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Source: National Portrait Gallery

Ethno-symbolist Analysis of the British National Anthem


Study of nationalism has been an important research area for many scholars. Since the understanding of a nation-state has become a discussion point for many areas of political science and also international relations, there is a need for analysis of the nations. There are several different approaches, which are perennialism, modernism, ethno-symbolism, within itself. In this study, I will be concerned with ethno-symbolist approach and making of its analysis on the British National Anthem as well.

Understanding of Ethno-symbolist Approach

John Armstrong, John Hutchinson, and Anthony D. Smith are the main representatives of ethno-symbolism. It differs from other approaches by highlighting cultural and symbolic elements of ethnicity from the point of myth, memory, symbol, value, and tradition, which shape communities’ religions, languages, customs, institutions and help them transform to the next generations. Ethno-symbolists criticise modernists due to their understanding of nations and nationalism which emerged with the French and American revolutions. While modernists consider nations as products of modernity, and nationalism as an ideology in order to represent the creation of nations, ethno-symbolists criticise modernists for ignoring “la longue durée” which puts much importance on symbols, traditions, values and myths that go into the making and preservation of nations. Therefore, national identity is accepted as a shape that is formed by political and economic forces in which it develops.[1] In addition, they criticize perennials because of their concern on nations as eternal. On the contrary, ethno-symbolism helps us to compare and link many modern nation-states to earlier ethnic communities. This process is done over “la longue durée” in order to view them as historical communities.[2] Thinking on this way, it puts a question mark about nations having the possibility to emerge before modernity. As an answer of ethno-symbolists, there is a possibility to find examples of nations far back antiquity if we consider human communities sharing the same myths, memories, symbols and traditions. In my opinion, Ancient Greek times can be given as an example. There were many poems encouraging people to be a part of warfare on behalf of their polis’ honour.[3]

In order to be an ethnic community; collective proper name, a myth of common ancestry, shared historical memories, elements of the common culture, specific homeland, sense of solidarity are needed. Dramatic tales referring to their past events with the aim of pointing out the future enables nations to maintain their continuity, and, according to Anthony D. Smith, the nation lies on that nationalistic salvation drama itself.[4] Therefore, we should get into the examination of the British Anthem which is called as “God Save the Queen”.

Analysis of the British National Anthem from an Ethno-symbolist Point of View

Before analyzing the words and sentences within the anthem; having their own events, the history of countries should be gotten into consideration. Because myths of political foundation occur with historical events and each of them changes depending on the history of the country. In addition, those myths, traditions, values and symbols may be interpreted under the light of changed conditions, which means conflicts are within the destiny of nations with the result of revolution and renewal movements.[5] This is called as “cultural wars” by John Hutchinson. According to him, movements could be developed into ethnohistorical revivals resulting in a national language, literature, arts, educational activities, and economic self-help. Thus, those differences usually face with politics, social reactions and as a phenomenon seeking their independence. Hutchinson tries to support his idea by accepting these formations as a moral community through the idea of regeneration that these movements are socially innovative.[6] As an example, changes in British national identity before WWII until today can be considered. In that manner, as ethno-symbolists would do, we should not underestimate the historical events before the British National Anthem.

The British National Anthem goes back to the 18th century. Prince Charles Edward Stuart, who was the ‘Young Pretender’ to the British Throne, defeated the army of King George II near Edinburgh in 1745. After this victory, news had reached London in a very patriotic enthusiasm. Then, the Theatre Royal, Drury Lane arranged a performance as ‘God Save the King’ after a play. This spread to the other theaters, and the way of greeting monarchs started to be put in action with the song as he/she entered in a public place.[7]

Prince Charles Edward Stuart Source: pinterest

The years between 1815 and 1820 were the toughest years in modern British history. Liberal ideas had been spreading all over Britain and the monarchy that was being thought, actually, was not accepted by the British people and also parliament. “British Royal Family” is just a unique ‘symbol’ for the British national identity.[8] Peterloo Massacre played a crucial role in the new version of the British Anthem. Occurred in 1819, Peterloo Massacre was a revolt on behalf of the parliamentary reformation. After the Napoleonic Wars in 1815, despite high unemployment and increasing poverty, new laws which put workers in worse situations had established. Following the bad economic conditions, voting rights had given to the ones having properties and this empowered the radicals. Under the light of historical events and conditions of the British citizens, we can not just talk about a monarchic system that was supported by the British people. There should be a kind of belonging for the symbol of a nation, however, they are also aware of their own rights which we can understand from the revolts against the monarchs by supporting the parliamentary system.

Peterloo Massacre Source:

There is a relation among state formation process, protracted warfare, and organized religion. Cultural differences are the heritage of the state formation process and the ones recording, preserving, transmitting them are accepted as “the guardians of the tradition”. In addition, the myth of common ethnic origins is generally created with spiritual powers.[9] For instance: “servants of God”, “Muhammad”, “Noah in Bible”.

God save our gracious Queen,

Long live our noble Queen,

God save the Queen:

Send her victorious,

Happy and glorious,

Long to reign over us:

God save the Queen.

Under the light of Smith, we can notice a biblical language with the repeated use of ‘God’ and references for ‘God’ to keep her alive, noble, victorious, and happy. In addition, ‘Queen’ is seen as something above the society so as to keep the continuity of British people by mentioning ‘long to reign over us’, and this is done with royal rituals whilst discourses of the past. Because official symbols of the British identity are “The Queen”, “The Union Jack”, and “the British Empire”.

O Lord, our God, arise,

Scatter thine enemies,

And make them fall

Confound their politics,

Frustrate they knavish tricks,

On thee our hopes we fix:

God save us all.   

In the second verse, we can point the acceptance of ‘others’ while they are defining themselves by mentioning about their ‘enemies’. Since British national identity has been built on the celebration of Empire, greatness of British identity is depended on something over and glorious as ‘Queen’ being superior over others by mentioning about confounding ‘politics of other communities’.[10] Also, British people are aware of their ‘security’ and take others as ‘threat’ with the hope of their ‘Queen’ symbol. Because common ethnicity also comes from the fear of the ‘outsider’.[11] We can conclude from this verse that British national identity is depended on their common enemies, historical events, and the perception of others just like other communities’ understanding of national identity.

Thy choicest gifts in store,

On her be pleased to pour;

Long may she defend our laws,

And ever gives us cause

To sing with heart and voice

God save the Queen.

This verse is more important to examine compared to other verses. Because we may highlight a dual purpose in both parodying the religious references and establishing the sovereignty of liberty over any rule.[12] Redirecting the misguided patriotic worship of monarchy, liberty is seen as God. Words should be noticed carefully; there is a transformation from ‘the’ to ‘our’ Queen, which means belonging to the same community for the representation of the whole. In addition, there is a common understanding of ‘laws’ that the Queen represents. Rather there is no single superpower having the control of laws, there is a common control of ruling -we might point the historical Peterloo event defending their parliamentary system and other laws that passed over the authority of monarch- in the whole community.


In conclusion, ethno-symbolism puts much importance on communities’ ethnicity and continuity, historical events affecting their significance, national identity as an analytical tool rather than an object of analysis, balanced view of their past and present influencing their future formation and transformation. While historical events change, so do individuals’ situation having an effect on the group identification. Thus, identification may vary depending on periods, but the continuity is the main element. This situation makes ethnicity to be used by elites as ‘instrument’ in order to reach their goals. Collective experience that highlights the ideals and heroes of the community is pointed out in the British National Anthem. In their National Anthem, they mention about their “la longue durée”, religious belief protecting their symbol that is the ‘Queen’, acceptance and condemnation of outsiders, political role in which they participate by adapting laws as ‘theirs’ instead of a monarch. The ethno-symbolist approach demonstrates that British identity has come up neither with the emergence of modern nation-states nor eternity -since there is no evidence accordingly-. We should make connections with British history, myths, traditions, symbols in order to have a conclusion about British identity. In that sense, we can see liberal revolts as memories, belief in God as myth, British Royal Family (‘Queen’) as their symbol which shape British community’s language, religion, customs and institutions.



Hutchinson, John, Cultural Nationalism, Oxford Publishing, Oxford, 2013.

Morgan, Alison, ’God Save Our Queen!’ Percy Bysshe Shelley and Radical Appropriations of the British National Anthem, Edinburg University Press, 2014.

Omelicheva, Mariya Y., Nationalism and Identity Construction in Central Asia: Deminsions, Dynamics, and Directions, Lexington Books, London, 2015.

Parker, Charlotte, On the Edge of Britishness: The Rupture of a National Identity, Taylor&Francis, 2019.

Smith, Anthony, Ethnosymbolism, London School of Economics.

Smith, Anthony, National Identity, Penguin Books, London, 1991.

The Royal Family, National Anthem,, 27.05.2020.


[1] Mariya Y. Omelicheva, Nationalism and Identity Construction in Central Asia: Deminsions, Dynamics, and Directions, Lexington Books, London, 2015, p.10.

[2] Anthony D. Smith, Ethnosymbolism, London School of Economics, p. 1

[3] Homeros’ writings about the virtue of people taking place in warfare. “The Iliad-Homer”

[4] Anthony D. Smith, National Identity, Penguin Books, London, 1991, p. 20

[5] Anthony D. Smith, Ethnosymbolism, London School of Economics, p. 2

[6] John Hutchinson, Cultural Nationalism, Oxford Publishing, Oxford, 2013, p. 1.

[7] The Royal Family, National Anthem,, 27.05.2020.

[8] Tom Nairn, Britain and Its Monarchy, 1994.

[9] Anthony D. Smith, National Identity, Penguin Books, London, 1991, p. 27

[10] Charlotte Parker, On the Edge of Britishness: The Rupture of a National Identity, Taylor&Francis, 2019, p. 8.

[11] Anthony D. Smith, National Identity, Penguin Books, London, 1991, p. 27

[12] Alison Morgan, ‘God Save Our Queen!’ Percy Bysshe Shelley and Radical Appropriations of the British National Anthem, Edinburg University Press, 2014, p. 68.