Look, I don’t like the bloody thing either. That, though, is why I’ve never put myself forward for a job where I’m expected, on occasion, to sing it. I’m a republican too: you won’t catch me volunteering to sing Her Majesty’s praises. I don’t really go in for the pomp and ceremony that gaudily rivets monarchy to nation. In fact, I despise formal occasions of all kinds. Displays of prestige and power raise my hackles. I’m an egalitarian by instinct.
Nonetheless, if by some kink of fate I happened to find myself at an event memorialising the Battle of Britain, and singing the anthem was part of that ceremony, I’d probably swallow my pride and sing it. I wouldn’t like singing it. I’d feel slightly compromised by doing so, and somewhat uncomfortable, as I do when I sing to a god I don’t believe in at weddings and funerals, but I would do it, and for the same reasons. At a friend’s wedding, you follow the rituals according to their wishes, for their sake. Likewise, at an event marking Our Finest Hour I would sing (or at least mouth) for the occasion, not for Liz.
At the very least I would be keenly aware of how it would look to others if I refused to join in. No matter what my intention, not singing, in defiance of convention, could easily be construed as disrespectful. Not just disrespectful to the institution of monarchy, but to the other participants, and, by extension, the memory of those being honoured by the occasion. There are few things the British are prouder of than their armed forces, and almost nothing they respect more than the generation that beat back fascism. If I was the leader of a political party, particularly one only recently in the job, I’m not sure I’d want to risk making such an impression.
The one thing I could be absolutely certain of, however, is that if I went against my better instincts and stood there in “respectful silence” while all around me were in hearty unison, people would notice. I might think my gesture of defiance was a small one, unworthy of much comment, but I could hardly expect my political opponents to agree with me on that. I’d fully expect them to seize on anything that painted me as ungracious or unpatriotic, especially so if I already had a bit of a reputation for going on Russian television and saying dodgy things about terrorists and Western armed forces. My followers might be loyal enough to think any criticism of me an outrage by definition, but I would know what’s coming, for sure.
I might sincerely want to do politics differently, and I might get cheered by big crowds when I said that. I may be hostile to the media, and my supporters may share in that hostility. But I would have no reason to think that my enemies were obliged to play by my rules. I would be surprised if the rightwing media didn’t rubbish me: that is what they do. I could hardly blame them for kicking the ball if I’ve put it at their feet.
The fact that Jeremy Corbyn apparently needs a spin doctor to tell him all this is precisely why his leadership of the Labour party is guaranteed to be a disaster.
Corbyn is a man who has spent his career on the margins of public life, ensconced in a world of hard left politics where ideological inflexibility is seen as a virtue, and where you are so removed from both mainstream thought and the responsibilities of governing that challenges to your beliefs remain distant, and theoretical.
As Corbyn makes his omnishambolic way into the limelight, it becomes harder to resist the conclusion that here is a small man elevated way above his station by a wave of misplaced hope and idealistic credulity. His natural home is the soapbox and the megaphone; thrust into the responsibilities of leadership he appears woefully ill prepared.
When I see Corbyn’s supporters squealing about the negative coverage he receives, I can’t help but wonder what they were expecting. The press were hardly going to lay down flowers for man with his record and his views.
In the wake of the controversy over the national anthem there was even an online petition: “STOP THE BRITISH MEDIA’S SMEAR CAMPAIGN ON JEREMY CORBYN“. At the time of writing, it has over 16,000 signatures. The people who signed that petition won’t think of themselves as intolerant, but they are demanding the suppression of speech simply because that speech is critical of the Dear Leader. That they probably consider themselves decent, open-minded, liberal people has sinister implications. Who, exactly, is meant to be doing the ‘stopping’ here?
One can already detect in all the cries of “smears” and “smokescreens” the outline of the narrative that will be used to explain away Corbyn’s inevitable failure. It won’t be because his supporters made the wrong choice. It won’t be because their expectations were hopelessly unrealistic. It won’t be because Corbyn is a mediocre man with strange views that are anathema to the British people. No. No. No. It will be down to the ‘establishment’ and the ‘elites’ (words which mean whatever the user wishes them to mean) and their mouthpieces in the wicked media conspiring against him. If Corbyn had been given a fair chance, they will argue, if the papers hadn’t been so mean to Corbyn, then the public would have loved him like they do.
Those upset by the focus on Corbyn not singing the national anthem argue that a small thing has been blown up into a big thing. They’re right: it is of little consequence. What they fail to realise, however, is that small things can speak volumes.