If, like me, you are a football fan then you will already be getting vague itchings of world cup fever. Yet, as things draw nearer another feeling may come over you. It will be a feeling of dread for the ridiculous spectacle with which England begins every match.
At the world cup, every national anthem has the potential to be silly and tasteless. The music is poor and players look embarassed. Yet we in England have particular reason to feel hard done by when it comes to the anthem foisted upon us. The anthems of other countries do, in some way or another, tend to celebrate the nation at large, and the people who constitute it. By contrast our national anthem – or at least the bit that gets sung – invokes nobody but the monarch, as though she were the nation. It is, in other words, predicated on a conception of nationhood which was anachronistic even in the 19th century.
But do not fear, for there is potentially an alternative afoot. Given that the language of patriotism has long been dominated by the right, it is quite remarkable that there exists an ‘unofficial’ anthem that is as radical as it is popular. Jeruasalem is a song that is unlike other anthems. Most national anthems are intrinsically conservative insofar as they celebrate what is. By contrast Jerusalem does not celebrate the England that we see before us. Rather it is a hymn to what might be built and what might be done. Love for one’s country is invoked as a call to action, as a call for change.
There is indeed a certain backward looking element to it. Yet this should be understood within the traditions English radicalism at the time. Amongst the chartists in the 1830s and 1840s, amongst the radical clubs and associations of the 1790s and many before them it was common to invoke a semi-mythical pre-Norman England. I’m doing so radical reformers were able to look so far back that they could look forward: Onto the ancient Anglo-Saxon society – for which knowledge was scarce – such men were able to project their vision for how they wished society to be organised in the future. It is within this tradition that I think Jerusalem stands.
There is one final context-specific reason why this song strikes a chord. It is that today people rarely conceive of building the new Jerusalem in England. One part of the left has bought into exagerrated pragmatism – to the idea of making the best of things within the existing parameters, and all the conservativism that this implies. Meanwhile on the ‘real’ left, revolutionary change is to rarely imagined as a potentially british experience. Similarly, liberal gap year students seem to love the poor as long as they are somewhat exotic. Speaking for myself I know that before I went to university I had read more than one bio of Che but could not name anybody who had lead the chartists.
So who will join me in my crusade to make Jerusalem the world cup anthem?