Joyce McMillan: English anthem has implications for Union

ENGLAND'S search for a national anthem has serious implications for the Union, writes Joyce McMillan
More than a simple flag-waving exercise, the hunt for an English anthem involves questions of identity. Picture: AFP/Getty ImagesMore than a simple flag-waving exercise, the hunt for an English anthem involves questions of identity. Picture: AFP/Getty Images
More than a simple flag-waving exercise, the hunt for an English anthem involves questions of identity. Picture: AFP/Getty Images

IT was Queen Victoria who reportedly said, on her first visit to the Albert Hall, that it reminded her of the British constitution; but in truth, she flattered the old thing, and I don’t mean the hall. The Albert Hall, after all, is a building of great coherence and balance, rising tier by tier in a gloriously organised fashion.

The British constitution, on the other hand, is famously unwritten, lacks either blueprint or plan, and is well known for its many inconsistencies and anomalies. And anyone seeking a glimpse of just how confused things can be, when it comes to the structure and identity of the British state, could do much worse than have a look at England’s list of patriotic songs, much discussed this week after Labour MP Toby Perkins introduced a successful ten-minute-rule motion in the House of Commons, proposing that the government start consultations on a separate national anthem for England, for use on occasions – mainly sporting – when the nations of the UK appear as separate entities.

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At the moment, after all, England teams generally have to make do with God Save The Queen, now seen as the undisputed anthem of the UK as a whole; although a glance at the second verse shows the anthem to have been written from an entirely English point of view, framing the Scots as rebels at best, and deadly enemies at worst. There’ll Always Be An England, a patriotic alternative anthem written in 1939, has a central verse that talks about the “red white and blue” of the national flag, and clearly refers to Britain and its Empire. Elgar’s Land Of Hope And Glory – with words by AC Benson – is another British imperial anthem, written in 1902, although it has sometimes been used by England teams at sporting events.

And as for the current frontrunner, Jerusalem – well, it certainly refers to England more consistently, and with a truer sense of the meaning of the word, than any other song on the list; and it’s certainly a great song, which would leave Scotland in the depressing position of having a dreary and backward-looking unofficial anthem, O Flower Of Scotland, that simply doesn’t measure up to the musical and poetic quality of either Jerusalem or Wales’ Land Of My Fathers.

Yet Blake’s poem is such a fierce and visionary revolutionary anthem that it has long been used as a socialist rallying-cry; and it’s hard to believe that many of those who love the tune have ever really looked at the lyrics. Small wonder that people struck by these contradictions have started half-jokingly suggesting some much more recent options, including The Smiths’ famously lugubrious 1984 hit, Heaven Knows I’m Miserable Now.

If Toby Perkins’s effort to tidy up the matter of England’s anthem has elements of comedy, though, there’s also an aspect of this search for technical “fairness” between England and the other UK nations that has serious implications for the Union. Essentially, England is by such a long way the largest nation in the union – accounting for almost 90 per cent of its population – that for most people beyond the UK, and some within it, England and Britain are esentially the same thing; England defines our international image, dominates our parliament, and elects the government of its choice at almost every general election. Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland therefore need a quid pro quo for the inevitable humiliations and frustrations of signing up to such an unequal union; and traditionally that quid pro quo has involved special measures of autonomy whch apply only to the smaller nations.

Sadly for Unionists, though, the generations of old Tories and Labourites who had an instinctive understanding of all this are all but extinct. In general, 21st-century Tories are all for superficial “fairness” between England and the other UK nations, and therefore enthusiastically support the new English Votes for English Laws ( EVEL) system that came into operation at Westminster this week; a system that excludes Scottish MPs from the consideration of bills that apply only to England, or only to England and Wales.

Many at Westminster will insist, of course, that this measure strengthens the union by making it less unjust. Yet the SNP’s Pete Wishart was indulging in something more than routine political grandstanding when he insisted that by formally excluding Scotland’s MPs in this way, the Tory government is playing into the SNP’s hands; indeed, it seems obvious that it would take just one serious dispute over a Speaker’s ruling on EVEL – one attempt to prevent Scottish MPs from voting on a matter which they believe may have a serious implications across the Border – for this new system to become yet another force driving the Union apart.

For essentially, the survival of the Union historically depended on two things: the presence of a reasonably progressive government at Westminster which a substantial proportion of Scots could support, and the tolerance for the asymmetrical devolution of power which that distinctly “retro” young Tory grandee Jacob Rees-Mogg once described as “the price England pays for the Union”. Some Scottish Nationalists have always argued, of course, that this was a corrupt old top-down deal to start with, one that offered the illusion of social progress and democracy more often than the real thing; I would say that the UK’s record as a Union state is far more complex than that.

Whatever we make of the history, though, it seems increasingly clear neither of those conditions are now being met. The prospect of progressive government at Westminster seems more distant now than at any time since the 1930s. The present UK government commands the support of only around 15 per cent of voters in Scotland; and the majority of those who speak for England seem increasingly intolerant of asymmetry in any form. And although the UK’s capacity for muddling through is legendary, the combination of those factors makes its constitution seem ever more fragile; less like the Albert Hall, perhaps, and more like the Palace of Westminster itself – superficially grand and enduring, but crumbling at the foundations, in need of rebuilding work so radical no-one seems to know exactly where to start, or whether, at this point, it’s worth starting at all.