MPs are debating whether England should have an official national anthem. At present, when English teams line up at international sporting events, they sing the British national anthem 'God Save the Queen', but should they have one of their own?
There is a logic to this. Wales and Scotland have distinct national anthems that they use at sporting occasions. In Northern Ireland the situation is more complex, for reasons that have to do with its politics and history. They tend to use 'God Save the Queen' for state occasions, but also use 'Londonderry Air', or other songs when the North combine with the Republic for sports such as rugby.
As the UK increasingly devolves, then, it makes sense that its constituent parts should have anthems of their own. The proposal to adopt a specifically English anthem comes at a time when an 'English' national identity is being reasserted, and when constitutional arrangements such as 'English votes for English laws' are up for discussion.
There are precedents for English sporting teams adopting alternative anthems. 'Jerusalem' has been used by the England cricket and rugby league teams, and also for the Commonwealth Games, when the constituent parts of the UK are competitors and so require distinct anthems. A separate anthem is hardly out of the question, then, and there are other alternatives to consider.
But which is the best? To my mind there are four criteria by which a national anthem should be judged:
1: Is it singable?
'Jerusalem' is often the frontrunner in discussions about adopting an alternative anthem. It is said to be David Cameron's preferred option and often gets the public vote. Parry's music is suitably rousing and, as a singer myself, it is one of my favourite pieces of music. But it is not very easy to sing, with an irregular time signature and few opportunities to breathe. 'Rule Britannia' is fine provided you just stick to the chorus, but you need to be an opera-grade singer to manage the verses. 'God Save the Queen' has often been criticised for being dull, but when you are asking large crowds to sing it in unison, its simplicity is its great strength.
2: Do people know the words?
One of the arguments in favour of 'Jerusalem' is Blake's poetry. The words appeal to
left and right alike, with its appeals to social justice and national pride respectively. I wonder how widely they are known, however, and in my experience they are easy to muddle up (is this line 'sword' or 'shield'?). This criterion also sinks competitors like 'I Vow to Thee My Country' and is an obstacle in the way of writing a new anthem, which would almost certainly be fairly trite.
3: Is it inspiring?
'God Save the Queen' has been accused of lacking 'oomph'. Perhaps when it is played without singing, such as at Formula One, it can seem dull, but when sung in unison by a large crowd (such as at football matches) it can be unifying and rousing. It is notable that many of our national tunes originate from the Edwardian generation of English composers, whose music typically has a noble and uplifting quality. But to be inspiring today, a national anthem has to work in the context of a sports stadium, where the current anthem has the advantages of being singable and widely known.
4: Is it inclusive?
An anthem is supposed to represent a nation and the people in it, so it is open to question whether an anthem first used in the 1740s is appropriate to Britain today. The MP Evan Harris suggests that an anthem shouldn't therefore involve 'God'. On the other hand, 'God Save the Queen' doesn't specify which god, whereas the text of 'Jerusalem' concerns the idiosyncratic theory that Jesus visited Glastonbury. There is also the question of tone. The imperial bombast of 'Rule Britannia' and 'Land of Hope and Glory' would be somewhat jarring nowadays.
To conclude, therefore, I reckon that 'God Save the Queen' is probably still the best option for England. It may well be British rather than specifically English - although, helpfully, it specifies neither in its text - but it only has the status as British national anthem due to custom rather than law. And the custom for most English sports teams is to line up and sing 'God Save the Queen'. It is through usage and tradition that we become emotionally attached to things like national anthems, so one of the oldest anthems in the world would be very difficult to replace.