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English National Anthem

Volume 604: debated on Wednesday 13 January 2016

Motion for leave to bring in a Bill (Standing Order No. 23)

I beg to move,

That leave be given to bring in a Bill to provide for an English National Anthem for use at sporting events that involve individuals or teams representing England; and for connected purposes.

I am neither a republican nor an atheist, and nor am I am English nationalist. I shall say more about that theme shortly, but hon. Members should detect no hostility from me towards God, Her Majesty the Queen, “God Save the Queen” or the United Kingdom. Indeed, it is precisely out of respect for preserving many of those things that I believe that the time has come to consider the question of an English national anthem. I acknowledge the excellent work already done on the issue by the hon. Members for Leeds North West (Greg Mulholland), for Shrewsbury and Atcham (Daniel Kawczynski) and for Romford (Andrew Rosindell), which shows that this is a real cross-party campaign. The Prime Minister has also shown sympathy with the argument for an English national anthem.

The level of interest in the matter confirms that the movement for an anthem for England is one whose time has come. As is often the case, it is for us in Parliament to catch up with public opinion and allow the voice of England to be heard. I spoke to radio stations in all corners of England this morning, such was the interest in the debate about what our anthem should be. There were vox pops on the streets of towns far and wide, and each area reflected the specific differences of our multifaceted nation. I will not say which area thought that the most appropriate choice for an English national anthem would be “Heaven Knows I’m Miserable Now”—that will remain a secret between me and the listeners of BBC Radio Humberside—but that reflects the fact that each local area has its own sense of what Englishness means.

When England play against other home nations on the football or rugby field, I often find it incongruous that while the Welsh and Scots sing an anthem that reflects the identity of their nations, England sings about Britain. That reflects a sense that we see Britain and England as synonymous, and it not only denies us English an opportunity to celebrate the nation that is being represented, but is a cause of resentment among other countries within the British Isles, which feel that England has requisitioned the British song.

I deliberately have not referred so far to the Bill’s implications for Northern Ireland. While the measure is specifically about England and would have no jurisdiction over Northern Ireland whatsoever, I am aware of considerable interest from Northern Ireland, to which I shall respond shortly.

National anthems are a matter of convention. The British national anthem is accepted as being “God Save the Queen”, although that is not enshrined in law. The first team to sing a national anthem before a sporting contest was the Welsh rugby team in 1905, in response to the New Zealand haka. Since then, the Welsh tradition of singing “Land of my Fathers” has given an especially Welsh flavour to every sporting contest in which the team competes. The song “Flower of Scotland” has been used as the national anthem by the Scotland rugby team before each of their defeats—or should I say matches?

I remember that there was an exception.

I recognise that matters of the constitution are keenly felt in Northern Ireland, but the Bill refers to only an English consultation. The Northern Ireland football team sings “God Save the Queen”. I have had considerable contact with the media and citizens in Northern Ireland. Interestingly, the callers to BBC radio in Northern Ireland seem enthusiastic about giving people a choice, but that would be a matter for Northern Ireland. England should not be forced to take a decision on the basis that that might put pressure on Northern Ireland to make a different decision.

On constitutional matters, it is always best to allow the voice of the people to be heard, rather than to dictate, if at all possible. Important steps towards making the Scottish Parliament the most devolved Parliament in the world and other devolutionary measures mean that we need a fresh settlement for England and Britain as part of re-establishing the distinct identities of the four nations that make up the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland. That does not mean that we should fear recognising England as an entity, but we should welcome the opportunity to re-establish the idea that the United Kingdom is four separate nations with their own identities that are part of a wider Union for their own mutual good.

It is remarkable to me to watch footage of the 1966 World cup. I am sorry if people are unhappy at the mention of that, but it was a proud occasion. Looking at the crowd, one saw the Union Jack everywhere. Even in the 1990 World cup, England fans predominantly took the Union Jack. It was in 1996, at the European championships—possibly because England were drawn to play against Scotland—that the flag of St George came to be seen as the flag of England. The Union Jack has now virtually disappeared from Wembley when England are playing.

In 2010 the Commonwealth Games Council for England conducted a poll of members of the public which decided that the anthem for the 2010 Commonwealth games should be “Jerusalem”. The three options were “God Save the Queen”, “Jerusalem” and “Land of Hope and Glory”, and “Jerusalem” was the clear winner with 52% of the vote. “Land of Hope and Glory” received 32% and “God Save the Queen” just 12%. Just as “Jerusalem” was the favoured choice of those who voted in the Commonwealth games poll, so it seems to be an early favourite among members of the public who have engaged with me. The campaign group England in my Heart is specifically campaigning for “Jerusalem” to be played before England rugby matches.

With that level of support for “Jerusalem” the outcome may seem a foregone conclusion. I do not know whether there is a way of putting people off William Blake’s classic tune, but I suspect that driving round and round Parliament Square with a van blaring it out might be precisely the way to achieve that. One cannot always choose one’s friends in these matters, but I welcome the fact that hon. Members are enthusiastic.

Since I announced my intention to bring this Bill before Parliament there has been widespread coverage of it. Anecdotally, there has been a lot of support. A Daily Mirror poll found 71% in support of a separate English national anthem and phone-ins have shown a lot of support, but we need a more formal attempt to take the pulse of the nation. I want to underline the fact that my Bill will not specify what anthem should be chosen.

My Bill bestows a duty on the Secretary of State for Culture, Media and Sport to hold a consultation across England that will decide what the English national anthem should be, and will call on the Secretary of State at the end of that consultation to write to the Football Association, the Rugby Football Union, England Netball and any other sporting bodies that have athletes or teams of athletes representing England and inform them that the English national anthem should be used in the event that a piece of music is required prior to the contest or at the awarding of medals. Once the Bill has been passed it will be for the Secretary of State to decide what form the consultation should take and what the contenders should be.

Alongside the choices that were listed for the Commonwealth games poll, anthems such as “I vow to thee, my country” and “There’ll always be an England” have been suggested. Others believe that there could be an opportunity for some X Factor-style programme to combine traditional choices alongside some newly commissioned options. The opportunity for this to be a real moment of engagement with the English people about this specific aspect of our future direction is significant.

This idea has had many positive reviews, including supportive columns in the Daily Mirror and the Sunday Express. I was disappointed to read that a friend of Her Majesty the Queen has said that she considered the idea “rude”. Although I have the utmost respect for the intentions of the lady concerned, I fear that her response betrayed the extent to which the question of Englishness has passed her by. Now that two of the nations have chosen no longer to use the British anthem, it is too late for this to be a question of all the component parts of Britain acting in the same way, and it makes England the outlier.

I hope the House will support this important Bill. Although I accept that to some there should be more important issues for this House to consider, the issue of national identity is a powerful one, and my experience is that ignoring the issue only allows it to fester. I believe the consultation that my Bill proposes will lead to a national conversation across England, and ultimately the voice of England will be heard. Whatever choice the people make, it will be the majority view, and we in this House can do no better than make sure that the voice of England is heard.

I rise to oppose the Bill, though I congratulate the hon. Member for Chesterfield (Toby Perkins) on following in the footsteps of Flanders and Swann. Some years ago they proposed that England should have its own national anthem and they came up with “The English, the English, the English are best”. I will not go through all the lines because, although I am not a great advocate of political correctness, some elements of them may, in this modern age, cause some discombobulation to other hon. Members, particularly my friends in the Scottish National party, but there is an excellent line, “And the Greeks and Italians eat garlic in bed!”—something to be strongly advised against as an unpleasant and somewhat malodorous habit.

I oppose the proposal for deep and serious reasons. What greater pleasure can there be for a true-born English man or true-born English woman than to listen to our own national anthem—a national anthem for our whole country, for our whole United Kingdom, of which England is but a part, but an important part—and to listen to those words that link us to our Sovereign, who is part of that chain that takes us back to our immemorial history; to sing or, if one cannot sing, to listen to the tune that invokes our loyalty to our nation? That tune has been popular since 1745, when it is thought to have started in a response to the Jacobite rebellion. I am usually in favour of Jacobites for obvious reasons, but on that occasion they were traitors and not to be encouraged.

The words that developed then and have remained constant change only when we have a woman on the throne, rather than a man. It is a tune that encapsulates the patriotism that we wish to express when supporting a team. The hon. Member for Chesterfield said that now English crowds take St George’s flag rather than the Union Jack. To me that is a matter of pity, of shame, that we have given up viewing ourselves as one United Kingdom, whether we are supporting England, Scotland, Wales or Northern Ireland. These expressions of individual nationalism are a disuniting factor in our country, a country that we ought to want to make more united.

As the hon. Gentleman mentioned, English crowds have taken to singing “Jerusalem” at various sporting occasions. It is sung at the beginning of test matches in some grounds, though I am glad to say that this does not seem to happen at Lord’s, which is an indication of the proper ordering of things. I am not sure that singing a jolly tune at the beginning of a match is particularly dignified and represents the nation as the nation ought to want to be represented. The crowds have taken to “Jerusalem”, which has a good tone to it. It is a happy song for people to sing, and we should all be in favour of happiness, but does it really make that patriotic pride swell up in us in the way that we would like?

When we think of the words of “Jerusalem”, a highly speculative question is posed. In the words:

“And did those feet in ancient time”

a question is being asked, but I come from Somerset and I know the answer. It is well known that Christ was taken by Joseph of Arimathea to Glastonbury, so why in “Jerusalem” could anyone want to sing “did”, when we know that the truth is that Christ not only went to Glastonbury but, as in that old Somerset saying to assert the truth of anything, “As Christ was in Priddy”, Christ also went to Priddy, and as a young man Joseph of Arimathea probably did too. Could we possibly want to have an anthem that questioned this undeniable truth of God’s own county, the county particularly selected for visitation by our Lord when he was on Earth?

This proposed Bill seeks to regularise something that in our brilliant British way we have never previously needed to regularise. Our national anthem has come about over time without needing pettifogging regulation, bureaucracy or any of those things that we dislike, so that is a reason for opposing it. The proposal reduces the sense of devotion to our Sovereign that we ought to have, that it is proper to have and that we promise we will have when we swear in or affirm as Members of Parliament. That would be a sad thing to lose. It lacks the courage of Flanders and Swann to go the whole hog and be properly, eccentrically patriotic. It is a sort of second-tier level of national anthem, though when it was proposed that the anthem might be a song normally sung at the Labour party conference, I must confess I was relieved that the one chosen was not “The Red Flag”. Given the current trend in the leadership of the Labour party, though, it would not surprise me if in a year’s time we have a private Member’s Bill to make singing “The Red Flag” compulsory as well. [Interruption.] I am glad to get some support from Labour Members on the Front Bench below the aisle, who probably think that is a heartily good idea.

This would mean moving away to the wrong song—a song that offends Somerset sensibilities. It would be a bad thing to do. We should affirm our loyalty to our sovereign lady in the words of the British national anthem; and as for the hon. Member for Chesterfield, we should confound his politics and frustrate his knavish tricks.

Question put (Standing Order No. 23) and agreed to.


That Toby Perkins, Tristram Hunt, Greg Mulholland, Daniel Kawczynski, Ruth Smeeth, Sarah Champion, Mr Jamie Reed, Andrew Rosindell, Angela Smith, Bob Stewart, Michael Fabricant and Sir Gerald Howarth present the Bill.

Toby Perkins accordingly presented the Bill.

Bill read the First time; to be read a Second time on Friday 4 March and to be printed (Bill 118).