There are plenty of oddities about the national anthem. The tune manages to be both banal, and strangely lumpy. It's inspiring only by association, if at all. And the sycophantic words might have been written for a Habsburg empire, or the France of Louis XIV; nothing in them suggests that Britain has, for 300 years, been a bastion of liberty, and admired across Europe and the world for the freedoms it has preserved for its citizens. It's not until the third verse that there's any suggestion that the Queen might have to do some work to deserve all these outpourings of loyalty.
So it's not very surprising if, from time to time, a few restless voices start to suggest we can do a bit better than "God Save the Queen". The other day, it was Sir Malcolm Williamson, the Master of the Queen's Music, saying that something or other should be done to it. Andrew Lloyd Webber has said it ought to be replaced with "Land of Hope and Glory". An astonishing array of nonentities - the Bishop of Wolverhampton, "senior backbench MPs", whoever happened to be around when the Sunday newspaper called - have been quoted as denouncing it. Sir Peter Hall thought the words were too violent; me, I'd always thought the line about frustrating the knavish tricks were the one thing that rescued "God Save the Queen". Someone thought Stevie Wonder ought to write a new one. Somebody else thought it might be made more interesting by slowing it down. But its days, with a bit of luck, may be numbered.
The thing is that we're richly endowed with all sorts of alternative national anthems. Like many countries, at moments of great national pride and feeling we turn not to the official national anthem, but to one of half a dozen national favourites. Italians hardly ever sing their anthem, an absurd little ditty called "Fratelli d'Italia". What they spontaneously sing is the chorus of the Hebrew slaves from Verdi's Nabucco. Its import, which roughly boils down to "Well, we'd try to do something about all this if we thought we could achieve anything", neatly sums up a good part of their national character. The enviable one, of course, is "The Marseillaise", which, as all good national songs should be, is spectacularly tactless and violent.
Temporary anthems arise from time to time, but a few stick. It was very striking that, at England's opening match of the World Cup, the crowd dutifully sang the national anthem before the kick-off. But, during the match, what they spontaneously broke into was "Rule Britannia", which is not just a statement of national superiority, but of pride in freedom and independence. Like the American national anthem, it's embarrassingly difficult to sing, but there's something terrifically English about its brisk jollity.
Like "Land of Hope and Glory", though, it seems less interested in liberty than in extolling an empire, which might seem more tactless than strictly necessary. And, if devolution goes ahead, we soon won't need a British anthem, but an English one. The perfect one is "Jerusalem"; not just a great tune, but great English poetry; an irresistible piece of sublime English eccentricity pushed into mysticism, and, very appealing, something no damned foreigner could possibly be expected to understand. It's the complicated English character, as seen by itself. You have to admit, as well - "And did those feet..." - it makes a great football song.
It matters, in an odd way; of course it does. It matters in a way that national dress, say, doesn't; it's something that isn't for display to the rest of the world, exactly, but a way of speaking about ourselves, to ourselves. "God Save the Queen" obviously doesn't do the job, but it's striking that at moments of great national emotion, of pride, or grief, we turn to something quite banal, to "Rule Britannia" or Elgar's "Nimrod", and seem to be listening to ourselves singing. Many of these songs have become slightly embarrassing, and members of a multi-cultural society can hardly sing some of these imperial sentiments without, at best, self- consciousness, at worst, a strong feeling of exclusion. But things will have gone wrong when we no longer want a song that celebrates our unity and our diversity; we will regret it if, when we want to sing together, there is nothing better to sing but "In-ger-land, In-ger-land".Reuse content