From operatic South American offerings to stately European singsongs, a national anthem speaks volumes about the country it represents. Unfortunately, some nations have settled for anthems so woefully bad, boring and irrelevant that you have to wonder why no one's piped up with an alternative yet. Don’t get me wrong: everyone appreciates a little tradition and these songs shouldn’t be altered for the sake of it – but national anthems are an untapped opportunity to unite nations and project their best bits to the wider world.
Blissfully, England’s outmoded anthem God Save the Queen doesn’t crop up too often (and mercifully not many of us know the words to the second verse). Yet on the world’s sporting stage, from the Olympics to the football, this is what “being English” is distilled down to. A single song can’t really capture the complexity of a nation of over 50 million but various attempts over the years to alter England’s anthem show a growing feeling that the oh-so-patriotic Henry Carey’s ponderous late 18th-century prose is increasingly detached from the nation it represents.
This makes sense when you look at the numbers. According to the last census, over 55 per cent of the UK’s population don’t believe in a God (that’s the main character out) and support for the royal family is anything but absolute (that’s the leading lady in question, too). The tune’s not even just ours. More than 10 nations, some small pacific islands with incomparably different cultures and world views, have also plumped for the same dull dirge. Even the tiny landlocked nation of Liechtenstein, which has gone half hog and changed the words, finds itself lumped with the melody.
So what does all this say about us? Although there’s a reassuring history to it, it shows a nation out of step with what it really is. An indecisive country missing a trick when it comes to projecting itself as modern, forward-looking and self-assured.
Over in mainland Europe, the Swiss have a reassuringly pragmatic solution. This year an (admittedly unofficial) competition is offering a prize of CHF10,000 (€8,100) for the best alternative to its currently unloved and outdated anthem. Far from representing division or revolution like neighbouring France’s stirring ditty La Marseillaise, the idea of the new anthem would be to unite the Swiss and promote their common identity.
The competition’s aim is to force a referendum and let this democracy-loving nation decide which song echoes over the rostrum after its athletes have stormed some downhill slalom event or other. Although composing a single tune for a nation with four languages won’t be simple, the attempt shows self-awareness and confidence.
While some decisions are tough, take time and cost money, this is not necessarily one of them. Instead, reconsidering a nation’s anthem can be a positively austerity-friendly way of igniting a sense of common purpose and maybe even updating a nation’s staid image. I think it’s time the English followed Switzerland’s lead.
Josh Fehnert is a writer for Monocle.