We take them for granted but National Anthems signal the great events in our world. Nkosi Sikelel’ iAfrika will sound out at Nelson Mandela’s funeral. There can’t be a finer example of a National Anthem representing the nation’s mood. It’s actually a hymn which was adopted by a number of African countries. During the apartheid era it remained the unofficial South African national anthem behind the Afrikaans’ Call of South Africa. By singing a song you could make a statement. When Nelson Mandela came to power he dealt with the problem in a pragmatic way – by creating a new national anthem combining the two. It actually embraces five languages and the lyrics just end up meaning the same – God bless our great country – a sentiment no-one could disagree with.
Germany has undergone a similar transformation. Although the familiar Deutschlandlied has stayed intact throughout West Germany’s history; East Germany took a different path until reunification. The East German anthem referred to the Ruins from which the nation was formed and, although essentially about hope of a bright future for the country, it does refer to crushing any foes. When Germany was re-formed Deutshlandlied became the National Anthem again but with just the third verse celebrating the nation’s health.
And then there is Russia. The Ronseal-styled State Anthem of the Russian Federation has been in place since the removal of the Internationale in 1944. The lyrics were removed in the 1950s because they referred to Stalin. Leaders introduced lyrics which praised the Communist system and in the 1990s a new anthem was introduced which never gained acceptance. The old tune was reinstalled by Vladimir Putin but when it was felt that the resulting tune was not inspiring enough a contest was held to find suitable lyrics. The resulting Anthem celebrates the heritage of the nation rather than its leaders…who could argue with that.
Look wherever you like around the world and the theme is the same – Star-Spangled Banner, O Canada, Advance Australia Fair follow the praise-the-beautiful-country formula. The Marseillaise and the Chinese March Of The Volunteers take a different but related approach – a call to arms in defence of the country.
The British National Anthem gets booed regularly when it is played outside England. The lyrics are the reason. The standard three verses are about supporting the Monarch rather than the nation and have a bellicose tone – “send her victorious” and “scatter her enemies”. Even members of the Royal Family have acknowledged how inappropriate these words are.
Attempts have been made to review the lyrics over the years but with no long-term success. Some versions have been even more aggressive (the reference to suppressing rebellious Scots) while there have also been more acceptable versions which found favour for a short time. It may be that the horse has bolted. After booing the British anthem, other countries in the United Kingdom lustily sing their own country-praising songs – Flower of Scotland, Land Of My Fathers, and Danny Boy. These raise the spirits for sporting teams in a way that God Save The Queen never does. The English teams have nothing to fight back with. Land Of Hope and Glory is possibly the nearest to an English song but it never mentions the country and it’s tone is expansionist. After that we have Jerusalem!
If Scotland gains independence we may at least ease the problem but we will still have a song which is an anachronism in the modern era. Maybe now would be a good time to change the words to reflect our current role in the world and as a United Kingdom. Maybe it would be a great opportunity to reflect the rich diversity of our country with verses in Welsh and Gaelic. The verse sung could vary according to location and even the Queen could join in without feeling self-conscious and without being surrounded by booing.