A last chance rush for the bar ensued in a crowded north London pub on Saturday the 19th of March as the English and French rugby teams emerged onto the pitch of the Stade de France in Paris. The last game of the Six Nations between historic rivals England and France was about to begin, and with championship victory already secured England fans were in high spirits, hopeful for a five of five grand slam win.
The teams lined up for the traditional rendition of the national anthems and as the opening drum roll of God Save the Queen began a distinct hush, punctuated by the odd clinking of glass, descended upon the ensemble crowd. But the uncharacteristic vigour with which the anthem was sung by both the players and supporters over on the continent failed to be matched by the north London fans, in fact none in attendance lent their voice to the queen’s anthem.
England may soon loose God Save the Queen for its sporting occasions. The song is the national anthem for Great Britain and Northern Ireland, yet devolved nations Wales and Scotland have chosen to abandon it for their sports teams in favour of Old Land of My Fathers and Flower of Scotland respectively.
Labour MP Toby Perkins is leading calls for an English anthem having introduced the motion to the House of Commons in January this year. In his opinion the debate, which he helped reignite, is a question of national identity in an era of devolution:
“I think that the question of devolution and our identity are very much in the public eye and in the public mind at the moment in the aftermath of the Scottish referendum. … It seems slightly incongruous to me that England use the British national anthem. It seems to me to fit in with the idea that England and Britain are synonymous when actually I think part of the settlement for the devolved era is to recognise that we have four constituent nations in the United Kingdom”
Perkins said that he’s received a fair amount of support for the idea and indeed the voice for change does seem to be gaining in volume. A Yougov poll found that fifty-seven percent of people supported the idea to ditch God Save the Queen in favour of Land of Hope and Glory. Another popular alternative which has the support of David Cameron is the traditional church hymn, Jerusalem. The song by Hubert Parry which features the words of William Blake has already been unofficially adopted as England’s rugby anthem.
The second phase of the debate is due to be heard in the House of Commons on the 22nd of April but not everyone will be lending their support to the proposal. Among those who would vote to keep God Save the Queen is Conservative MP William Wragg:
“I’d say that there is a danger in going down that route whereby we further inflame the calls for division in the United Kingdom. I’m a staunch unionist and I consider myself to be British before anything else and I think that it would be a shame if England felt the need to go down the route whereby it further sought such separation.”
In a year in which we are due to vote on our membership of the European Union following the Scottish referendum of 2014 questions of identity and nationhood form a part of the contemporary cultural zeitgeist. Yet many national anthems are synonymous with the nineteenth century and are inexorably linked to ideas of nation building and empire. Les Back is a professor of sociology at Goldsmiths in London:
“There is a tension between an imperial nationalistic past and the realities of the multicultural present and that’s where the heat is in this debate … I think all this is about a much wider crisis about the place of nations and national identity in a hyper-connected globalised world, I think that’s why these controversies are erupting in all kinds of places, and why the story of nations isn’t over.”
So what’s in a song? The seemingly trivial notion of an anthem to be sung at sporting events seems to touch upon a crucial dilemma of our time. In many respects as we advance toward an ever closer global community; national borders and cultural boundaries may be considered less important. Indeed, in our modern multicultural society some might even argue that national anthems have served their purpose. But the debate around an English anthem, and the tension it insights, informs us that national affinity still plays an important role in our need to construct our own identity. With opinion so evenly split perhaps we as a society are unsure as to what it means to be English, or indeed British, in the 21st century.
Edited by Sara Macham