Outside the marginals

A commentary on the politics that followed the UK 2010, 2015 & 2017 elections

England’s Confused Nationalism (1. Sport and Athems)

During the Summer of 2014 Democratic Audit ran a series of posts about the (English) National Anthem in response to Roy Hodgson’s call for England players to sing the National Anthem at the World Cup (An Association Football Championship, m’lud).

The issue of course is that the Anthem in question is “God Save the Queen” – one of the hardest working Anthems in the songbook as it fills the following roles:

  • National Anthem for the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland
  • Salute for the Head of State of the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland (and other Realms)
  • Default Anthem for some (not all) England sporting teams (most notably the Association Football and Rugby Union Teams)

I have always found this odd, reflecting the confused national identity of England and indeed the United Kingdom. Given that the Scots (or more accurately, those in Scotland) have had a thorough examination of their national identity, perhaps England may reflect on its sporting identity as a preliminary warm-up to a more thorough review.

In the new year (2016) Chesterfield MP Toby Perkins intends to bring his English National Anthem Bill to Parliament on 13 January.

Rugby Football, Association Football and Cricket were English inventions so perhaps that is why these sports insist on “English” representation at International level. The Olympics being a French re-invention did not allow any such nonsense.

It is however a peculiarly messy set of structures. For example:

Sport National Teams Notes
Association Football England, Northern Ireland, Scotland, Wales Some Welsh Teams (e.g. Swansea, Cardiff play in the English Football League) Berwick plays in the Scottish League.
Rugby Union England, (All) Ireland, Scotland, Wales Irish Rugby has a provincial layer Connacht, Leinster, Munster, & Ulster (9 counties)
All four Unions also play Internationally as “British and Irish Lions”
Cricket England & Wales as “England”, (all) Ireland, Scotland Irish Cricket has a provincial layer Connacht, Leinster, Munster, Northern & North West. The later “province” seems to be cross-border.
Athletics “Team GB” (being the UK of GB&NI), Ireland (Irish Republic)
Except for Commonwealth Games: England, Northern Ireland, Scotland, Wales, plus Jersey, Guernsey, Isle of Man etc.
At the Olympics some Irish have the option of representing Team GB or Ireland

This range of “International” status matches gives rise to an interesting range of Anthems.

Curiously Wales (as a Principality of the English Crown) is the country that is most settled in terms of its National Anthem having used Hen Wlad Fy Nhadau (the Land of My Fathers) since 1905. It was composed in 1856 by Evan James (words) James James (tune) and has an historic place in Sporting Anthems.

Wales actually gave the tradition of singing the anthem before a rugby game to the world. In 1905, Wales prepared to do battle with the unbeaten mighty All Blacks: the greatest team in rugby history.

The Welsh had a secret weapon. Thomas Williams, one of the Welsh Rugby Union committee, decided that the Welsh team should sing Hen Wlad Fy Nhadau in response to the intimidating battle cry of the Haka.

12,000 miles away from home, the All Blacks were overwhelmed by the sound. The New Zealand captain wrote later that he had never experienced anything like it in his life.
BBC Wales / Music Website: The anthem in more recent years

The singing was led by Teddy Taylor, one of the Welsh wingers. If Roy Hodgson is wanting to emulate such an atmosphere he has to remember that the above happened at Cardiff Arms Park and the singers were Welsh!

The Scots seem to have settled on Flower of Scotland, having previously used Scotland the Brave on some occasions. Flower of Scotland was written in the 1960s by Roy Williamson and also has famous rugby associations:

The song was adopted as the pre-game anthem during the deciding match of the 1990 Five Nations (Rugby Union)  Championship between Scotland and England, which Scotland won 13–7 to win the Grand Slam.
Wikipedia: Flower of Scotland

When the Princess Royal, Honorary President of the Scottish Rugby Union was asked to comment about the result, she remarked something along the lines, “perhaps they had the best anthem” (YouTube). Certainly listening to it from England, it sounded like a rallying cry for more than the Scottish Rugby team.

But we can still rise now
And be the nation again
That stood against him
Proud Edward’s Army
And sent him homeward,
Tae think again.

Nine years later Scotland got its Parliament back.

Then we have the English and Irish. The Irish Rugby Union seem to have gone for the multiple anthem option, whilst England has gone for the no anthem option preferring to claim the UK anthem as somehow their own.

The Republic has gone down the usual route of a National Anthem,  Amhrán na bhFiann (The Soldier’s Song) composed in 1907 by Peadar Kearney and Patrick Heeney and a Presidential Salute (the first four bars of the national anthem immediately followed by the last five) – and we hear both at Rugby Union matches in Dublin.

In addition (at Dublin) we hear a special anthem, Ireland’s Call – commissioned by the IRFU from Phil Coulter in 1995. When Ireland plays away we only hear Ireland’s Call in deference to the multi-national nature of the Irish side. A considerate and Irish solution to an almost unique problem. (YouTube showing the English/British Anthem and the two Irish Anthems played at the Rugby Union International at Croke Park, Dublin in 2007)

In Northern Ireland one community sings God Save the Queen with passion and the other is revolted by it. The Commonwealth games team for Northern Ireland uses Londonderry Air (Danny Boy) as its Anthem – most memorably at the Boxing. Some sources say that when Barry McGuigan in 1978 won the gold, the anthem would not play so an official sang it instead. The video record (YouTube – from 8:40 of 9:26) does not bear this out – although Barry McGuigan’s father memorably sang it before his son’s World title bout against Eusebio Pedroza (YouTube for short documentary on context). The first a cappella singing of Danny Boy was at the Auckland Commonwealth Games Boxing in 1990 when it was sung for Wayne McCullough by Bob Gibson – the man who was meant to play the tape! (YouTube). This then seemed to become a deliberate rendition of the anthem; Dr Seán Donnelly, the team doctor, also sang memorably a cappella for Jim Webb at the Victoria Commonwealth Games in 1994. (YouTube)

The English though seems to want to claim God save our Queen as their own. This is possibly consistent with one stated origin of the anthem which has it being adopted by the Hanoverians as a “British Anthem” after the Battle of Colloden (1746). It is also consistent with the common foreign misunderstanding that England is Britain and that the Queen who we (in the UK) beseech God to save is the Queen of England rather than the Queen of the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland.

As someone who is an English resident but of mixed British origin, I find this a touch embarrassing – but consistent with a streak in the English psyche. This streak (as shown by some – not all) is excessively nationalist rather than patriotic, belligerent rather than good-natured, and border-line racist (sometimes not even border-line). These characteristics are often brought out by raucous singing of God Save the Queen – something that does not seem to happen when our neighbours sing their national anthems.

It’s probably not helped by the fact (at least to my mind) that it is not a particularly inspiring tune – particularly when compared to any of the other Six Nations (Rugby) anthems (Land of My Fathers, Flower of Scotland, Ireland’s Call, La Marseillaise, and Il Canto degli Italiani). Add that the English seem to be the least skilled singers when compared to the Scots, the Irish, the Welsh, the French or the Italians. Any sung performance by the English risks becoming an out of tune (and uninspiring) dirge.

In these circumstances I think we should do as the Spanish do and have an anthem that is not sung. If you don’t sing it you can at least listen to the band as it tries to get some emotion out of the tune. I don’t think managerial compulsion (unless matched with signing lessons and an ability to sing in tune) will improve matters.

Not singing an anthem (that exhorts a deity to save a sovereign) but respectfully listening to it also avoids the twin problems of atheists and republicans awkwardly not singing and excessively “expressive” singing by those who want to highlight that they are not pinko atheists! (See Steve Bell’s cartoon)

But that does not address whether it is appropriate for the English to use this anthem. Leaving aside republican and atheist sensitivities (who understandably would find the words problematic), is it appropriate for a country (England) to use an anthem that is the anthem of a different country (the UK)? I think not.

There are some exceptions to this English appropriation of God Save the Queen:

  • Whilst at Rugby Union and Association Football international matches, England uses God Save the Queen.
  • At Cricket (test) matches, England and Wales use Jerusalem as their anthem.
  • At Rugby league international matches, England uses God Save The Queen but also Jerusalem.
  • And Team England at the Commonwealth Games use Jerusalem as their anthem.*

* Commonwealth Games England today [30 May 2010] announced that Jerusalem has been chosen as the anthem to be played for English athletes competing at this year’s Commonwealth Games in Delhi.  The decision follows a month-long public vote, which saw Jerusalem coming out as a runaway favourite.

  • Jerusalem: 52.5%
  • Land of Hope and Glory: 32.5%
  • God Save The Queen: 12%

We Are England (official website of the England Commonwealth Games Team) reporting a YouGov poll

Jerusalem has become a preferred alternative – it certainly has a better tune and the words (whilst still giving problems to atheists) are inspirational, without being jingoistic (which is my main objection to land of Hope and Glory).

But will some of the English still have the ability to pervert the positives of a song of wonder and aspiration into a bellicose anthem? Unlike in Wales and Scotland the use of an English anthem is almost always associated with sports events – when there are opponents. Sports events are also currently the main occasion when a specifically English identity comes to the fore. Specific English identity as opposed to British identity often comes to the fore when people feel marginalised, disadvantaged, dispossessed or discriminated against.

My own preferences:
English Anthem – Jerusalem (without Lyrics)
“Royal Anthem” – God Save the Queen played as a salute (without lyrics) to the Head of State – as in many countries irrespective of their type of head of state.
UK Anthem (or what may be left of it) – The Hymn tune Thaxted (without lyrics) – better know as Jupiter from Holst’s The Planets suite or “I vow to thee my country”

Jerusalem and Thaxted are both good stirring tunes that would rival Land of My Fathers, Flower of Scotland, Ireland’s Call, La Marseillaise, and Il Canto degli Italiani.


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