effectiveness of “subordinate” anthems, however non-traditional. “Flower of Scotland” is belted out with all the fervour that Robert Burns’ similarly-themed “Scots Wha Hae” was is the 1790s (and still is at SNP conferences), but it was written in 1965 by The Corries.

“Hen Wlad Fy Nhadau” (“Old Land of My Fathers”) is of rather greater vintage, finding favour in the 1850s in churches and at Eisteddfods, before becoming the first anthem to precede a sporting event in 1905. However, “Ireland’s Call”, sung by the united Irish rugby team, was commissioned as recently as 1995 by the Irish RFU from Phil Coulter, and sounds no less impressive for that. Perhaps an English anthem is not so groundbreaking an idea.

Going down the Irish route and writing something new is an exhilarating idea, but public will is hardly behind it: the outcome might be either too voguish or too focus-grouped. It would have to be an established song – which almost certainly means something white and male. The Spring Rice/Holst composition “I Vow to Thee, My Country”, always mentioned in these debates, is about as establishment as it gets. Though a good 250 years younger than “God Save the Queen”, it would be a case of swapping like for like.

Something more contemporary, perhaps? Early favourites in online forums today included Monty Python’s “Always Look on the Bright Side of Life” and, understandably, David Bowie’s “Heroes”. And indeed, if the Germans could adopt “God Save the King” in the 19th century, why shouldn’t the English use a song written in and about Berlin?

The Clash’s “This Is England” has a suitably anthemic chorus; Pete Doherty’s “Albion” can be a beast of an emotional ballad; both, appropriately truncated, could certainly fill stadiums. Morrissey’s “National Front Disco” might be pushing it: political discourse today leaves little room for its subtle pathos.

“Three Lions” and “You’ll Never Walk Alone” are too football-specific, as is another appealing alternative, the “Match of the Day” theme. This would involve going down the Spanish route of having no words: a cunning way to avoid a repeat of “anthemgate”.

David Cameron has made it clear that he would vote for “Jerusalem”. The PM has admirable form when it comes to ignoring ideological divides: recall Johnny Marr’s intellectually indefensible but frankly hilarious tweet: “David Cameron, stop saying that you like The Smiths, no you don't. I forbid you to like it.”

“Jerusalem” is another case in point. Its lyrics are by a visionary radical protesting against the oppression of the industrial revolution. Its composer had doubts about giving it to a patriotic cause, and was delighted to sanction its swift adoption by the suffragist movement. It is, then, a perfect storm of political irony, akin to using, say, “Imagine” as a national anthem.

It is also 100 years old this year. It’s 50 years since England won the world cup. The stars, for once, seem aligned, for what is more symptomatic of the English national character these days, than a good anniversary?

Oskar Cox Jensen is Research Fellow in the Music Department, King’s College London

Photo: Getty
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Scotland's vast deficit remains an obstacle to independence

Though the country's financial position has improved, independence would still risk severe austerity. 

For the SNP, the annual Scottish public spending figures bring good and bad news. The good news, such as it is, is that Scotland's deficit fell by £1.3bn in 2016/17. The bad news is that it remains £13.3bn or 8.3 per cent of GDP – three times the UK figure of 2.4 per cent (£46.2bn) and vastly higher than the white paper's worst case scenario of £5.5bn. 

These figures, it's important to note, include Scotland's geographic share of North Sea oil and gas revenue. The "oil bonus" that the SNP once boasted of has withered since the collapse in commodity prices. Though revenue rose from £56m the previous year to £208m, this remains a fraction of the £8bn recorded in 2011/12. Total public sector revenue was £312 per person below the UK average, while expenditure was £1,437 higher. Though the SNP is playing down the figures as "a snapshot", the white paper unambiguously stated: "GERS [Government Expenditure and Revenue Scotland] is the authoritative publication on Scotland’s public finances". 

As before, Nicola Sturgeon has warned of the threat posed by Brexit to the Scottish economy. But the country's black hole means the risks of independence remain immense. As a new state, Scotland would be forced to pay a premium on its debt, resulting in an even greater fiscal gap. Were it to use the pound without permission, with no independent central bank and no lender of last resort, borrowing costs would rise still further. To offset a Greek-style crisis, Scotland would be forced to impose dramatic austerity. 

Sturgeon is undoubtedly right to warn of the risks of Brexit (particularly of the "hard" variety). But for a large number of Scots, this is merely cause to avoid the added turmoil of independence. Though eventual EU membership would benefit Scotland, its UK trade is worth four times as much as that with Europe. 

Of course, for a true nationalist, economics is irrelevant. Independence is a good in itself and sovereignty always trumps prosperity (a point on which Scottish nationalists align with English Brexiteers). But if Scotland is to ever depart the UK, the SNP will need to win over pragmatists, too. In that quest, Scotland's deficit remains a vast obstacle. 

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.