Wednesday, February 8, 2017

The Passing Show: National Anthems (1959)

The Passing Show column from the July 1959 issue of the Socialist Standard

National Anthems
There is a famous story to the effect that the King and Queen of a foreign country used to hold hands whenever their National Anthem was played, and say to each other “Darling, this is our tune." But apart from monarchs, National Anthems appear to have few friends in these unpatriotic days. The writer has often been nearly trampled underfoot in the fierce rush for the exits which cinema audiences make at the end of the programme, in order to avoid having to stand through “God Save the Queen.”

This has no doubt given our rulers pause for thought. For centuries the workers have been encouraged to rally round the flag, and defend their masters' profits on the battlefield, by the singing of patriotic songs and anthems. This was so useful to the ruling class that they could hardly be expected to let the habit die out without some effort to preserve it.

“God Save Nato"
If a third world war comes, it seems likely at present that the NATO powers will all be on the same side. So the latest production in the patriotic song line is the “NATO hymn,” copies of which were sent recently to many schools in this country. The help of God is freely invoked, the Almighty making his appearance in the very first line. The exact aim of the hymn is a little obscure. The first verse says “ Let . . . violence disappear.” while the second demands “ Build up the power of right . . . Let NATO grow in might, and put its foes to flight.” How exactly NATO is to put its foes to flight, and violence is to disappear simultaneously, is not made clear. Presumably the NATO armies are to be trained to spring out from behind convenient corners, and all shout “ Boo!” at the same time: at which the Russians will burst into tears and run away.

But these criticisms no doubt approach the subject from the wrong angle. Patriotic songs do not, and are not meant to, appeal to reason; they rely on rousing the emotions. G. K. Chesterton remarked that to say ‘‘My country, right or wrong,” was like saying “My mother, drunk or sober.” But “My country, right or wrong,” is just the feeling that a national anthem aims to instill. The NATO hymn is well in the tradition of previous patriotic anthems.

Even the Manchester Guardian, which whole-heartedly supports NATO, found that the NATO song's invocation of God stuck in its gullet. It quoted Sir John Squire's famous verse (21-4-59):
God heard the nations shout
  “Gott strafe England" "God save the King,"
God this, God that and God the other thing.
  "Good God! said God. "I've got my work cut out."
The Manchester Guardian thinks that a righteous God will be on NATO’s side; but his help, it believes, ought to be asked a little more decorously. This will, no doubt, not prevent the paper urging us on to battle in any third world war just as it did in the first two.

The Poverty of "Our" Judges
The Labour Party, which claims to represent the organised workers, appears to be angling for the support of a small group of labourers who have not yet formed themselves in a union affiliated to the T. U. C. The sons of toil in question are the county court judges and the Metropolitan magistrates. The Labour Party when in power attempted to enforce a wage-freeze on the miners and railwaymen, but it is not doctrinnaire about these things. One of the Ministers in the post-war Labour Government was Mr., now Lord, Silkin; and he realises that there are some people who ought to be free from the wage-restraints he and his colleagues recommended to the workers. In 1957 the county court judges’ salaries were raised to £3,750 per annum, and those of the Metropolitan magistrates to £3,400 (Manchester Guardian, 13-5-59). Now they are to be raised again, to £4,400 and £3,800 respectively. No one in the Lords spoke more enthusiastically in support than the Labour Lord Silkin. “There is no doubt in my mind," he said, "that a good many of our county court judges particularly, and magistrates, have been living in relative penury in the last few years—certainly since the war.”

What a wonderful word "relative” is! No doubt the judges and magistrates are poorer than the richest members of the ruling class. But if Lord Silkin is so worried about the "relative penury” of the judges, why couldn't he spare a word for the poverty in which many members of the working class have to live? There’s nothing relative about that.

“Something For Nothing”
Field-Marshal Montgomery said at the Founders’ Day celebration at the Royal Hospital. Chelsea, "I shall be very sorry when National Service comes to an end, as 1 think it is good for young people to learn to give something for nothing.” (Observer, 21-5-59.) 4

Such [as] a thrust in the stomach with a bayonet?

But Lord Montgomery needn't be sorry. For the ninety per cent. of the population who belong to the working class, their entire lives are spent giving something for nothing. Their employers exact surplus value from them: the value of their work over and above what they are paid. Without the workers giving "something for nothing” throughout their working lives, the capitalist system would collapse.

Perhaps that is what Lord Montgomery is afraid of.
Alwyn Edgar


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