19 September 2015

Rule Britannia!


Most of the nations represented in the Rugby World Cup used to have the same national anthem. “God Save The Queen” was near-universal across the Commonwealth, and even now retains formal status in Australia, Canada, New Zealand and various Caribbean and Pacific territories. But, during the second half of the twentieth century, most of these realms understandably began to prefer tunes that were particular to them. Wales, Scotland and Ireland have – at least on the sports field – done the same thing, leaving only England with the slightly dreary anti-Jacobite prayer that once unified the world’s greatest empire .

This shrinkage has left us with some uncomfortable optics on the rugby field. Suppose, as may happen, that England and Scotland come face to face. Scottish fans will hear the words of what is, after all, the UK’s national hymn, as the anthem of a rival nation. Hardly friendly when, almost exactly a year ago, Scots voted to remain in the Union. Australia has just acquired a republican prime minister, following the unhappy putsch against Tony Abbott. Again, how will it sound to patriotic Australians to hear their own royal anthem being appropriated by another team?

The time has come to give England its own anthem. And there can be little doubt about what it should be. Next year, we mark the centenary of the setting to music of William Blake’s characteristically psychedelic poem, Jerusalem. Here is a tune for everyone: the Suffragettes, the Women’s Institute, private schools, Conservative conferences, Labour conferences. Jeremy Corbyn, who had such difficulty signing our royalist national song, would surely have no difficulty with the work of a radical dreamer like Blake.

But I’d go further. Why shouldn’t the UK, too, have a distinctive anthem? And, again, it’s perfectly obvious what it should be: that uplifting hymn to liberty “Rule Britannia”, written by James Thomson of Roxburghshire, and dating from the same era as “God Save The Queen”. Even now, after a lifetime of familiarity, I find its words stirring:

Still more majestic shalt thou rise,

More dreadful from each foreign stroke;

As the loud blast that tears the skies

Serves but to root thy native oak.

What would happen to “God Save The Queen” if both England and the UK opted for livelier tunes? It would, I hope, become the anthem of the Commonwealth as a whole. I mean, if the wretched EU has its own national anthem, surely the Commonwealth should, too. And what apter song than a tribute to its head?

It’s true that we would hear “God Save The Queen” less often on the sports field. Then again, it’s hardly suited to sporting events, is it? I remember the comic genius Billy Connolly arguing that our lacklustre anthem was responsible for our poor sporting performances. He wanted, if I recall, to adopt the theme tune from The Archers, so putting a spring in our athletes’ step.

Incidentally – though this isn’t my business – the same applies to that dreich dirge “Flower of Scotland”, which has unhappily replaced “Scotland the Brave” on the football pitch as well as in rugby, and which reminds me of the keening of a sick cow.

All these changes could be enacted without legislation. Unlike most countries, we don’t really do these things through the full power of the state. Our sporting authorities could choose any song they pleased and, in a short time, that song would become a national anthem. We are, after all, a free country. Indeed, as Thomson observes:

The nations not so blest as thee

Must in their turn to tyrants fall,

While thou shalt flourish great and free

The dread and envy of them all! 

Daniel Hannan is a Conservative Member of the European Parliament and blogs at www.hannan.co.uk. His other CapX articles can be found here.