Dani Garavelli: God save our right not to sing

Jeremy Corbyn says he was reflecting as the National Anthem was sung during the service at St Paul's Cathedral. Picture: PA
Jeremy Corbyn says he was reflecting as the National Anthem was sung during the service at St Paul's Cathedral. Picture: PA
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I FELT a flicker of shame as I belted out Land of Hope and Glory, in all its colonial splendour, while watching the Last Night of the Proms on TV earlier this month. Although, it wasn’t as much of a betrayal of my core values as when I caught myself singing that Cliff Richard classic, Living Doll – “Gonna lock her up in a trunk so no big hunk can steal her away from me” – for which there is no legitimate excuse. The words of Elgar’s hymn to imperialism are cringeworthy and anachronistic, but at least it’s stirring. If flag-waving jingoism is your thing, you couldn’t really ask for more.

Flower of Scotland is also rousing. Personally, I’d prefer to commemorate a popular uprising that changed the course of history than a one-off victory over our neighbours (even if it has been voted the UK’s most decisive battle), but I can’t help it that I’m not French. If the choice were mine, I’d opt for A Man’s A Man For A’ That or Freedom Come All Ye as a truer statement of our national character, but the Corries’ lament to past triumphs has a mournful quality that seems to capture our fortunes, particularly when it comes to sport.

It was Corbyn’s refusal to conform that got him elected

As for the British National Anthem, God Save the Queen has nothing to commend it, musically or lyrically, and is a global embarrassment. While most national anthems – La Marseillaise, Fratelli D’Italia, Deutschland Über Alles – pay tribute to the spirit and indefatigability of a country and its citizens, God Save the Queen is a paean to subservience. Every word in its six turgid verses celebrates the supremacy of a leader over his/her subjects and would be better suited to North Korea than a western democracy. As for the tune, it’s so soul-sapping it makes the tracks on Radiohead’s Amnesiac seem upbeat and catchy.

There are only two reasons anyone would ever sing God Save the Queen. The first is that they are a raving monarchist who believes HRH to be in imminent danger. The second is that they feel the occasion – by virtue of its significance or solemnity or the presence of a TV camera – demands it.

For republicans – or those who are merely apathetic about the Royal Family – it’s always going to present a dilemma. Some, like the stars who refused to take part in a collective rendition at a concert to mark the Queen’s jubilee, make a big attention-seeking drama out of it.

Others go for the fudge: mumbling the words, while contriving to look as if they’d rather be anywhere else, or, like Daley Thompson after he won gold in Los Angeles, whistling insolently along.

Aware he was in a lose-lose situation, Jeremy Corbyn, whose views on the Crown are well known, opted for a dignified silence. This seemed apposite, given he was at a service to mark the 75th anniversary of the Battle of Britain. Interviewed afterwards, he said he was reflecting on the pilots’ sacrifice, which seems far worthier than supplicating for the safety of a figurehead who has never had to put her life on the line.

Had he joined in enthusiastically, of course, he would have faced accusations of hypocrisy. As it was, the newspapers banged on about his “lack of respect” as if he had been involved in the greatest act of treachery since the gunpowder plot. They seemed oblivious to the fact it was Corbyn’s refusal to conform that got him elected, and that the vast majority of the general public cared less about what went on in St Paul’s Cathedral than they did about whose cake had failed to rise on The Great British Bake Off (a much more potent symbol of national identity).

It seems to me the only time it is de rigueur to sing along to the national anthem is if you have invited the Queen along to launch your railway and she’s standing right next to you on a podium. And that’s not because it would disrespect the monarchy, but because it would be a bit like dingying your own granny. Put in this position, Nicola Sturgeon managed to strike a balance between actively engaging and looking awkward, which was exactly right for an SNP First Minister.

If you want to get aerated over politicians hijacking solemn occasions, then there is no shortage of material. There is the way Tony Blair tried to upstage the Queen Mother at her own funeral, for example, or the way Nigel Farage threw a tantrum over not being allowed to lay a wreath at the cenotaph with other party leaders.

As Second World War RAF veteran Harry Leslie Smith has pointed out, the Battle of Britain pilots fought to protect our freedoms, including the freedom not to sing a particular song; the things that do their memory a disservice are not breaches of etiquette but inimical policies such as “selling guns to tyrants”.

Corbyn staying inconspicuously true to himself is a world away from the cynicism of politicians who care only how they will be perceived. Now, however, he appears to have capitulated on the anthem and may yet agree to kneel before the Queen when he joins the Privy Council.

Such compromises may seem trivial: who cares if the Labour leader decides to pay lip service to an institution more than 70 per cent of British people support? But it is compromises like these that may prove his undoing; with no obvious charisma, Corbyn’s appeal lies in the belief he represents a break from the status quo. Any perception he is selling out to the establishment threatens his unique – perhaps his only – selling point. «