Greg Mulholland, Lib Dem MP for Leeds North West, has been watching the footie, and he wants a debate on an English national anthem. It seems he’s got a little annoyed at the use of ‘God Save the Queen’ for the England football team at the World Cup in South Africa.
First off, anthems are rather silly things. Their lyrics are often little more than a admixture of jingoism and romanticist nonsense. However, the things of anthems and flags are important symbols of belonging, as long as we recognise they are the symbols and window-dressing of our identity and not its substance.
Second off, I abhor our current paean to Mrs Windsor because she doesn’t even begin to represent what this country means to most of us. The tune and lyrics are both bad: scrap it along with the monarchy! It also has the problem of having some official status in most Commonwealth realms (those countries that inexplicably keep Mrs Windsor as head of state). New Zealanders, for instance, would have the right to complain that the use of ‘God Save the Queen’ by British or English sporting teams that the anthem is just as much theirs — ‘God Save the Queen’ is the national anthem of New Zealand, alongside the more common ‘God Defend New Zealand’. In spite of my being a Christian, I recognise that ‘God Save the Queen’ bears a certain theological element that is either inappropriate or questionable to a significant number of citizens — being addressed to God, it is a prayer, and can, historically, be said to be a Christian, even Church of England, prayer.
Where bits of the UK field separate national teams, Wales has established the excellent ‘Hen Wlad fy Nhadau’, Scotland ribs the Auld Enemy with ‘Flower of Scotland’ and even Northern Ireland seems happily united behind ‘Londonderry Air’ (albeit not all pronounce the ‘London’ bit of the title). The English can feel rightly narked that we don’t get a special little song of our own. To use a linguistic term, England often goes for the ‘unmarked’ portion of the UK, often indistinguishable from the larger unit.
Increasingly, ‘Jerusalem’ (‘And did those feet in ancient time walk upon England’s mountains green?’) has filled the need for an England anthem. It has the fascinating poetry of William Blake and the stirring music of Hubert Parry, and far surpasses the jingoistic romps of ‘Rule, Britannia!’ (when we ruled the waves we made others slaves) and ‘Land of Hope and Glory’ (‘Mother of the Free’ my ass! And do we want to revive the imperialistic notion of our ‘bounds’ being set ‘wider still and wider’?). ‘I vow to thee, my country’ has the advantage of Gustav Holst’s great tune, but the truly problematic blending of language of religious and national sacrifice. More England sporting teams are being identified by ‘Jerusalem’ now. The anthem, unlike the others, also has a solidly radical history, beside its Blake lyrics, it was the protest song of the Suffragists, when building Jerusalem meant getting votes for women. It was referenced by Clem Atlee in the slogan of building ‘a new Jerusalem’ in the 1945 general election in which the British people ousted Winston Churchill in favour of the Labour Party’s fulfilled promise of a National Health Service and Social Security. Although its lyrics use religious imagery, albeit Blake’s unique take on religion, it is not addressed to God, and not technically a prayer or hymn. However, I can see that its language (‘Holy Lamb of God’) would still make it unacceptable for many who are not Christian.
On his album Internationale, Billy Bragg recorded a version of ‘Jerusalem’ alongside a British version of the Woody Guthrie’s folk song ‘This Land is your Land’ with the lyrics:
This land is your land, this land is my land,
From the coast of Cornwall to the Scottish Highlands,
From the sacred forests to the holy islands.
This land was made for you and me.
The words ‘Scottish Highlands’ could easily be replaced with ‘Pennine uplands’ to Anglicise the song. I quite like its democratic approach to this land, its ownership and its mythical meanings.