The booing of the national anthem shows the vulnerability of King Charles’s reign

<span>Photograph: Jane Barlow/PA</span>
Photograph: Jane Barlow/PA

At the Scotland versus England friendly last week, God Save the King was booed by half the crowd – the Scottish half. In a way, this is surprising, because it is, of course, the national anthem of the UK, so they were technically booing their own song. Yet it is also entirely unsurprising – so much so, in fact, that commentators dredging up outrage at the boos had to find secondary sources, such as: “Why does the Scottish first minister appear to be smirking during the booing?”

Even before the passing of the Queen, it was far from unheard of for Scotland supporters to boo the national anthem. It happened right after the independence referendum, the message at that time being: “Like all referendums on constitutional matters, this ballot has opened up cracks in society – irreconcilable differences in its branching futures, if you like – that will not quietly go away.” Scottish fans once booed Liechtenstein’s national anthem, Oben am Jungen Rhein. Really easy mistake to make, as the tunes are identical – except they must have known they were playing Liechtenstein, right? So perhaps the message was less complicated; not so much: “The yoke of this union is a heavy one to bear and we decline to celebrate it in song,” more: “We do not like this tune. It is not even a real tune. How on earth two nations (well, five) chose it is beyond us.”

Nevertheless, it was not the norm under Elizabeth II to boo so loudly that it drowned out the anthem. It didn’t really matter whether you were a royalist or not: there was something unarguable about the monarch. To complain about her was hackneyed saloon-bar-bore talk, like complaining that supermarkets put their Christmas goods out before it was even Halloween. It’s not enough for modern life to be rubbish; it has to be rubbish in some new and previously unobserved way if you want a strong opinion about it. Royalism, this entire century, has been such a default position that to deviate from it even mildly has been considered boring and yet rude at the same time, like nit-picking about the crumb in a Victoria sponge someone made you as a favour.

So King Charles is in this unenviable fix: he is not a novelty. There was nothing unexpected about his accession and nothing about him that we didn’t know. But he lacks the Queen’s inevitability, that sense that he is there because he always has been, and should he ever almost not be, God can be asked to save him and will consider that request reasonable. He lacks, too, that aura of self-abnegation, of having surrendered himself to duty. I am sceptical about how much gratitude anyone owed the Queen, but there was a general consensus that she had lived a life of sacrifice, whereas looking at Charles, I am not sure anyone’s first thought would be: “Thank you.” The role is just a little bit more contestable, and once you start asking questions, the whole song falls apart. How noble is he really? I am not even sure what gracious means, applied to a person – is it just a using-the-right-cutlery thing? What do we want him to be victorious over? Not the dominions, any more, surely? The climate crisis? This seems a little wishful.

In some quarters, the practical-minded are suggesting that each nation of the union should get its own official anthem. It’s hard to say how this solves the booing problem, unless we simultaneously stop playing one another at sports, and it’s harder still to figure out what English quality you would choose to immortalise separately. Once we have given up on uniting in chorus around one figurehead, the most convincing organising principle of national identity is to bicker among our nearest neighbours, which is to say each other.

Like every discussion about the future of the union, the immediate fear it unearths in me is a selfish one. Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland will either embrace existing songs that have long roused their fans, or come up with excellent new ones, while England will be left with the one no one else wants to sing any more.

• Zoe Williams is a Guardian columnist

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