A few weeks ago, during an official service commemorating the Battle of Britain, Jeremy Corbyn, the recently elected leader of the UK’s Labour party, stood in silence during the singing of the national anthem, ‘God Save the Queen.’ Adam Stoneman writes about the hooha that happened after and the problems with anthems.
The media reaction was one of collective, convulsive rage: “What an Insult!” snorted the Daily Mail, “National disgrace” screamed The Sun. “They should take him out and shoot him,” one veteran suggested.
While the vitriol can in part be explained by the particular antipathy the new opposition leader generates among sections of the British establishment (reportedly Corbyn was not the only one to stay silent during the ceremony) the incident reveals the potency and symbolic power of national anthems, and reminds us of their potential to divide as well as unite.
National anthems are one of the symbols by which identity and loyalty to the state are forged. With lyrics that hark back to shared mythologies (the Queen and her historic ‘enemies’), and performances in symbolic centres of power (in this case St. Paul’s cathedral), national anthems are understood as permanent, eternal and natural, qualities which are conferred on the nation state itself.
But of course modern nation states have only been around for the last 200 years or so, and national anthems even less, yet their ritualised performances tend to obscure their particular origins and contentious histories.
The UK’s ‘God Save the Queen’ was written in 1745 and is considered to be the oldest national anthem. The lyrics were intended to rally support around King George II, who had just suffered a crushing defeat at the hands of his Jacobite foe, Charles Edward Stuart (which explains its funereal, dirge-like quality). The song has evolved over the years, with many verses added, removed and altered. There is even an official peace version, written just after the First World War, which includes the lyrics:
Bid strife and hatred cease
Bid hope and joy increase
Spread universal peace
God save us all!
It was published in a book of hymns in 1925, but with the build up to war a decade later, it seemed the more militaristic lyrics of the original were required to mobilise another generation for war, and the peace version remains little known today.
The imperialist associations of ‘God Save the Queen’ have caused many to seek alternative anthems over the years however. English republicans – the committed few that there are – have tended to prefer ‘Jerusalem’, with lyrics by the poet and painter William Blake, as a secular and pastoral hymn about “England’s green and pleasant land.” In the wake of the Corbyn anthem furore, a new petition has emerged, calling for ‘God Save the Queen’ to be scrapped and for a new national anthem “that celebrates our political and multi cultural reality.”
As an attempt to bind diverse cultural identities into one coherent whole, national anthems are often divisive. Ireland’s national anthem, ‘The Soldier’s Song’, is no exception. The song was written by Patrick Heaney and Peadar Ó Cearnaigh in 1907 in order to urge young Irish men to join the republican movement. The song became widely associated with the Irish Volunteers and a popular song during the War of Independence. When the Irish Free State was born in 1922, some were unhappy with having a republican song as Ireland’s anthem. In June 1924, the Dublin Evening Mail opened a competition for a more inclusive song that would be for a future Ireland “less contentious than the past.”
After much deliberation, the six judges (among them W.B. Yeats) whittled the entries down to six which were then decided by public vote. Here’s the first verse of the winning entry:
God of our Ireland, by Whose hand
Her glory and her beauty grew,
Just as the shamrock o’er the land
Grows green beneath thy sparkling dew
Unsurprisingly the song was instantly forgotten, and the Evening Mail’s competition deemed a failure. The petition for a new British national anthem will no doubt suffer the same fate. The search for an anthem that represents and includes all of the diverse peoples that make up a nation state is futile. No such anthem exists. The construction of an identity bound to a nation state is inevitably exclusive, as a nation is partly defined by what it is not. No state has ever been culturally homogenous; a diverse variety of communities have always coexisted within borders, each with complex and distinct histories and identities that overlap and dialogue with one another; these differences cannot be reconciled by a single piece of music.
With mobile populations and migration an essential feature of our globalised world, national anthems are becoming increasingly suspect. But the need for collective identities remains, as does the desire to express these identities through shared songs and music.
Singing songs of celebration is a common feature of human culture; it brings us together. All communities and cultures within any nation state have their own songs. Perhaps these are the anthems that really matter.
Photograph by Paul Reynolds.