The United Kingdom’s national anthem has remained unchanged since it came into common use in the latter part of the 18th century. The underlying sentiments are summed up in its first line – God save our gracious Queen – and the theme continues throughout. We, the Queen’s subjects, pray to a god that many don’t believe in to keep the monarch safe, victorious, and long-lasting.
There are very few people indeed who don’t have some affection for the person of Queen Elizabeth II and – given the apparent successor to the throne – the words Long may she reign will strike a chord with many. Yet setting aside the personalities, is the current anthem really fit for purpose in the 21st century state?
Republics disposed of hymns of praise to their monarchs at the time of their formation. La Marseillaise originated in the French Revolution and is now enshrined in the Fifth Republic’s constitution. It is a song of praise to the people of France, though you need a strong stomach to gloss over some of the more nationalist, violent and racist bits of it. The German national anthem – the third verse only of the song beginning Deutschland, Deutschland über alles (the rest of the original having been perverted by the Nazis) – celebrates a fatherland of unity, justice, brotherhood and freedom. It too has formal status, adopted by Presidential edict in 1991 as the national anthem for the re-unified Germany.
Other countries with monarchies have recognised that their citizens may not always want to sing the monarch’s praises. Denmark, Norway and Sweden all have two anthems: a “royal” anthem and a national anthem. The former are similar to the UK’s; the latter celebrate the land and the people.
Within the United Kingdom itself, Scotland and Wales have adopted what are in effect their own national anthems: Flower of Scotland and Land of our Fathers respectively. These celebrate the nations, not the rulers. They are sung at international sports fixtures when the national teams are playing, leaving England, oddly, with the UK national anthem.
Views on the UK anthem’s music are inevitably subjective. Played slowly it sounds like a dirge. Played with vigour it can be stirring. Benjamin Britten’s 1961 setting of God Save the Queen is a moving and exquisite piece of music, but the delicacy of the first part will not play well at a rugby international.
There is nothing to prevent the UK anthem from being changed. We don’t need the government’s or Parliament’s permission. The British Monarchy website states: “There is no authorised version of the National Anthem as the words are a matter of tradition.”
So let’s have something fit for the future, and which won’t give some of us a pain in the throat when we’re expected during the next decade or so to sing God Save the King. Something which celebrates our natural and built environments, our scientific and artistic achievements, and our social progress. Something free of triumphalism and favour of peace rather than conflict. Something which appeals to all citizens, irrespective of nationhood, race and faith (and no faith).
How do we find it?
As we live in the age of media competitions – Eurovision song contest, X-factor, Britain’s Got Talent, and so on – there can be no more fitting organisation than the BBC to run a competition come up with a winner. To avoid a race to the bottom, the first step would be for the BBC to set up a committee to determine the shortlisting criteria.
The committee would determine the process for inviting submissions and for judging the winner , and would consult widely on its proposals in draft. Its membership should include as a minimum a poet, a composer, a choir director, an independent-minded MP, a social scientist, an environmentalist, a historian and someone who knows about running large-scale competitions. Existing works would not be ruled out if they met the criteria or could be modified to do so.
There are two other reasons for asking the BBC to take this on. First, it has a truly national reach through TV and radio and on-line services, so offering the potential to involve as many as possible in the voting. Second, as the controlling body for the Proms, it is well placed to ensure the Last Night concludes with the winning entry, in place of the old.
If you agree write to Lord Hall, the BBC Director-General, saying so and spread the idea as widely as you can. The time is right.
(Thanks to www.nationalanthems.info for some of the information used in this blog.)