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Dr Alistair Brown | Associate lecturer in English Literature; researching video games and literature

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God Save the Queen: Why I Won't Sing

Friday, June 29, 2007

Driving through flood and storm to get there, we went to the Ludlow Festival this week to see A Comedy of Errors. The play is Shakespeare's most farcical, and there was a real pantomime feel to it (particularly when the trousers of the lead actor fell down in the final tumultuous scene). I suspect it would probably be difficult to act this play badly, and the performance was assured and colourful, though it may not be particularly memorable or distinguished, since the Comedy is not as deeply provocative as Shakespeare's later comedies with their darker undertones.

But, problematically for a play that is so plot-driven (twists of fate, mistaken identities), I could not concentrate on the first quarter of an hour or so. This was because myself and Helen did not stand for the collective singing of the national anthem which preceded the play, in response to which the gentleman behind, in a plummy voice, turned to his wife and said, deliberately loud so I would overhear, "Such a shame. Clearly they're not British." It frustrates me still that I did not turn around and make eye contact, as I would have loved to have justified myself in argument with him. As it was, I spent the first part of the performance running a response through my head, and hence not following the play. But, partly in the vain hope that that patriot may come across this blog, and mainly to get my rhetorical rehearsal out of my head and onto the public stage, I want to share my justifications here.

Firstly, I am British - it says so on my passport. But whilst I feel privileged to be a resident in a country with such a landscape, cultural heritage (not least Shakespeare), and democratic standards, I do not see how my failing to sing the national anthem suddenly makes me "not British." Indeed, since I justify my refusal on the basis of my independently held attitudes, and the thought police (posh gents excepted) will not arrest me for my refusal, in many ways my sitting down is a greater endorsement of the United Kingdom's principles of intellectual imagination, and its accommodation of independence of spirit.

Indeed, A Comedy of Errors in part is a comic deconstruction of too rigid social mores. There is a certain irony in witnessing hundreds of people rise unthinkingly to their feet to sing, before watching a play which condemns petty nationalism divorced from independent moral judgement. In the first scene, Solinus, Duke of Epheus, tries to act with clemency towards Aegeon of Syracuse:
Now, trust me, were it not against our laws,
Against my crown, my oath, my dignity,
Which princes, would they, may not disannul,
My soul should sue as advocate for thee.
I do not sing, because I am not subject to such intransigent laws of crown and oath, and because I want to exert the independence of my personal ethics, as Solinus wishes he could, but cannot under monarchical system.

And, according to the personal politics of my individual soul, I have no reason to sing. I am ashamed to be living in one of the world's smaller islands that nevertheless somehow has the world's fourth richest economy. I am ashamed that in reaching that position that economy has put money before environmental or ethical concerns. An atheist in a multicultural world, I do not see why it is a positive to plead for religious help for a secular democracy. But, most of all, I cannot maintain a pride in my country when it is engaged in an illegal, illegitimate, and immoral conflict with another.

I first stopped being British, stopped standing for the anthem at the festival, in 2003, when we had just entered Iraq. There is surely something hypocritical in calling on God to save the Queen, the head of our armed forces, when that army is engaged in a war which is, so we are told, for democracy, not against Islam and its different breed of god. Though not sung, in the full version the second verse runs:
O Lord our God arise,
Scatter her enemies
And make them fall;
Confound their politics,
Frustrate their knavish tricks,
On Thee our hopes we fix,
God save us all!
Though we may not sing this verse, since the anthem receives its prestige precisely from the history of its usage, these meanings also must lurk beneath the explicit words. The evident irrationality of pleading to God to "confound their politics," when our attempt to "export" our own democratic politics through force has been such an admitted failure, adds weight to my argument against singing the opening verse.

Finally, there is the fact that to sing the anthem implies my support for the queen. I am not necessarily a Republican, but I do think the case for constitutional monarchy rather than elected presidency needs to be argued (and, to be fair, the monarchy has become much more transparent in its accountability), and that the monarchy needs to provide more than a tamely acquiescent voice in government, and to express individual opinions - with which I may or may not agree. Prince Charles has done this with his views on farming (which I support) and architecture (opinions I would challenge), and so I will hold my revolutionary calls until he takes the throne. But as I wait for this transition, for me to unhesitatingly and wholeheartedley sing to the queen would be a personal contradiction.

Whenever that happens, though, I will still feel, in a political sense, more European than British. In an age of ethnic and economic globalisation, I believe in working beyond the confines of the nation state; in my travels across Europe, I found more in common with the young of my age of every country - liberal, positive about Europe, anti-war - than I do with many of my parent's generation back home. Verse four of "God Save the Queen" expresses many of these sentiments:
Not in this land alone,
But be God's mercies known,
From shore to shore!
Lord make the nations see,
That men should brothers be,
And form one family,
The wide world over.
An anthem that transcends insular nationalism would see me on my feet. Alternatively, and with great irony since it is an invective against British political and economic forces and a plea for the restoration of landscape, I might just sing Jerusalem. It also has the better tune.

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Posted by Alistair at 10:05 am

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