Pomp and Circumstance: The Question of the English Anthem

Five flags, four anthems.

Recently there’s growing interest in the concept of an exclusively English national anthem. This campaign has been fermenting for a while, growing from the continued discrepancy of English teams singing the British anthem, God Save the Queen, at sporting events, while all other constituents of the Union have adopted their own song. While I don’t usually have much time for this sort of shallow nationalism (it seems like a bigger discrepancy to me that the United Kingdom still insists on fielding several separate teams), proponents of the change have been making some progress of late; Toby Perkins, the Labour MP for Chesterfield, has put forward an “English National Anthem Bill” to the House of Commons, and he’s had considerable support from both colleagues and the wider public. So if England is to have its own anthem, what should it be?

The consensus in many quarters seems to be Jerusalem; a nineteenth century poem by William Blake with music added by Sir Hubert Parry in 1916. It’s already used by the English Rugby and Cricket teams, while campaign groups “England in my Heart” and “Anthem 4 England” (bear with me) have suggested this song as the most popular choice in polls. Now I’m going to go against the grain here, but I think Jerusalem is absolutely dreadful.

I’ll admit it’s not a song I have much affinity with; I was forced to sing it at Annual Labour Conference last year, spending most of the time mumbling and looking for a spare lyrics sheet. It’s dreary little tune, with zero relevance to modern life or what it actually means to be English. Let’s just take a look at the lyrics, with a few annotations of my own:

And did those feet in ancient time,

Walk upon England’s mountains green: No.

And was the holy Lamb of God,

On England’s pleasant pastures seen! No.

And did the Countenance Divine,

Shine forth upon our clouded hills? No.

And was Jerusalem builded here,

Among these dark Satanic Mills? No.

See what I mean? It suffers from much the same problems as God Save the Queen (a debate for another day). It’s full of uncomfortably Christian overtones and its imagery conjures an archaic version of England than never really existed, much less remains relevant today. And I understand it’s supposed to be a metaphor, but it would be quite absurd for our national anthem to be the name of a disputed city in the Middle East.

Jerusalem, Palestine/Israel. A quintessentially English landscape.

So if not Jerusalem, what else? A few other songs have been suggested; Land of Hope and Glory, or My Country, I Vow to Thee, for example, but none of these are ideal, if you’re really honest with yourself. They’re all just a bit dull, and when the world cup rolls around we’d still be a joke compared to the French, who, despite everything else, have an anthem that really grabs you by the balls.

Furthermore, when considering the rich cultural history of twentieth century England, it seems foolish sticking to songs that are a hundred years old or more. England has changed beyond recognition since the days of “Dark Satanic Mills”, so perhaps it’s time we had an anthem to reflect that. Toby Perkins has even suggested that an “X-Factor style” competition could be held to elect an original composition, which sounds like a great idea until you remember what The X-Factor is actually like. Of course, Black Magic by Little Mix probably resonates more deeply with the youth of today that Jerusalem ever could, so maybe he is onto something there.

Although a lot of time and effort has been and will be spent in the campaign to make an English anthem a reality, we have to bear in mind that it’s unlikely to have much of an impact beyond the first two minutes of the odd football game. Perhaps it’d be for the best if we just went for The Beatles’ Maxwell’s Silver Hammer and called the whole thing quits. If there’s a song that better represents seventy years of managed decline, I’d like to hear it.

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