There’s been a couple of national anthem-related stories on the hairy fringes of the news since parliament went into summer recess. Last week it emerged that the Scottish FA has been fined £4,000 for their fans booing the national anthem during the England v Scotland World Cup qualifier game in June at Hampden Park; and slightly more alarmingly, the woman who occasionally dabbles in being the prime minister, Theresa May, apparently lead a rousing version of the national anthem in an Italian bar whilst on holiday recently.
Two things immediately come to mind: first, the national anthem is not the national anthem of just England, but of the whole country (you know, those bits that aren’t just England), so those rebellious Scots were in fact booing their own anthem (they themselves go with Flower of Scotland. And let’s not forget that former Commonwealth countries still have the national anthem as their own song); second, how can someone who can barely lead her own party or the country, or articulate emotions actually lead a bar full of people in singsong? But the issue here isn’t the behaviour of Scottish football fans or Theresa May’s Italian bar singalong escapades, it’s the words, music of, and attitudes towards, the British national anthem itself.
Our national song is a dirge. This is of course perfectly fitting, and very possibly the ultimate irony in Brexit Britain that a tune with all the zest and verve of a bloated corpse floating down the Thames excites the emotions of those who still believe its central message. And what a central message it is: classic imperialist nonsense from a time when John Bull stamping on Johnny Foreigner was an act of patriotic duty. And it tells us as much about Britain in 2017 as those who claim we ought to be proud and upstanding when it’s performed. Essentially if you’re a monarchist and believe in God, then the anthem is for you. But you have to be a certain sort of believer, such as a protestant, and to still believe that the England (because it’s always England) of 1745 is the England of 2017. Sadly people still do. Jacob Rees-Mogg, for example.
David Cameron suggested in 2015 that perhaps Jeremy Corbyn should show more respect for the institution that is the NA. And it wasn’t just what he said but how he said it that demonstrated what is wrong with the ardent NA club. Theres’s a sort of high arrogance, a terrible misplaced smugness about people like Cameron, moneyed, connected, privately educated, demanding that working-class people, or people who don’t believe in God, or in monarchy, should still accord the anthem the respect they feel it deserves. To them the anthem makes everyone of us – rich or poor, religious or atheist, royalist or republican – uniquely British, and that alone is something of which to be proud. After all, that is what national anthems are for. Except it isn’t that simple.
Brexit is doing its best to bring back a sort of parochial, insular little Englander mentality. Of course not everyone who voted for Brexit did so for the same reasons, but a ragged trawl through the Tory-backed press shows the same tiresome narrative: we’re taking back control; we’re getting our country back to how it used to be; we’re ready to face the world again on our own terms. And the national anthem is the perfect rousing chorus for these dark times. It’s the xenophobic’s melodious port in a storm, the anti-immigration crowd’s go-to chant, the Brexiteer’s post-pub belter. Apart from the fact that musically, the national anthem makes Chopin’s celebrated funeral march sound like a jaunty waltz, the words are still supposed to arouse pride in a nation at ease with itself, to unify, the soundtrack of a nation literally and metaphorically gathered around a piano and finding a single proud voice.
That’s what some elements would like to have us believe. The words of the anthem, coined in the 1740s (but often cobbled together from earlier phrases), really do belong to a former time. And my issue isn’t that they’re offensive (some lines have been changed over time), or that they’re irrelevant, but that people who choose to sing it insist everyone should do likewise. Only their way of thinking can be celebrated.
I had a brief online spat before the election with an ardent NA declaimer. He said he was proud of his queen and of his country, and that I should be also. I added that believing in an unelected monarch or a god isn’t a prerequisite of patriotism, that other things are far more important. But no, he simply would not have it. I was a ‘dickhead’ for not standing up to sing the national anthem, for not pledging my troth (whatever that is) to the woman occasionally known as Elizabeth Windsor, and for daring to suggest that perhaps monarchy is a bit past its sell-by date and starting to turn rancid. All of my reasoning, my rational lines of inquiry, would not stop this man from declaring that I simply must hate the nation for not having the same world-view as him. He was a walking, talking Daily Mail. Readers of that deranged paper, and it’s hateful, twisted sibling, the Daily Express, love to equate love of country with love of God and Queen (and they love to capitalise both of those things). They cannot be separated. You cannot be allowed to have one without the other. And of course, those who choose not to sing it are loony lefty scum who should be imprisoned, or perhaps beheaded.
This is of course establishment thinking writ large. Only in Britain would you have to swear allegiance to an unelected monarch upon being voted in by the people as an MP; only in Britain could you have a situation whereby in order to have access to the proper channels of information would you have to join (for life) a committee that requires kneeling before the monarch and reciting the most ludicrous of oaths before kissing her hand (thankfully Corbyn refused to do any of this).
Only in Britain would parliament legislate against even articulating an alternative to the Windsor succession line (the Treason Felony Act of 1848).
And that is why the national anthem is so important to these people. They don’t care that you’re an atheist or agnostic, that you want to get rid of monarchy and replace it with something far more democratic, that it is no longer 1745, that we’ve moved more than two and half centuries on from the composition of the national dirge. No, all that matters is the people sing it when they’re damn well told to by their betters. The austerity-soaked poor, the non-religious, those disgusting plebs who will never know of the privileges and luxuries afforded the wealthy and the elite, who must bow and curtsy before their superiors, they all need to learn their place and get together and sing. Because this is Britain, and we love to dwell in a cloying, decaying permanent past. Stand up, you disgusting proles and sing it, and do so with pride. You can almost smell the snuff in the air.
So I understand why Scotland, a nation keen to be seen as radically different from its southern neighbour, boos the NA. And I bet the Scottish FA don’t really mind coughing up the money to pay the ludicrous fine. After all, Scotland could be part of the EU again if things go their way. And in the meantime England doesn’t hold sway with that pesky EU or its own anthem, Ode to Joy.
A line from a later, seldom heard national anthem verse says: “Lord make the nations see, that men should brothers be, and form one family, the wide world over”. It’s decidedly strange that such sentiments are essentially excluded altogether from recitals. But then we can’t sing about brotherhood and humankind uniting as one, can we? Not when there’s a nation to be broken up, divided and sold to the lowest bidder, not when there’s a society to be fractured apart along sectarian lines. And let’s face it, the chances are that Theresa May’s singalong was a rouse, a ploy, a feeble PR attempt to show that our inglorious leader is capable of letting her hair down and having a good time. I don’t know which is harder to believe: the idea of her doing that or leading the singalong. And having thought about it for a few seconds I feel dirty. After all, the story has everything: May relaxing, May doing what Jeremy Corbyn won’t do, May showing leadership, May being human. I don’t believe any of it for a second.
Thanks to the joys of capitalism we’re apparently a nation of individuals, and not one mass of social cohesion, and also given we’re ruled by the laws of market commodification, it’s difficult to see why we even need an anthem to unite the nation. If we had one written now it would be called The Forces of Vulture Capitalism Save Us, but it’s not that catchy a title. The anthem is always a singalong for those who rule over us by dint of rigging the game in advance, and so ensure their own perpetual power base. The national anthem is essentially a song about the establishment’s own greed, selfishness, stagnant gene pool and ability to stamp on the little people. So in that regard it’s perfect for modern Britain, however unintentionally.
I once wrote my own version of the anthem, one that is fit for a Britain run by thieves, idiots and fraudsters. Everyone should write one in the interests of diversity, and I encourage you to write your own. My version is eleven verses long, but I’ll spare you the most of it. Don’t forget to sing this wonderful ditty to the usual hollow dirge, and get everyone to stand up as you do so, and yes, that includes you, Theresa, as you surge through fields of wheat:
Britain's a total mess
Schooling and NHS
Stolen and sold
We claim all what was yours
Sell them, barely a pause
We give ourselves applause
“Do what you're told..."
Max Webster is the Editor of Political Provocateur