My article for Modest Proposals (14 July 2012) responding to proposals from British Future and Greg Mulholland MP for England to adopt a distinct national anthem, and considering the leading options.
The proposal for England to adopt its own national anthem has been around for a number of years, although it may just have been given further impetus when the Prime Minister admitted that Jerusalem would be his personal choice should England make the change – as revealed by the think-tank British Future.
This may not strictly be a matter for public policy, although it is certainly something politicians and policy wonks have been concerned with. Greg Mulholland MP has recently tabled an Early Day Motion in Parliament calling for England’s major sporting associations to adopt a new anthem for when the national team is competing.
This is very much a sporting phenomenon. For most of us the only time we ever hear the national anthem is at the start of an international football or rugby match or at the award ceremony in other sports such as athletics and motor racing. The matter of concern for some people is that while teams and individuals competing for Scotland and Wales have their own national anthems to sing, English competitors use God Save the Queen, the anthem for the whole of the UK.
Those advocating the introduction of an English national anthem believe that the English use of God Save the Queen undermines national identity. However, there are different understandings of which identity is being undermined. For the campaign group anthem4england, the emphasis is on the need to promote a distinctly English identity:
“Of course England needs its own anthem. Those English people pictured in Trafalgar Square aren’t celebrating Britain, or the Queen, they are celebrating England. The English flag has replaced the British flag as the banner of the English and we now need to replace the British anthem with an English anthem.”
Others including British Future also make the argument that the English use of God Save the Queen undermines Britishness:
“We worry too that it will inadvertently undermine the United Kingdom and even the Monarchy, as the English appropriation of shared British symbols risks undermining the equal claim to British identity and allegiance of other British nations in the post-devolution United Kingdom.”
Clearly there is an issue to be addressed here. However we should not let this debate become entangled with the question of whether the English identity is to be encouraged at all. Although for some Englishness is not such an appealing concept, the fact remains that England will have its own national sporting teams for the foreseeable future, and their anthem is an important means of identity-shaping, for good or bad.
The stumbling block for this proposal is what to choose as an alternative. There seems to be two stand-out choices: Jerusalem and Land of Hope and Glory. The English cricket team have used Jerusalem as their entrance song for a number of years, while Land of Hope and Glory is sung at English rugby league matches, although neither is an official anthem. For the Commonwealth Games – where the UK nations compete separately – Land of Hope and Glory was the English victory anthem before being replaced by Jerusalem in 2010. Neither has made much headway into football, the nation’s most popular sport.
Both have their problems. Land of Hope and Glory refers to the strength of the Empire. Meanwhile Jerusalem – which currently appears to be in the ascendancy – is essentially a Christian song, with Jesus Christ as its subject matter. If either was already the national anthem these anachronisms might be overlooked, but for post-imperial, multi-cultural England to adopt a new anthem so poorly reflective of modern times could be counter-productive. There is a viable alternative in I Vow to Thee, My Country, although given the other two songs much more widely known, it’s hard to see this one being embraced by enough people to give it the critical mass of recognition any anthem needs.