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England’s Serbian moment

Wednesday, January 13th was a day that is not going to be remembered as particularly crucial if the Brexit referendum does not yield an exit result and Scotland does not decide on a second “in-or-out” referendum. But, if the U.K comes apart, it will be as good a date as any to begin the story of how English nationalism surged in reaction to emerging peripheral nationalisms, spelling doom for the idea of the United Kingdom.

“God save the Queen” is not an anthem, but it is well-known, and almost all Britons know the lyrics; the operative word being “Britons.” Amidst a surge in regional nationalism and pressures for ever-greater devolution and assertions of regional, national identity, an English Member of Parliament moved to propose an English anthem, the operative word being English. Of course, this story begins in Scotland.

Scotland has a series of songs that serve as the national anthem, occasionally featuring bagpipes, used in sporting events and known as the Flower of Scotlandalthough another more bellicose Scots Wha Hae also serves the purpose. Again, these songs serve the purpose of an anthem but are not enshrined in law. In 2015, there was a petition to have the Scottish parliament adopt a national anthem; that in itself would be a bit of a challenge to the House of Commons and Britain, which for some was a very welcome prospect. But, in March 2015, the Scottish Parliament decided not to decide, mostly because Members of the Scottish Parliament could not risk opting for a song that would not unite all Scotts. In a statement that does credit to the nationalist SNP administration at the time, it was suggested that “whether Scotland should officially adopt a national anthem” should not be a matter for one party to decide. But, that was definitely not the end of the story.

This week Mr Toby Perkin, a Labour MP of Chesterfield, suggested that England should have a national anthem, in a conviction that very much recalls similar nationalist discourse in former Yugoslavia, when Serbia began asserting its own national identity.  And indeed the British House of Commons will be voting for whether or not an English National Anthem is needed, on March 4th. Significantly, there is no English national parliament, and it will be interesting to see whether Scottish MPs will vote or opt out. And if that did happen, would the Secretary of State for Culture, Media and Sport be expected to grand everyone their own, Welsh, Irish, and Scotts.

Mr Perkins suggested that signing about Britain while others sing about their nation was “incongruous,” that is an ancient English word that stands for counterintuitive. However, he also made a point the Welsh, and the Scotts would gladly embrace since he suggested that this use of the “God Save the Queen” anthem suggested Britain and England were synonyms; and thus, the British House of Commons had its Yugoslav moment.

Of course the MP from Chesterfield believed he was on to something, not least some votes, because as it happens there are two — “England in My Heart” and “Anthem for England” campaigns that have nominated Jerusalem as the song “of their heart” that could serve the purpose of a national anthem. Mr Cameron has come out to support the song as well in 2012, which might have a bright preemptive endorsement because UKIP is the iconic party of English nationalism and Nigel Farage the master of divide and-not-always-rule politics.

When the debate between Irish, English, and Scottish MPs starts in the House of Commons on the matter of a national anthem – a discussion that will be about competence and procedure as well as choosing a song – then Britain will live another Yugoslav moment.

Until then, like Canada, loyalty to Britishness may be saved by second-generation migrants who, as in Canada, but are very interested in the debate because it is about identity. In former Yugoslavia, there were many Bosnians – later referred to as “mixed” nationals – who referred to themselves Yugoslavs. For some people, British is all there is as an identity but, paradoxically, they are not considered natives to the island complex.