Who Will Save ‘God Save the Queen’?

Back in September, when I interviewed Alex Marshall, the author of a world tour of national anthems called Republic or Death!, he told me the following about “God Save the Queen,” the national anthem of the United Kingdom (and, by default, the anthem of England, which doesn’t have an official one):

There’s almost too many reasons not to like “God Save the Queen.” … When you hear it, you can’t get excited about it. And, the other big issue: It just has absolutely nothing about Britain today. All it says is, “We have a monarch, and we’d really like her to reign for a long time.” … [People] get far more excited singing songs with titles like “Land of Hope and Glory.” Or there’s one called “Jerusalem,” which is about “England’s green and pleasant land.” And those songs actually speak to the country and people’s sense of hope. Those mean so much more. If the U.K. had a different anthem I might get more excited about it.

The U.K. may not get a different anthem anytime soon, but there’s hope for England yet. (Scotland and Wales have their own anthems, Northern Ireland does not.) Yesterday, a bill to decide the future of an English anthem was introduced in Parliament and will come up for debate in March.

Labour MP Toby Perkins defended his affinity for God, Queen, and country: “I would like to say at the outset that I am neither a republican, nor an atheist nor an English nationalist ... Members should detect no hostility in me towards God, her majesty the Queen, to God Save the Queen or to the United Kingdom.”

I caught up with Marshall today over email to ask about the latest development in his and his country’s fraught history with “God Save the Queen.” He clarified that, first of all, England has publicly wrestled with getting its own anthem before. It comes up “before every major soccer tournament.” Marshall added:

Normally a few cranks shout about it and then everyone quickly moves on, but this time feels different. Maybe because of the recent Scottish independence referendum, or debates about UK membership of the EU, or even the European migrant crisis, a lot more people seem to be thinking about questions of national identity here and this feeds into them. Labour MPs also want to be seen to be patriotic right now since their leader Jeremy Corbyn isn’t and so have reason to push the idea. All of that could see this call get further than most. Chances are, though, MPs will panic in a few months when people start telling them they have more important things to discuss like the economy, health service and the fact much of England was recently under water.

As for Marshall’s choice for England’s national anthem, front-runner “Jerusalem” (heard in the video seen above) is “the only choice.” The words to “Jerusalem” are based on a William Blake hymn that includes the famous lines, “I will not cease from mental fight,/Nor shall my sword sleep in my hand,/Till we have built Jerusalem/In England’s green and pleasant land.”

“It’s not just because it’s got a fantastic tune,” Marshall writes. “Its central message—of building a paradise, a Jerusalem … is one anyone here can be inspired by. That’s why you find it being sung by everyone from communists to the Women’s Institute.”

What about the song that’s also been cited as a contender, “Land of Hope and Glory”? According to Marshall: “Adopting that seems beyond bizarre. It’s a song that calls for England’s borders to get ‘wider and wider’ at one point. That message might have worked at the height of the Empire, but today? Bloody hell!”