It may seem strange, perhaps even perverse, during a time in which the levels of immigration to this country have seldom been higher, to suggest that this is precisely the time when those of us who think of ourselves as English should celebrate our diversity of background. In partial defence, I would submit that present rates of immigration — the result of a relatively strong economy, a raft of new European states and current lax border controls, amongst other factors — will in due course begin to slow, and should not affect the core of the arguments set out below.
Regarding my own nationality, perhaps I should put my cards on the table and say that, although I consider myself to be English, and (for example) avidly support English sporting teams, I suspect I have relatively little “pure” English blood in my veins. My father, Robin Collins, always cheerfully assured me that his side of the family came from a long line of Irish horse-thieves, and my mother, whose maiden name is Irvin, is of largely Scottish lineage. But I should add that I hardly feel alone. Almost always, whenever I meet someone who appears to be English to the core, further knowledge nearly always reveals a more exotic, complex and perhaps more interesting ancestry.
Even in the seventeenth century, Daniel Defoe was aware of this variety in our social lineage. In his trenchant verse satire The True Born Englishman, he describes how the English were always happy to welcome foreigners. According to him, our ancestors:
In whose hot veins new mixtures quickly ran,
Infused between a Saxon and a Dane
While their rank daughters, to their parents just
Received all nations with promiscuous lust.
The nauseous brood directly did contain
The well-extracted blood of Englishmen.
Scurrilous though Defoe might be about our eclectic tastes in marital and sexual partners, like much of the best satirical verse, I would submit that The True Born Englishman makes a serious point. The notion of a pure-bred English race, in any scientific or genetic sense, is nonsense. The English are a remarkably diverse and varied bunch and, frankly, that’s how I like it.
Breeders of domestic animals have long been aware that the introduction of new strains tends to generate more active and fitter progeny. It is called “hybrid vigour”, and it has a strong base in genetics. Broadly speaking, every individual inherits half of his genes from his father and half from his mother. Each one of us contains some genes which are detrimental. Statistically speaking, the more closely related the parents are, the more likely their detrimental genes are to be replicated in the other parent, and the greater the chances of weaknesses being multiplied in the offspring. Conversely, the more distantly related our parents are, the more likely that any underlying weaknesses will be countered by very different genes in the other parent. For many years, genetic diversity has been positively associated with vigour or fitness, and for that reason, amongst others, perhaps we should be proud of our highly varied ancestry.
This in turn might seem an odd introduction to the main subject of this essay, the English national anthem. It has been said by various commentators that God Save the Queen applies to the entire United Kingdom, and it is therefore somewhat anomalous that English sporting teams should sing it, not least when they are playing Scottish or Welsh teams, who are part of that same kingdom. These same commentators argue (justifiably, to my way of thinking) that this tradition perpetuates the view that England is not merely one part of the United Kingdom, but its dominant core.
For these reasons, I should like tentatively to propose a new English national anthem, one which does not assume or imply our English hegemony, but which instead emphasizes our own social richness and individuality. To me at least, the English as a culture are not only extremely diverse, but also extraordinarily inventive, outward-facing, and enterprising. We have one of the largest economies in the world, arguably the greatest financial capital city in the world, and our elegant and flexible mongrel language (a blend of Germanic and Latinate elements, amongst others) has risen to become the dominant world language.
Parallel to this outward-facing dynamism, there is another view of English culture — as an historical leader in the development of individual liberty and its associated characteristics. Freedom of speech, freedom of association, private property, individual privacy and the universal rule of common law have all been significantly developed and extended in the course of our history. Compared with other dominant cultures, such as the French, German, Russian or Chinese (to name only four), it seems to me that what particularly distinguishes the English-speaking cultures, from Magna Carta to the present day, is an underlying historical progression towards the gradual, pragmatic but apparently inexorable decentralisation of power, and the greater enshrinement of individual liberty.
Taking these factors into account, in any new national anthem, I would suggest we should consider at least two important and specific changes to God Save the Queen. There can be little doubt that our society is increasingly secular, and that (not least in order to be fair to multiple religions and faiths) the state should distance itself from any given religion or specific official religious belief. Regarding the words of God Save the Queen, do the majority of us in the twenty-first century really believe a personal God not only exists but has a specific interest in our royal family? And is loyalty to the monarch really any longer the fulcrum of English society, the central belief which unites us.
My own wish would be that any proposed English national anthem would make reference to deeper unifying characteristics, preferably by making a virtue out of our diversity, and emphasising that what really unites our remarkable culture is not some mythical idea of race, or absolute fealty to a monarch, but certain distinguishing values held in common, such as our historical love of liberty. Perhaps there’s even room to mention our peculiarly self-critical and ironical sense of humour.
So here, at any rate, is my own submission for a new national anthem:
We’re made of waves of immigrants,
Who come in from the sea:
Jealous of privacy.
And one thing’s certain about our roots,
On our path to liberty:
From Magna Carta to the suffragettes
We always have been free.
Through industry and irony
We always shall be free.
At the very least, perhaps my own poor efforts will stimulate others to put forward their own versions of a new English national anthem, and their own arguments too as to why some features of our culture deserve greater emphasis than others.