Heavy-handed it may be, but this World Cup take on God Save the Queen moves Englishness beyond Anglo-Saxon whiteness (published in the Guardian)
There are a lot of tedious hymns among the national anthems of the world, but God Save the Queen must be one of the most tiresome. In its attempt to rouse national passions, it only seems to depress. It will stumble tunelessly from the jowls of thousands of England fans this Saturday, offering its unwelcome benediction, casting a morose pall overRustenburg. And that’s all without even considering its words.
Most national anthems try to evoke some kind of narrative, some kind of heroic claim or at least endearing description of the nation. God Save the Queen does nothing of the sort. Instead, it asks a deity to ensure that those singing can live in eternal thrall to a monarch (“long to reign over us”) – a quite pathetic request in the 21st century. There is little redeeming about the song; its merciful brevity (a little over 30 seconds when sung at football matches) is its most striking virtue.
So it was with a great degree of surprise that I found myself positively stirred by a rendition of God Save the Queen. Ahead of the World Cup,Umbro released an ad featuring its official red England football top. The short TV spot dresses a range of everyday English people in the shirt, poses them in a collage of everyday English locations, and has them mouth the words to God Save the Queen – the soundtrack that builds and wanes over the course of the minute-long film – as if they were England footballers standing to attention before kick-off.
The video succeeds on a number of levels. First, it elegantly evokes the power of national-team football, of how an incoherent country can come together on the pitch, how, as the historian Eric Hobsbawm once wrote: “The imagined community of millions seems more real as a team of 11 people.” Second, the video doesn’t try to glorify the singing of the anthem, but finds dignity in its choice of humble milieu and modest characters.
Last, and most important, it implicitly makes an argument about Englishness by picking half of its cast from non-white minority groups. Some would roll their eyes and dismiss this as “political correctness gone mad”. Others would say it’s heavy handed to leave the closing line to a head-scarfed Asian woman, one of the more potent icons of cultural difference and its discontents in contemporary Britain. Indeed, reactionsto the video (many of which Umbro has removed) suggest that the shriller reaches of the internet were quick to take umbrage at the ad’s racial balancing act.
The ad is heavy-handed. It may commit all the supposedly egregious sins of “political correctness” that make commenters harrumph loudly across the internet. But that is because it presents a simple but bold challenge to both the culture of support around England’s football team and, more broadly, to what it means to be English. (Before I get carried away here, I accept that the ad’s purpose first-and-foremost is to sell Umbro products, and that its message is probably part of a scrupulously researched and strategised reconfiguration of Umbro’s brand. That does not make the content of the message irrelevant.)
Despite demographic shifts in attendance across domestic English football, support for the England football team remains strikingly monochrome and prone to the uglier, irredentist passions of the land. Other trappings of Englishness like the cross of St George are increasingly seen as the preserve of the “white working class,” and, more worryingly, as the symbol of far-right groups like the EDL. At the same time, many non-white Britons living in England refuse to call themselves “English”, retaining instead the increasingly anachronistic term “British”, which to them seems like a cosier, all-encompassing refuge from the buffeting ethnic winds of Englishness.
The Umbro ad is not trying to “play it safe” in its inclusion of so many black and Asian figures. Such quantity only buttresses the ad’s unwavering assertion of multicultural English – not British – identity. This kind of claim is overdue. In an era of devolution, to be English must denote more than Anglo-Saxon whiteness; otherwise, Englishness will become a meaningless, dead category, which only racists attempt to raise ghoulishly from the earth. As one of the principal points of English solidarity, the England football team and its fans doubtless have a part to play in mirroring (if not effecting) this transformation. And if God Save the Queen must remain the glue that binds, so be it.