There’s a political scandal on the level of Watergate rocking our nation and those who just love Britain can’t stop talking about it. The newly elected leader of Her Majesty’s opposition decided to mark the 75th anniversary of the Battle of Britain by not singing the national anthem. The reasons why this is bad and terrible have varied depending on who you ask but the main two are as follows: It’s disrespectful to the fallen and that it’s the duty of a leading politician to pay lip service to the unelected figure who they’re supposed to politely ask for permission to run the country, sorry our gracious Sovereign, God bless her.
Those in both the Conservative and Labour parties who have come out against Mr. Corbyn’s decision to stay silent have all said that it’s a mark of respect for the dead to sing the anthem. The implication is that any other way of showing respect, even if it’s more personal or more sincere is, through ignorance or active malice, disrespectful. In truth there are many ways to show your respect and sympathy for those who suffered and died as well as a host of reasons why someone might not think that singing the national anthem is the best way of doing it. The fact that we have the freedom to choose has been brought up, the fact that plenty of athletes, footballers and rugby players don’t sing for whatever reason has been mentioned. Republicanism, Pacifism and even Agnosticism are valid reasons for not wanting to sing God Save the Queen. But obviously this is different as it’s a political leader with a great number of eyes on him. Some people have claimed that it was a political stunt to not sing, if he had come out before the ceremony and said that he wouldn’t be singing and drawn attention to the fact then I would agree. If he had tried to get others to not sing or even sang something else I would agree. However a statement was put out before the ceremony praising the contributions of the pilots and their sacrifices at the battle of Britain, he has spoken in glowing terms about the service itself and his silence was only brought up when people began to criticize.
This is where the question of respect really needs to be turned on its head. The real disrespectful act when it comes to national loss is to make the commemorations about showing off your own personal morality. The politicians who made sure the cameras saw them singing, everyone who has jumped to let everyone else know that they think it’s disrespectful not to sing and the pundits who have written about the ceremony (I’m aware of the hypocrisy, thank you) are more interested in showing the world that they respect the dead than actually respecting them. I’m reminded of the scene in the fourth series of the Thick of It when Nicola Murray is due to present a wreath at the cenotaph to mark the World War 1 memorial and spends a good hour practicing a solemn walk so she looks the part. Is that what we want? Public figures more concerned with being seen to be honouring the dead in some arbitrarily decided “proper” way rather than marking it in a sincere manner? There’s nothing wrong with singing the national anthem but people are all too eager to trumpet their respect for the dead, even to the point where the purpose of the ceremony is lost. It’s a different war but we see this kind of thing every year in November when some people choose not to wear a poppy. The assumption is that they’re being smug and disrespectful whereas some of them would rather not be told the right way to show their appreciation for those affected by an international tragedy. To use a personal example, I tend not to wear a poppy but I’m happy to donate to the British Legion. I will never sing the national anthem during a WW1 commemoration, I see the war as 3 members of that family wasting the lives of their people. But it’s important to stress that that’s just my own way of doing things. The choice to observe the commemoration of the Battle of Britain or any wartime event with silence allows for a personal appreciation of people who went through so much, many of whom, including pilots at the Battle of Britain, were from other countries, just as singing the national anthem can let you vocalize that appreciation.
The other claim, that a possible leader of the country has to toe the line to the queen at every turn is barely worth a mention. In the case of Corbyn: if he had sung his detractors would have called him a hypocrite, especially considering the howling that started when he was due to be given a seat on the privy council. A democratically elected leader should not have to ask an unelected figurehead for permission to form a government, however symbolic or traditional the ceremony may be but that’s the system we live in. I don’t doubt Corbyn will take his seat on the privy council as is tradition for the leader of the opposition for political reasons, he swore an oath of allegiance when he first took his parliamentary seat and the privy council receive special briefings from the security services. Maybe he will try to change the relationship between the crown and the opposition but that’s a constitutional question that has nothing at all to do with singing the anthem at a war memorial.
Republicanism aside, people have the right to give respect to the war dead and those who endured World War Two in whatever way they see fit. If you choose to observe a contemplative silence, as I probably would myself, then go ahead. If you feel that the best way to show your appreciation is to sing the national anthem then belt it out with pride. The absolute worst thing you can do is make the event about yourself or try to grandstand by putting down someone else with appeals to tradition or worse, morality. Those who suffered so much during the war deserve better than that.
Again, I’m aware of the hypocrisy.