When Tony Blair expressed a desire to end a broadcast at the time of the Iraq War with the phrase “God Bless Britain”, consternation ensued. Committees were convened, aides (we must imagine) shuffled uncomfortably and looked at their shoes, and a “po-faced” civil servant — we have Blair’s own word for this — reminded the PM in a very disapproving tone that “this is not America.”
And indeed this is not America. It may be customary for US presidents to call upon God to bless America on every conceivable occasion — the phrase has become a mere vacancy, with no more theological significance than an automatic “bless you” uttered in response to a sneeze — but in the mouth of a British prime minister it would sound jarring, unexpected, un-British. This is not so much a reflection of the greater religiosity of Americans as one of culture and history. God, in Britain, has not been usually been requested to bless the nation. Rather, He has traditionally been required to Save the Queen.
If Blair had chosen to conclude his broadcast with that formulation, he would probably have avoided the disapproving stares of his civil servants (although Alastair Campbell might have been unimpressed). It would not have sounded hammy or pious or overly theological. It would, on the other hand, have struck many as jingoistic, not to mention helplessly old-fashioned. That Blair (presumably) never even considered using the phrase says more about the prejudice against nationalism in modern Britain than it does about the eclipse of religion or even about New Labour’s somewhat ambiguous relationship with the monarchy. For both “God Bless America” and “God Save the Queen” are linguistic expressions of national solidarity rather than of religious faith.
In the USA the country; in the UK the monarch. In a similar way, prosecutions in America are brought in the name of “the people”, while in Britain criminals are charged in the name of the Queen (and, if convicted, sent down to reside at Her Majesty’s Pleasure). Our shops are now full of patriotic tat in advance of the Diamond Jubilee. Americans come out to celebrate Americanness every Fourth of July (and many don’t seem to need even that excuse). For us Brits, however, only the irregular occurrence of a Jubilee or a big Royal Wedding permits a patriotic blow-out. (England winning the World Cup or Euro 2012 would, I suppose, provide another, though even rarer, opportunity.) We have no national day. We are condemned to celebrate our nationhood by proxy, by pretending to celebrate an hereditary ruler or her heirs.
This also helps explain, I think, why according to a new opinion poll almost three quarters of the public believe that the Queen should continue to sport her traditional (originally and ironically papal) title of “Defender of the Faith”. For a President to say “God Bless America” is for him to speak in his capacity as priest-king. To invoke divine blessings on the nation is part of the symbolic function of a head of state, as it has been since the days of the Egyptian pharaohs. For a British prime minister to do so would be a usurpation. It’s not his job. God, like the Queen, is supposed to be above politics. Therefore only the Queen is allowed to “do God” — as she often does, for example, in her Christmas broadcasts.
Today’s poll, which also found that almost 80 per cent of respondents agreed that the Queen still had an important “faith role”, failed to impress Terry Sanderson of the National Secular Society. He believes that the monarch’s close relationship with the Church of England “renders everyone who is not of that religion to be less than full citizens.” But this rather misses the point. Sanderson apparently thinks that Prince Charles’s stated wish to be “Defender of Faith” rather than of “the Faith” would be “a step forward”. On the contrary, it would be divisive: it would imply the monarch’s active participation the increasingly ugly battle between secularists and the religious, on the side of “faith” rather than of “no-faith”.
I would suggest that public support for the Queen’s continuing, if attenuated, “faith role” is part of the same national psychology that has long been uncomfortable with politicians “doing God” and that now looks on aghast as religious and secularist pressure groups take each other to court with claims of discrimination or offence. The majority of people in this country are vaguely spiritual rather than actively religious or anti-religious. Faith belongs to the private sphere rather than (as in the US) to the sphere of active citizenship. Institutional religion exists for big personal occasions — weddings and funerals — rather in the same way that overt expressions of national pride are best confined to intermittent royal Jubilees.
For this reason, unenthusiastic about the monarchy as I am, I say God Save the Queen.