Thursday 24 September 2015

On Anthems

Pig note: Last week's anthem scandal seems distinctly tame in comparison to the new story involving David Cameron and a farmyard animal. The Cameron story is hilarious, but he won't be running to be Prime Minister in 2020, and Corbyn presumably will.

In one of his first official engagements as Labour leader, Jeremy Corbyn caused much consternation by refusing to sing God Save The Queen. The outcome says a lot about both the national anthem and Corbyn, most of it not very good.

Corbyn stood in what he described as "respectful silence" during the national anthem at a service commemorating the Battle of Britain. When questioned about it, Corbyn conspicuously avoided committing himself to singing the anthem at future events, instead saying he would "play a full part" in them. Labour party spokespeople claim this means he will in fact sing the anthem; but considering how chaotic Labour's communications have become, I am disinclined to take them at their word.

The usual suspects have said and written a great deal of overheated nonsense about Corbyn's silence. It doesn't mean he loves his country any less than they do. What it does indicate is Corbyn's complete lack of interest in media strategy.

At the time of this event, Corbyn had been Labour leader for less than a hundred hours. He was still introducing himself to the great majority of voters, who don't follow politics closely. A lot of people wondering who this Corbyn chap is, and what he's all about, would have encountered this:

Image source: The Guardian

Some voters will respect Corbyn for his sincerely held principles, as an atheist and republican. Others will see it as a sign of disrespect, at an event commemorating those who gave their lives to defend Britain from the Nazis.

If Corbyn wanted to demonstrate conviction, he wasn't short of other opportunities. This was a week with crucial parliamentary votes on the government's Trade Union Bill, almost entirely overshadowed by argument over a song. Instead of being "that guy who stands up for working people", Corbyn was showing off his qualities as "that guy who won't sing the national anthem". It is what Sir Humphrey might have called a brave decision.

Personally, I don't much care about God Save The Queen. I'm a Canadian, and I do care about my own national anthem. The references to God in "O Canada" conflict with my atheism, but that doesn't really bother me. I will still be happy to sing along when I attend a Canadian rugby match this weekend. It's not so much about the words, as the sense of national belonging.

So, I can empathise with British people who feel some affection for GSTQ. There are a lot of them out there, and not all are committed Tory voters.

Corbyn's handling of the fallout did him no favours. If he's going to present himself as a stubborn man of conviction, he might as well do it with some confidence. A cheerful assertion that he appreciates how much the anthem means to others, but chose not to sing it out of personal principle, would have gone a long way. Instead he came across as tetchy and evasive, avoiding a straight answer as to why he hadn't sung the anthem or whether he would do so in the future.

In the long run, Corbyn might establish himself as both friend of the worker and eccentric rebel against convention; but first impressions matter, and the voting public is not renowned for its long attention span.

The fact that Corbyn has got away with this at all is a tribute to the English tolerance for eccentrics, and Britain's ambivalent relationship to its own anthem.

Imagine for a moment that Kezia Dugdale, newly elected leader of Scottish Labour, refused to sing Flower of Scotland on the grounds it is militaristic and anti-English. She would be out of a job very quickly. The same would apply in most other countries; a French or American politician who didn't sing the anthem would be run out of town on a rail. It's rather splendid that the English don't take these things as seriously.

The requirements for a national anthem are very simple. It doesn't have to be a work of musical genius; in fact it probably helps if it isn't. It needs a simple tune, and words you can belt out at a sporting match or solemnly intone at a memorial service.

It needs to be a song everyone can rally around. The message of the lyrics should be something like, "hey, our country is really great and we'll all work together." In most cases, "working together" means going to war. In France, the Marsellaise is impressively bloodthirsty; even Canada's national anthem has a clear subtext of "come and have a go if you think you're hard enough." (Advance Australia Fair is an exception, with an admirably constructive message.)

It doesn't do to interpret the lyrics too literally. The Marsellaise refers to "watering our fields with impure blood," the Star-Spangled Banner is about fighting the British with cannons, and Flower of Scotland is about laying down lives to defeat an English army. It doesn't mean the nations in question want to do these things today (excepting some of the Scots).

Now let us consider God Save the Queen. What heroic feats does it exhort? What does it want the proud people of Britain to do? It calls on us to fall to our knees and pray for the good health and happiness of one individual.

The problem with GSTQ is not just religion and monarchy, but the fact that it's so passive and submissive. At least it's mercifully short. (The full version is much longer, but doesn't really improve matters, especially with the verse about crushing rebellious Scots.) It's hard to defend GSTQ on any grounds other than adherence to tradition; it's what we sing because it's what we've always sung.

There's a strong case for changing Britain's national anthem, perhaps after the Queen has passed away. I'm not sure what would do as a replacement; Rule Britannia may be too imperialist for this day and age. Perhaps we can commission Sir Paul McCartney or Sir Mick Jagger to write a new one. It's an interesting question; but any changes will be too late to undo last week's effect on Corbyn's reputation.

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