The right not to sing the national anthem


God Save the Queen. peace6x under a Creative Commons Licence

The integrity of individuals should not be questioned if they do not sing the national anthem, argues Chris Brazier.

Following the excoriation of new British Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn for not singing along to ‘God Save The Queen’, perhaps I should be more bashful about saying this. Perhaps I will find a Union Jack daubed on my door when I return home tonight. Perhaps I will find myself ostracized by my neighbours. But when it comes to not singing the national anthem I’m afraid I have form – I am a serial abuser, a recidivist, an offender of the faith.

My children were all rather good as musicians and made it into the County Youth Orchestra and each year played their gala concert at Oxford Town Hall in the presence of the Mayor and other dignitaries. In what seemed like a throwback to the Victorian era in which the building was constructed, the concert began with the national anthem. The first time this happened I was frankly shocked that everyone around me stood up, including people I knew to be staunch republicans. And I’m afraid refusing to stand up for this became an annual ritual to be looked out for by my children on stage with a mixture of embarrassment and pride.

I did see this as a point of principle – I don’t feel that a national anthem that celebrates the divine right of kings and queens to lord it over us and the world either represents me or is at all suitable for life in the 21st century.

Though I have very few nationalist bones in my body, I don’t object to the idea of a national anthem, a rousing song around which people can rally, giving them a sense of pride in their country. When I lived in Canada for a year – one of the best years of my life – I became rather attached, for example, to its national anthem and learned the words to it in French as well as English. Okay, there are problems with this too – its ‘true patriot love’ sticks in the craw, it invokes God, it talks about sons and not daughters etc. But instead of simply wishing the Queen health and glory – she was technically their monarch too – this talked about a ‘true north strong and free’ and the French version talked about people’s hearths and rights being protected.

Even more to the point, it had a rousing good tune. Principled I may be, but one of the biggest problems with the British national anthem is that it is a seriously crap song. I don’t believe in the Christian God but that doesn’t stop me joining in with the hymns at weddings and funeral for the sheer joy of communal singing or spending much of my spare time in a choir that specializes in early church music – God does have some exceedingly good tunes, after all. And when the gala concert I mentioned before finished with a rousing version of ‘Land of Hope and Glory’, I had no problem at all in swallowing any objections I had to these vainglorious patriotic sentiments in order to be able to join in with Elgar’s exhilarating chorus.

You will find it easy to skewer me on the point of the contradictions I have uncovered here. And if I were elected Leader of the Opposition in Britain I might find I had to choose my battles more carefully. But doesn’t the idea of people being monitored by a vigilant establishment to check whether they are singing the words of ‘God Save The Queen’ chill you to the marrow? Isn’t it redolent of the kind of totalitarianism that Britain has always prided itself in resisting?

Yes, let’s show respect – respect for the right of the individual not to sing the national anthem.

Chris Brazier is a New Internationalist co-editor.