The English/British national anthem problem

The sporting calendar never ends; it’s like the very seasons; round and round it goes. No sooner is the whistle blown on one fixture, then along comes another, whistles blowing forever – except cricket, of course, when a bell is preferred. Perhaps it’s the opportunity for redemption next time – defeat into victory – that keeps the whole thing going? We are now into the autumn rugby internationals, and redemption for one team or the other is in the air. Everyone with even the remotest interest in the game is excited by the drama.

But one aspect of the game sits uncomfortably, with me at least: the anthems. It’s not that I don’t like them; they’re fine, and although some are little more than a dirge, others are magnificent and stirring. It’s just that no sooner do the English start singing God Save The Queen at an English sporting event, then someone says they really ought to sing something else, something applicable to only England.

The problem seems to be that England is not the same thing as Britain, and singing the national anthem merely antagonises the Welsh and the Scots. Well, that’s obvious; but what about the history of this state of affairs? Just why do the English sing the British national anthem while the Welsh and Scottish bellow Land of My Fathers and Flower of Scotland at anyone and everyone?

There must be a reason. Think about it and it just doesn’t make sense. I suppose the explanation we most readily grasp is the stereotypical arrogance and bloody-mindedness of the English; they’ll take any excuse to lord it over their ‘dominions’ in the rest of the British Isles, the English will. After all, we know full well that Britain is really the English Empire, don’t we?

This is a logical assumption, even I would admit. I’m English, I’m British, and I’m conservative-minded and patriotic in the old, disreputable sense of thinking nationality is not something of which we should be ashamed; I also happen to think nationality and nationhood are vitally important if peace and the rule of law are to endure in these islands, but that’s another discussion.

As such, it is perfectly acceptable to sing God Save The Queen. Yet it has often occurred to me that, by singing the British national anthem at English events while the Welsh and the Scots sing something else, we live up to the stereotype a little too readily and a little too belligerently. Wouldn’t it be better, all round, if we sang a song or a hymn that distinguishes England from Britain? That way, the national anthem might regain its rightful place in the affection of all Britons.

This was my thinking, anyway; not unlike the thinking of many other Englishmen, I’m sure. Until, that is, I discovered a typically excellent piece by Allan Massie, the great Anglo-Scottish man of letters, in which he recounted a bit of the history of national anthems at sporting events, specifically those of rugby.

At about the time the author was, himself, running around in short trousers, only one anthem was played at rugby internationals involving England, Wales and Scotland, and that was God Save The Queen. Moreover, it was played ‘not to inspire the troops, but as a mark of respect to the monarch.’ Indeed, this was the way of it back then; the national anthem was also played in theatres and cinemas.

But not now. We are above such things. We have, on the whole, rejected petty nationalism and freed ourselves from subservience to ancient traditions; these things only survive where the basest of our race gather: such as sporting events and the Last Night of the Proms. To my bemusement, Scottish nationalism is in a very different and much more acceptable category to British or English nationalism – a point I’ve yet to work through fully.

So, what happened? Why and how did things change? Why did two sizeable chunks of Our Island reject the anthem that represents us all?

Mr. Massie writes that ‘the Welsh were the first to break ranks when they decided that kicking off with Land of My Fathers would have their players’ hearts swelling with patriotic fervour.’ Trust the Welsh to bash the English first! Still, I suppose this attitude has historical pedigree. It’s Owen Glendower all over again.

Surprisingly the Scots were slower to follow suit, perhaps because Mr. Massie is correct in thinking they are at heart ‘sternly conservative,’ and perhaps because the problem Scots have with big-C Conservatism is its association with the English rather than anything intrinsic to its political and cultural outlook. While the average Englishman might not immediately recognise this picture, he will more readily appreciate the growth of Scottish nationalism in the seventies and anti-Thatcher sentiment in the eighties, both of which led to the booing of the national anthem at Murrayfield. Many Scots resented the then-Conservative Prime Minister, as we know, but booing the national anthem must have upset a good many other Scots quite happy with being Scottish, British and Monarchist.

The real history, therefore, suggests something a little different to the perception of that history. The convention, with which all Home Nations seemed happy, was for the British to sing God Save The Queen as a mark of respect for their Sovereign and because they were British, albeit Welsh, Scottish and English variants thereof. The problem was caused not by something active done by the English, but by their passive response to the Welsh and the Scots deciding to break with convention without taking the English with them.

Would it have been so hard to gather round a table, preferably in some wood-panelled pub in a glen or a valley over a pint or a dram, and decide on adopting individual Home-Nation anthems simultaneously? Would that have been so difficult? We might have avoided the resentment some now feel at perceived ‘English arrogance’ and the perceived belief that ‘there is no distinction [in the eyes of the English, we presume] to be made between England and the United kingdom.’

But we are where we are, and the present situation is certainly untidy, and people will continue to call for the English to stop singing God Save The Queen when they have their exclusively English hats on. And you know what: I think I might be one of them. The English may not have caused the predicament (despite the folk-view being that they did, because, well, the English…), but the predicament exists; and it seems that if the anthems are no longer sung as a mark of respect for our Sovereign, but as a means to get our competitive juices flowing before the game, then perhaps we really should have an English anthem.

I know it’s not relevant during the autumn internationals, but if we do go down this route, singing Home-Nation anthems before kick off, would it be outrageous to suggest that, at the end of each game between Wales, Scotland and England during their next encounters, we sing God Save The Queen? Perhaps it might even usher in a new era of mutual respect, while at the same time reminding ourselves that we are all still British and we all still share the same Monarch. With the Scottish referendum soon upon us, we might just need it.


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