There’s something of an authoritarian streak about the tone of the debate over whether the new British leader of the opposition Labour Party should have sung his country’s national anthem – ‘God Save the Queen’.
At Jeremy Corbyn’s first official engagement since taking over the party last weekend came the first example of the tensions between power and principle.
Mr Corbyn, an avowed republican stood through the national anthem in silence at a Battle of Britain memorial. He remained tight-lipped as dignitaries and veterans around him sang the words. This has led to a deluge of criticism across much of the British media today.
For example the Conservative MP Andrew Rosindell said: “It’s his duty, and the duty of any leader that seeks to be Prime Minister, to accept we are the nation that we are.”
That is manifestly untrue. Mr Corbyn is entitled to his view that the monarchy is an unfair, outdated anachronism in a modern, 21stc democracy. That his view is a minority one, not shared by most of the British public, is not the point.
He does not have to accept the country as it is. He went into politics to change the country. Follow Mr Rosindell’s logic and the British public would only be allowed to vote for people who fit a very narrow definition of who is allowed to stand for office. This is the system used in Iran and results in only people accepted by the Ayatollahs being allowed into national politics.
The Labour leader had praised the heroism of the RAF during WW2, and his allies defended his silence. A spokesman said: “Jeremy attended to show respect for those who fought in conflicts for Britain. He stood in respectful silence during the anthem”.
Many critics of Mr Corbyn, (and the W&Y has been very critical of his choice of friends) appear to be arguing that he should not stand on his principles, and that he should be publically seen to be a hypocrite by singing – “God save our gracious Queen… Long to reign over us” when he clearly, and for well-argued reasons, does not want that as a political system.
As a pacifist and atheist he might also have issues with the parts of the anthem which exhort God to”…arise, Scatter her enemies. And make them fall”, although “Frustrate their knavish tricks” might be acceptable. As an internationalist he could empathize with
“Lord make the nations see
That men should brothers be
And form one family
The wide world over”
however, this still is invoked in God’s name and in honour of the monarch and so remains problematic.
Next week there will be a sterner test of his principles when he has to kneel down before the Queen, kiss her hand and swear he is her ‘true and faithful servant’. This is part of the ceremony to become a ‘Privy Counsellor’. Being on the Privy Council allows you to be briefed on top security matters by government officials. According to the Sun newspaper it also allows about £6 million in state funds to be given to your party.
A few hard left supporters will accuse him of selling out, many of his legions of enemies will take delight in the discomfort his kneeling position will cause him. However, there is a difference between not singing the national anthem, and taking the oath.
One is a personal choice freely expressed in a free country which does not demand absolute loyalty to an absolutist leader. The other is matter of symbolic process and one on which, if he does not compromise, he will be kept out of the picture and denied some of the state funds allocated so that he can better do the job his party elected him to do.
There is of course the argument that Mr Corbyn can be a republican and atheist as an individual but that he attended the function as representative of Her Majesty’s Opposition, which itself contains many and varied views. There is logic in this approach, but the Party elected him knowing his views on these crucial issues, and either way it does not mean that he must “accept the nation that we are “.
He will be working within the system in order to try change it. That is a better choice than working outside of it. It is indeed, the British way.