It was tediously predictable that the British Broadcasting Corporation’s embarrassment at the Last Nights of the Proms being a British celebration would result in our National Anthem also being criticised for being rather too British. And so, true to form, the political editor of the Daily Mirror asked on Twitter “which absurd old dirge would you most like retired?” referring to ‘Rule, Britannia’, ‘Land of Hope and Glory’, and ‘God Save The Queen’. 64.2% of those responding voted for the National Anthem being ‘retired’ (or maybe that should be ‘cancelled’).
The dubious track record of twitter in terms of knowing the mood of the nation notwithstanding, the place of the National Anthem should not be taken for granted. If recent debates surrounding how the historical achievements of the United Kingdom are commemorated and celebrated have taught us anything, it should be that those of us committed to such commemoration and celebration – and to affirming the values those historical achievements embody – need to be much more active and much more confident in articulating our case.
It calls us to a quiet, modest civic patriotism, defined not by blood or a mystical volk
With a flawless provincialism that’s truly world-beating, when the British liberal (and hard) Left and the Hard Left attack the ‘God Save The Queen’, they’re disparaging one of the very national anthem entirely free of the ‘blood and soil’ ethno-nationalism that is on the march across much of the Western world (and beyond). Our National Anthem does not invoke a British equivalent of the ‘volk’. It does not, as does the French, issue a call to arms, urging that ‘impure blood’ should flow. It has none of the militaristic overtones of the Irish national anthem, with its opening words ‘Soldiers are we’ (a ‘we’, of course, which deliberately excludes the unionist tradition on the island of Ireland).
Instead, ‘God Save The Queen’ calls us to a quiet, modest civic patriotism, defined not by blood or ancient mythic struggles or a mystical volk, but by allegiance to the Crown, to our constitutional monarchy. It is the very modesty of this civic patriotism which is its strength, binding together the diverse political traditions, regions, and nations of the United Kingdom in a constitutional settlement defined by ordered liberty, rather than attempting to evoke a divisive and entirely illusionary nationalism.
At the same time, however, it avoids another illusion, that a common, shared allegiance could be sustained by an anthem defined by a vacuous universalism: an anthem that would be the musical equivalent of a Guardian editorial, with all the emptiness of John Lennon’s ‘Imagine’. Appeals to abstract concepts and to vague ideals are cheap, transitory, and shallow. The civic patriotism of ‘God Save The Queen’, while it avoids the dark shadows of ‘blood and soil’, also avoids the bland, featureless landscape of universalism. It speaks, by contrast, of a shared allegiance over generations, of this United Kingdom governed by laws, with our rights and liberties secured and expanded, and of maintaining those institutions (Parliament, courts, armed forces) which serve and protect our ordered liberty.
Sensible unionism would make the SNP write their anthem now, so off-putting, pompous and boastful would it be
It also, of course, emphasises that we are a Union. Against divisive nationalism – whether English, Irish, Scottish, or Welsh – and the necessarily narrower, impoverished vision it offers of our common life, ‘God Save The Queen’ reminds us that a shared allegiance to the Crown, and a shared civic patriotism, is the foundation of a Union which embraces, rather than excludes, diverse traditions and regions. The role of the Crown over centuries in giving a political unity to these islands (a political unity which found logical expression in the Acts of Union), the long and proud history of English, Scottish, Irish and Welsh service to the Crown, and the enduring contemporary popularity of Her Majesty and the Royal Family across the United Kingdom, all point to the fundamental significance of the Monarchy to the Union. Allegiance to the Crown offers a firm, meaningful foundation to our shared life in the United Kingdom in a way that neither an imagined nationalism nor vague universal ideas could possibly achieve. Any suggestion that our National Anthem should be replaced inevitably, therefore, undermines the Union and encourages the forces of nationalism and their desire to rend asunder our common life. Should their day ever come, Scottish separatists will no more sing of the Queen than Irish ones did. Sensible unionism would oblige the SNP to write the lyrics to their anthem now, so assuredly off-putting, pompous and boastful would it be.
All that said, there is another issue with ‘God Save The King’ that needs to be confronted. After all, the contemporary United Kingdom is a secular society. We do have established churches in England and Scotland, a proper recognition of their historic place in our national story, but the attitudes, values, and practices of a majority of people in the United Kingdom are robustly secular (albeit this secularism is rather different from what Richard Dawkins would wish for). In such a cultural context, is it really possible to maintain a national anthem which refers to God?
For Christians, Jews, Muslims, and other theists, part of belief in God is a recognition that justice, truth, goodness, and human dignity flow from the Creator. These fundamental values, which underwrite politics, economics, culture, and the law, continue to shape and define our secular society, built on a foundation of centuries of philosophical and ethical thought which took it as a given that these values were rooted in God’s nature. Overturning this foundation, and seeking to create a new basis for justice, truth, goodness, and human dignity hardly seems a wise or prudent suggestion in current circumstances. Even those for whom God is but a metaphor can surely recognise the importance of this metaphor at a time when the norms and values of the liberal order are undermined and at risk. Do we really want to suggest that now is the time to somehow rustle up an alternative foundation for our fundamental values?
It is another example of how ‘God Save The Queen’ offers – in a quiet, modest manner – a convincing and an attractive account of what the United Kingdom is and should be. It is not about the dark myth of ‘blood and soil’ nationalism, but of civic allegiance and patriotism, defined by an ordered liberty sustained and served by historic institutions, and rooted in fundamental values which should be beyond the reach of passing majorities or political ambitions.
In August 1945, as the United Kingdom celebrated victory over the tyrannies of Nazism and Imperial Japan, and as Soviet tyranny was preparing to deprive the peoples of Eastern Europe of their liberties, Prime Minister Attlee told the House of Commons:
The institution of the Monarchy in this country, worked out through long years of constitutional development, protects us from many of those evils which we have seen arise in other countries.
This is what ‘God Save The Queen’ celebrates and affirms. It is also why it is essential that the National Anthem’s critics and detractors – the useful idiots for illiberal visions – do not go unchallenged.
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