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To sing or not to sing

To sing or not to sing

Having just co-written a report in favour of the monarchy – well, the coronation at least – I find myself in curious position of admiring Jeremy Corbyn’s refusal to sing the National Anthem during the Battle of Britain memorial service earlier this week.

Corbyn must have known it would have provoked something of a reaction – which it did, making the front pages of the Sun, the Mirror, the i, the Times, the Telegraph, the Independent, the Financial Times, and the Express (only the peculiar threesome of the Guardian, Mail and Daily Star managed to resist the front page allure of the story). He must have known it would alienate everyone who wasn’t already in agreement with him. And he must have known it would infuriate backbenchers, many of whom are already searching around for a decent whetstone. The Queen, national tradition, veterans, World War II – the list of those whom he could be said to have grievously snubbed was lacking only orphans and kittens.

And yet he stuck to his principles, which is surely to be admired. Even those not given to admiring his politics recognise Corbyn as a man of conviction, integrity and basic, unshowy decency – none of which have exactly been in surplus in British politics in the last twenty years. This seemed to prove the point.

Corbyn’s silence invites a bigger question: should an atheist or a republican or – imagine such a monster – an atheist republican sing a national anthem that begins “God Save the Queen”? And if integrity forbids, could they lead a national party, let alone their country? The two questions gesture towards a third, more momentous one: does such a person have real access to political power at all? Or do the traditions of our political life, embodied in our National Anthem, effectively debar her?

This is a familiar secularist and republican argument but, in fact, it has nothing intrinsically to do with secularism or republicanism. As Irish journalist David Quinn pointed out on Twitter yesterday, given that Ireland’s anthem is called ‘A Soldier’s Song’, where does that leave a political leader who is a pacifist? One might ask the same of ‘The Star-Spangled Banner’s talk of ramparts, rockets’ red glare, and bombs bursting in air? What about the revolutionary militarism of La Marseillaise (“To arms, citizens…Let an impure blood/ Water our furrows”)? More generally still, what of any politician who was a committed internationalist, or whose final loyalties lay with a divinity, or a religious authority (“Rome or Home?”), or with the international proletariat? For these, isn’t the very idea singing allegiance in a national anthem anathema?

The problem with national anthems for modern liberal democracies is not that they are about God or a monarch, but that they are about what brings a nation together, whereas liberal democracies take pride not in their ethnic, religious, cultural, or political unity, but in the manner in which ethnic, religious, cultural, and political differences are protected and permitted expression.

The irony is that there is good reason to believe that such differences can only secure protection because there is a substructure of national unity that permits it. Liberal democracy can only sustain these powerful centrifugal forces because there are equally powerful, if more subtle, centripetal ones of national unity to balance them. It is one of those ways in which we see liberal democracy surviving by reliance on commitments and values that it itself cannot produce.

So, while one might admire Corbyn’s integrity, one might still disagree profoundly with his position – not because of being a die-hard monarchist, or even a ‘small-c’ conservative, but because his position threatens to saw through the branch on which he is sitting. There is little hope of achieving the kind of redistributist policies Corbyn favours without a powerful sense of mutual responsibility and belonging, and at the moment in the UK, for better or worse, that sense is embodied in the public proclamation of our national anthem.

Nick Spencer is Research Director at Theos

Image by The Weekly Bull from available under this Creative Commons Licence


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