Over the weekend, I lost a bet. So I had to sing “America the Beautiful” live to 750 hardcore gamers. Their reaction – kind remarks about my singing voice aside – was extraordinary. An outpouring of “USA! USA” and other patriotic epithets from the sort of people you wouldn’t normally associate with the tub-thumping exceptionalism of the NRA or the Tea Party.
And it reminded me how pathetically poorly British people celebrate their own nation. The self-effacement of the previous century has warped into a sort of middle-class phobia of being seen as patriotic, because somehow to be proud of one’s nation is to be in some way racist or to deny the postmodern creed that every country is just as nice as every other country and that all cultures are equally valid.
All cultures are not equally valid. That’s why, when you ask protesters – whether they’re anti-cuts, pro-Gaza, you name it – where they’d rather live, there’s a bit of an awkward silence before they admit that yes, this is probably one of the best countries in the world and given the choice, they’d stay put.
What they intuit, but perhaps can’t articulate, is why. A book that answers that question is Tory MEP Daniel Hannan’s How We Invented Freedom. I know I bang on about this book all the time, but it really is the best explanation I’ve read in years of why Britain really is one of the greatest nations on earth.
The United Kingdom did not invent democracy, liberty, property rights, capitalism or personal responsibility. But it unarguably did more than any other nation to spread those values to all four corners of the globe. They are the things that make the world a nice place to live. Where these values flourish, you find happy people and booming economies, such as Britain’s greatest contribution to the world: the United States of America.
All of which makes people like me, who spent most or all of their formative years in England, the greatest member of our union, and who love this country, for all its faults, a bit narked. How come Americans get the Fourth of July, proud flag-waving, brotherly sing-songs and proudly patriotic, elevating moments of national life. How come all we’re left with is the Last Night of the Proms?
I reckon it’s time to reclaim our national pride, and, to kick-start the process, we should use the excuse of the Scottish referendum to demand an English national anthem – something we can play at football matches to drown out the bone-scratching horror of the Scottish national song. No offence to Her Maj, but God Save The Queen is a song that unites Britain, while I believe England deserves its own tune.
This is the country of Oxford and Cambridge, of the Industrial Revolution, of the common law that provided the vast majority of the world with the intellectual underpinnings of their legal systems, of Shakespeare and of Turner, of Christopher Wren. It has a strong claim to the title of the world’s most culturally significant country in human history.
No offence to our brothers and sisters across the borders, but the Welsh, Scots and Irish never shut up about their unique cultural identities and proud heritage. Yet what can we say Wales or Ireland, or even, yes, Scotland, has produced that compares to the extraordinary majesty and accomplishment of England?
Patriotism isn’t a dirty word. I know the Last Night has become something that trendy Londoners love to sneer at. But plenty of the rest of us – those of us who didn’t queue outside the Royal Albert Hall for tickets – sit at home with the tears welling up, enjoying this moment of national, and quite distinctively English, pride.
Should we really allow snobbery, or a misplaced sense of guilt about injustices, real or imagined, and silly ideas about the “death of patriotism” to prevent us from celebrating the history of this great nation? Let’s snatch the title of world’s greatest national anthem from the Yanks. Their infuriatingly glorious Star-Spangled Banner (whose tune was written by a bloke from Gloucestershire – I mean, of course it was) has reigned for long enough.
Of course, this is a debate that surfaces every few years. But something tells me that the geopolitical threats we currently face, and the ingratitude and in some cases outright hatred displayed by the Scots during their referendum, has prompted something of a resurgence in the idea of an English national identity, which until now has been monopolised by unsavoury characters in the English Defence League and the BNP.
All that remains is to choose our anthem – a song we can reclaim from the racists and proudly sing wherever we go in the world, whether far-flung nations for global sporting tournaments, or Edinburgh for a friendly family kickabout. The time for shame about Englishness is over. So: will it be Jerusalem? Land of Hope and Glory? Whatever you do, promise me you won’t vote for Three Lions on a Shirt.