Time for an anthem we can all sing with sincerity

Posted: Wed, 26th Oct 2022 by Stephen Evans

Union Jack

The religious and monarchical God Save the King should make way for something that the whole country can sing along to, says Stephen Evans.

Speaking in 2020 the new prime minister Rishi Sunak described the UK as a "secular country".

Rishi was right in the sense that British people, irrespective of their personal religious beliefs, are overwhelmingly secularist in their outlook and attitudes.

We are also one of the world's least religious countries. The latest British Social Attitudes survey revealed a significant and long term decline in the proportion of people who identify with Christianity along with a substantial increase in those with no religious affiliation, and a steady increase in those belonging to non-Christian faiths.

It also found very low confidence in religious organisations, but tolerance of religious difference. The election of a Muslim London mayor and the appointment of the UK's first Hindu prime minister is testament to that.

Our constitutional privileging of Christianity is therefore looking increasingly absurd. The continued existence of an established church in a modern pluralistic, multifaith and increasingly secular democracy is unsustainable. For example, it's nonsense that Rishi Sunak – a Hindu – is, as prime minister, responsible for advising King Charles on ecclesiastical appointments to the Church of England.

If Britain is to become a truly a secular country, we need to reflect this reality by uncoupling religion from the state and ceremonial occasions.

So isn't it time we also reconsidered our national anthem?

God Save the King was adopted more than 250 years ago – making it yet another relic of a time when adherence to the state religion was expected and assumed. That time has long disappeared into the past. The anthem should, too.

Officially God Save the King is the national anthem of the United Kingdom, but it has also been synonymous with England. In 2010, the Commonwealth Games Council for England polled the public to decide the athletic team's anthem. Three options were put forward. The clear winner was Blake's Jerusalem with 52% of the vote compared to Land of Hope and Glory with 32%. God Save the Queen came in a distant third with just 12%. England's cricket and rugby teams have also since switched to Jerusalem.

God Save the Queen King is essentially a sycophantic hymn, invoking a supreme being that many people don't believe in (God) to save an individual born into a position of privilege (the King). Almost all other international anthems are about the countries themselves, or the people, not their rulers.

A study by the Pew Research Center in 2017 asked citizens of 13 countries whether being Christian was important to national identity. Just 18% of UK citizens said it was. People on the right of the ideological spectrum were more likely to view religion as very important to nationality.

But in today's diverse Britain, isn't it inherently divisive for notions of national identity and belonging to be tied up with religion? This isn't something we can build a collective identity around.

Non-Christian political, civic and religious leaders, sports personalities representing their country, and perhaps many of us who feel little affinity with God or monarchy, face a difficult decision whether to pay lip service to the anthem and sing along, or not – and run the risk of criticism for not showing sufficient 'respect'. I consider myself a patriot, but God Save the King isn't something I can sing with authenticity. So, I don't.

These things matter. Equality, integration, social cohesion and a sense of shared citizenship is made so much harder when national identity is so intrinsically tied to religion. Wouldn't it be better to build a more inclusive and authentic national identity, rather than cleave to something vaguely Christian, increasingly meaningless and so obviously exclusionary?

It's not as if God Save the King is universally loved. During the Queen's Jubilee in 2012, YouGov asked people how they felt about the anthem. An overwhelming number of people said they didn't like it. Participants not in favour of the anthem used a slew of derisory 'd' words to describe how they felt about it: 'dull', 'depressing', 'dour', 'dull', 'downbeat' and (most popular) 'a dirge'. Almost half of 18-24 year olds don't even know the first verse.

If we are to end the pernicious pretence of the United Kingdom being a 'Christian Country', our anthem needs a rethink. Something more secular would allow all citizens to express themselves with sincerity, whatever their religious beliefs.

Let's not let tradition stand in the way of having something we can all sing along to. Suggestions on a postcard please…

Image: LA(Phot) Simmo Simpson, OGL v1.0OGL v1.0, via Wikimedia Commons

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Tags: Disestablishment, Head of State