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13 January 2016

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.

By Oskar Cox-Jensen

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.

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“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

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