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National anthems: are they still relevant?

Until 1997, every night at 3am the orchestral tones of “God Save the Queen” would resound through the living rooms of nocturnal BBC viewers all over the UK. Tory MP Andrew Rosindell has recently requested BBC 1 to reinstate this custom in honour of Brexit. While a spokesperson for the broadcaster refuted the idea – and BBC Newsnight mocked it by playing the Sex Pistol’s version of the anthem – Rosindell’s motion has sparked a much more significant debate about the relevance of national anthems today.

Brantley Moore, 26, an American exchange student at the University of Edinburgh, does not believe that national anthems are “outmoded vestige[s] of past national life”. He thinks that in fact their relevance might even have increased in view of the immigration of high numbers of people with diverse ethnic and ideological backgrounds to Western countries: “Promoting a national anthem and similar nationalistic devices, by representing the traditional values, history, and culture of the country, serve to assimilate these various groups into one people […].”

Everyone knows the French slogan “fraternité, egalité and liberté”, but which are the values transported by the British anthem? Verses one to three focus on loyalty to the British emperor and their protection from political and foreign enemies. The hardly ever sung fourth stanza highlights the importance of unity – explicitly also across the borders of the British empire: “Lord make the nations see that men should brothers be, and form one family, the wide world over.”

Through their capacity to stir emotions, national anthems invoke a sense of membership, but they equally serve as a reminder of the responsibility for protecting the values on whose foundation a state was built. An empirical study conducted at the University of Surrey showed that 8-10-year olds associate feelings of happiness and pride with hearing “God Save the Queen”. Why? Because singing the national anthem can be a ritual of self-identification with a group of people, assumedly one who shares your values. Alexandra Clark, an 18-year-old Scottish student, concurs with this view, as national anthems “bring people together”.

Sebastian Pflügler, a 26-year-old student from Munich, agrees that national anthems often convey the beliefs a society stands for. However, he warns against the risk of abuse by those who “use a national anthem as a means of exclusion [and claim that] all others who are of a different origin should not sing it”. Singing anthems can be an emotionally charged ritual, which becomes particularly visible through someone’s refusal to participate in it. When American quarterback Colin Kaepernick expressed his anger at the oppression of and discrimination against African Americans this year, he was met with an outburst of criticism. He was labelled unpatriotic and anti-American for spotlighting his concern about the condition of the quintessentially American value of equality.

Anthems can be abused to exert power, or even to further nationalist ideas. At times, these themes of oppression and exclusion are included in the lyrics themselves. Scottish people, for instance, are likely to be unhappy about verse six of “God Save the Queen” as it implores the Lord to “[crush] the rebellious Scots”. Comparable glorifications of war or suppression can be found in many anthems. Still, like most symbols, anthems are open to reinterpretation and adaptation. In 2011, in reaction to feminist criticism, the Austrian government modernised one line of its anthem by including “sons and daughters”.

National anthems can be a powerful tool to transport a society’s fundamental values and promote social cohesion, also for novel or soon-to-be citizens. Nevertheless, as symbolic, cultural tools, they and their usage are expected to undergo stages of re-evaluation or modification. Their usefulness depends on regular collective renegotiations of what they signify and which purpose they serve. Anthems can function as reminders of our shared values – equality, solidarity and liberty – but to do that, they need to be protected from attempts at misemploying them for populism or discrimination.

Image: Tech. Sgt. Wolfram M. Stumpf

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