The University of Bristol has dropped the UK national anthem from its graduation ceremony programme, and will now play it only when a member of the royal family is present. This seems like a polite compromise, with the anthem being the equivalent of a carriage clock that you only put on display when the person who gave it to you comes round for tea. No offence given, and everybody’s happy.
Of course not everybody is happy. The Sun claimed “university bosses have been accused of hating British culture and pandering to wokes”. The deputy prime minister, Oliver Dowden, posted on X, formerly Twitter, to ask: “If Bristol University are too ashamed of their British heritage, presumably they no longer want to be subsidised by [the] British taxpayer?” The education secretary, Gillian Keegan, also weighed in, saying “universities should stand up for our British values and stop giving in to woke ideology”.
Bristol university said nothing beyond acknowledging that it “routinely updates aspects of its graduation ceremonies”, and noting that the decision was taken in 2020. It’s possible it was giving in to “woke ideology”, but it seems more likely that it was simply trying to tighten up an overlong ceremony by cutting the least good song.
And let’s face it, no matter its historical or cultural significance, God Save the King is not a good song. It plods. It goes nowhere. The first three lines end with the same word, as if no one could be bothered to come up with a rhyme for king. Obviously this made things easy the first time they had to change it to queen, but there’s no historical evidence that anyone was thinking that far ahead.
The best thing you can say about the national anthem is that it’s no one person’s fault: the tune is ancient, the words have been fiddled with over time and the standard version used today is a matter of settled precedent rather than any official decision-taking. It is by custom, and not by law, that people now hardly ever sing that belligerent middle verse about scattering enemies, the one that contains the truly terrible lines: “Confound their politics/Frustrate their knavish tricks.” There isn’t even a law or proclamation making it the UK national anthem, so defunding universities for refusing to play it might be legally difficult.
The other best thing you can say about God Save the King is that it really set the template for ponderous, not-good anthems worldwide. The melody was nicked in the 18th and 19th centuries for the national anthems of Prussia, Bavaria and Saxony. It’s still the tune for Liechtenstein’s national anthem, and Norway’s royal anthem (it has a different, also pretty ponderous, national anthem). Switzerland used it for a century before swapping it for a better song with lyrics that mostly say nice things about the Alps.
The UK’s national anthem is not the only challenging anthem out there. La Marseillaise combines a jaunty tune with gory lyrics (“Let’s march, let’s march!/Let impure blood/Water our furrows”, etc). The melody of the US national anthem encompasses a range of an octave and a half, making it dangerous for all but trained professionals to sing. A significant proportion of the world’s national anthems still exhort citizens to either slaughter enemies or die trying, including those of Argentina, Honduras (“Let us march, oh fatherland, to death”) and Vietnam (“The path to glory passes over the bodies of our foes”), making them weird musical choices for, say, an Olympic opening ceremony. One could argue that the best anthems, like Kosovo’s and San Marino’s, have no words at all.
The British national anthem is certainly not among the worst of them. Nor is it the best (personally, I like Arirang, the unofficial anthem of Korea). It isn’t even a little bit catchy – I’ve lived in the UK for 30 years, and I can never recall any of the words beyond the first five. How many of its fervent supporters actually know what comes after “Thy choicest gifts in store, on him be pleased to pour … ”?
I have no particular quarrel with God Save the King, but quietly cutting it from a graduation ceremony hardly counts as an example of hating British culture. If anything, it’s doing British culture a favour.
Tim Dowling is a regular Guardian contributor