‘If we’re going to have a new national anthem, it should be written by our young people’
Apparently, England needs a new national anthem – some think that God Save the Queen is not fit for purpose in this post-modern, post-devolution age. With Scotland asserting its separate identity, it now seems to matter what the English sing at national events.
But isn’t this the wrong question? Yes, England needs its own national anthem, but surely there is no contest. It has to be Jerusalem. Moving on, the real question is what should be the national anthem for the United Kingdom.
GSTQ isn’t even distinctively British. Australia, Canada, Jamaica, Belize, the Bahamas, Papua New Guinea, New Zealand and eight other countries share the Queen as head of state. As each of these nationalised its anthem (Advance Australia Fair; O Canada; Jamaica, Land We Love, etc.), GSTQ became British by default.
The dilemma was encapsulated in the opening a cappella relay at the London Olympics opening ceremony. Young choirs from the home nations passed the baton between Jerusalem, Danny Boy, Flower of Scotland and Bread of Heaven – informal anthems of our islands. On the other hand, if we want to identify with Europe, we have the final movement of Beethoven’s 9th – the Ode to Joy. We do not lack vocal vehicles for expressing pride at these two levels. What we lack is something that allows us to identify with the compound construction actually named in our passports – the "United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland".
Our current national anthem isn’t a mirror for contemporary Britain. The lyrics beyond the first verse make no modern sense. And the first verse defines us as subjects, not citizens:
God save our gracious Queen
Long live our noble Queen
God save the Queen
Send her victorious
Happy and glorious
Long to reign over us
God save the Queen
If this will not do, why not challenge today’s youth to engage in the fundamentally political act of composing a new national song? How about a competition encouraging young people from across the country, supported by their schools, to write, score and perform submissions for a new UK anthem?
The competition would engage the young in exploring and articulating our national values. But what are they? According to the Department for Education, they comprise democracy, rule of law, individual liberty, mutual respect and tolerance of those with different faiths and beliefs. After all, schools have a statutory duty to "actively promote" these.
A national competition would represent a great cross-curricular opportunity, drawing in music, history, English, geography. The brief might be to explore, articulate and affirm what it is to grow up in the UK. The tune would have to be stirring and catchy. The words should reflect the achievements of the past, but should also capture something of the modern Britain – layered, multicultural, inclusive, confident but questioning.
To be authentically British, there would have to be irony, and a self-deprecating undertone. There should be at least passing reference to the discipline of queuing and the vagaries of the weather. But most importantly, a new national anthem should articulate the ambitions and aspirations, the hopes and perhaps even the fears, of young people growing up in, and seeking to identify themselves as citizens of, these islands.
Dr Kevin Stannard is the director of innovation and learning at the Girls' Day School Trust. He tweets at @KevinStannard1