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16 May 2022

Booing the national anthem is as British as singing it

Irreverent anti-elitism is the point of post-Brexit Britain.

By Benedict Spence

It’s rare to hear Liverpool fans boo these days. Manchester United? Oh, they boo a lot. At their manager, players and owners. Manchester City? They boo the referee, they boo Uefa – their fans regularly boo the injustice of not being allowed to buy all the trophies in football, just most of them. And Everton? Well, what else is there to do?

But Liverpool fans are a pretty upbeat bunch at the moment, with their team winning the FA Cup at the weekend. It would not have been unusual, therefore, to wake up the next morning to see the press rabidly discussing the club. However, the coverage wasn’t all positive. A significant number of Liverpool fans jeered Prince William, the president of the FA, as he shook hands with players before the game; then they booed the national anthem and, for good measure, gave “Abide With Me”, the traditional FA Cup final anthem, a good kicking as well.

The story made the front pages of major Sunday papers. The speaker of the House of Commons, Lindsay Hoyle, told the Mail on Sunday: “In this year of all years – the Queen’s Platinum Jubilee – this is dreadful.” Karen Bradley, a former culture secretary, urged the FA “to take all necessary action and pursue those responsible”. There is, of course, something slightly bonkers about a Tory MP, whose party claims to be righteously fighting to end “cancel culture”, calling for an investigation into people booing at the football? In any case, it’s an idea Bradley should be cautious of indulging since she supports Man City.

The phenomenon of Liverpool fans pouring scorn on the anthem is not new. Where once you’d see union flags at the Kop end of the club’s Anfield stadium, attitudes have shifted over the decades, not least as a result of the Hillsborough disaster and the city’s relationship with the Thatcher government. Liverpool was the home of Militant – the Trotskyist group that was a powerful force in the Labour Party through much of the 1970s. It is no surprise the city has an anti-establishment tendency – and there is no bigger example of the establishment than the royal family and “God Save the Queen”.

This isn’t helped by the fact that many Liverpool fans feel it isn’t just the establishment that has it in for them, but fans of other clubs too. Go to a Liverpool game, home or away, and it isn’t long before the taunts start about Hillsborough, the Heysel disaster (in which Liverpool fans were blamed for 39 fans being crushed in the 1985 European Cup final) and about poverty and unemployment. It doesn’t matter that Liverpool is one of the most vibrant and economically dynamic cities in the UK, nor that a cost-of-living crisis means thousands nationwide are struggling to keep the heating on and put food on the table. In any other context, if you sing about people going to bed hungry you would be a social pariah – but if you add the word “Scouser” somewhere, it’s apparently just a bit of banter.

It is not wholly illogical that Liverpool fans, when opportunity knocks, “give a bit of it back”. More than anything, this booing furore is ironic given that fans of clubs that revel in mocking Scousers are often also England supporters in the habit of booing other people’s national anthems whenever the Three Lions play. It’s all a bit of pantomime villainy for those in the box seats to tut at.

The outrage at what the Liverpudlians did on 14 May is silly – not least because they are, in their own way, as quintessentially British as those who sombrely stood to attention during the anthem. Scouse exceptionalism is a myth that locals and outsiders like to play up. Really, they speak the same language, and often more poetically than people in the south. They love representing their country in sport and the arts. A lot of them actually quite like the Queen. Almost 42 per cent even voted for Brexit.

That feels particularly pertinent given that, in Brexit Britain, voicing your opposition to what you think is wrong, keeping free speech sacred and sticking two fingers up at the high and mighty, is the whole point – jubilee year or not.

Liverpool fans booing the national anthem honour their own identity and the identity of the country whose elite they take aim at. Unpatriotic? The only thing more British than bellowing the national anthem is booing it.

[See also: Does the FA Cup need saving?]

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