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16 September 2015

I’m no fan of Jeremy Corbyn, but good on him for keeping quiet during the national anthem

I'm far from a Corbynite, but he's right to stick to his principles, argues Julia Hartley-Brewer.

By Julia Hartley-Brewer

If there is one sentence I never thought I would write it is this one: I agree with Jeremy Corbyn.

While I think most of his views are as daft as a brush, on this one occasion, I stand four-square behind him. Corbyn was perfectly entitled to refuse to sing our national anthem.

The new Labour leader, just days after being elected in a landslide victory, is already embroiled in a row over his suitability for the job. Is it over his stance on defence or his economic policy? No, it’s because of a song.

Yes, a song.

Corbyn has upset the entire country, it seems, simply by deciding to stand silent during a rousing rendition of “God save the Queen” at a Battle of Britain remembrance ceremony at St Paul’s Cathedral attended by the Prime Minister and military leaders.

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Ranks of former soldiers, Tories and even Labour MPs have since queued up to criticise Corbyn and express their horror at how “disrespectful”, “dishonourable” and “offensive” his actions were.

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But what exactly did Corbyn do wrong?

It is not disrespectful or offensive to refuse to sing a song that espouses views with which you actively disagree; it is simply being honest. 

Corbyn, like me, is a republican and an atheist. How then can we possibly be expected to sing along to an anthem which begins with the words “God save our gracious Queen”?

How can we honestly call on someone we don’t believe exists to save a role that we don’t believe should exist? 

Why should we be expected to say words that directly contradict our own values and beliefs? Or do we prefer our politicians to just play along with a lie just to keep everyone else happy?

Either the words to our national anthem mean something or they don’t. If they mean something, then surely we can only expect people who are both monarchists and religious to sing them. And if they are “just words”, then it doesn’t really matter if someone sings them or not, does it? Those claiming to be offended can’t have it both ways. 

The fact that the supposed offence was greater because it took place at a service for the heroes of the Battle of Britain is even more absurd.

When the great men and women who took part in the Battle of Britain to defend our skies from the German Luftwaffe in 1940, they did it so that we could live in freedom.

A key part of that freedom, surely, is the right to be able to express ourselves and our beliefs as we choose without fear of retribution from the state.

Yet Admiral Lord West of Spithead, a Labour peer and former security minister, choose to say of Corbyn: “Singing the national anthem is a sign of loyalty to the United Kingdom and British people. I cannot believe that the people of our great nation could contemplate a Prime Minister who lacks that loyalty.”

So now the refusal to sing a song is to be used to decide who is loyal to Britain and who is not? Adolf Hitler himself would be proud!

I am a patriot. I love my country and its values and I am also immensely grateful to the brave souls who fought and died for our country to be free. But I don’t sing our national anthem either. Does that make me disloyal too, Lord West?

Admittedly, there are times and places to express our political and other beliefs and it is fair to point out that Corbyn is no longer a backbench MP and now holds an official constitutional position as the leader of Her Majesty’s Loyal Opposition and could one day become our Prime Minister. But that doesn’t mean he has to throw his values and beliefs out of the window simply for the sake of a job title.

It’s not as if Corbyn disrupted the service or prevented other people from singing the national anthem. He simply stood in respectful silence.

If he had stomped off, sung an entirely different song, chatted or laughed or yawned throughout the anthem, that would indeed have been disrespectful. Standing silently while other people sing is not. (Although, personally, I think his decision not to wear a smart suit, instead of his mismatched jacket and trousers, and to have a tie loosely knotted over a shirt with the top button undone revealed questionable manners at best.)

People can choose to be offended by what Corbyn did, but someone being offended – even if it is most of the country – doesn’t necessarily mean that anything offensive has actually been done.

Corbyn may be wrong about a lot of things, but on this, he has every right to express himself as he sees fit.

If the heroes of the Battle of Britain fought for anything, it was for our right to be free to choose not to say words with which we profoundly disagree.