Don’t know your anthem? Then you best not be an asylum seeker

Mohammed Al-Mustafa – refused asylum in the UK partly for not knowing his country’s anthem. Copyright: Martin Godwin/The Guardian. Sorry for stealing photos… again

The Guardian’s long followed the case of Mohammed Al-Mustafa, a 36-year-old Palestinian who’s lived in the UK for eight years.

He’s stuck in legal limbo. He applied for asylum, but the government said he was Palestinian so could go home. He tried to – twice – but there’s a problem: he can’t actually leave as he has no Palestinian papers (he left that country age 5, and both his parents died ages ago).

He’s since applied to be declared “stateless”, which would allow him to stay in the UK permanently. But to get that designation, he has to prove he’s Palestinian and apparently the government’s Home Office doesn’t believe him!

For what reasons? Bizarrely, one is the fact he couldn’t sing Palestine’s national anthem when asked. “I know the name of the anthem is al Fida’i, but I didn’t memorise the words and I told them, it’s not about words. We can’t get the country back because of the words,” Al-Mohammed told The Guardian.

What’s going to happen to Mohammed now? God knows.

But a quick note for any Home Office staff reading: although Fida’i is Palestine’s official anthem, many Palestinians consider it a political tune chosen by the Palestinian Liberation Organisation. For them, the anthem would actually be this song, Mawtini:

Oh, and to whoever made the decision: what proportion of Brits actually know all the words to God Save the Queen?

In, in, in, innnnnnnnnn: why Beethoven wouldn’t have wanted a Brexit


Beethoven’s Ode to Joy – the climax of his ninth symphony – has one of the strangest histories in music. Since its premiere in 1824, it’s been used by everyone from French socialists to Nazis, Tiananmen Square protesters to racists (it was Rhodesia’s anthem in the 1970s before the country became Zimbabwe).

But this week, as the UK’s Brexit referendum occurs, it needs to be highlighted for one particular part of its history: for being the anthem of the European Union.

Why did the EU choose Ode to Joy? Largely because of one man: Paul Lévy, a Belgian Holocaust survivor who in 1962 was director of information at the Council of Europe, one of the EU’s many forerunner.

That year, Lévy found himself being deluged with songs from seemingly every amateur songwriter in Europe desperately hoping to give the continent its theme tune. “Some aren’t bad,” he wrote to a colleague. “Others would make a bald man’s hair stand on end.”

All those submissions made him realise one thing: that Europe couldn’t have some unknown’s “anodyne, simple little tune” as its anthem. How would that inspire anyone? It needed a great work instead: a true example of European achievement; one that could uplift anyone’s soul. At the top of his list: Ode to Joy.

The Council adopted it a few years later; the EU a few years after that. Weirdly they both decided to commission a former Nazi to do the arrangement, the conductor Herbert von Karajan. Hardly the best start.

They also decided to remove the words believing, probably rightly, that no one except Germans would sing in German. Although that probably doomed the anthem from the outset. How can people sing a song without words?

Clearly, Ode to Joy hasn’t worked as the EU’s anthem. It hasn’t brought the continent together one bit.

The EU’s own surveys suggest only a third of Europeans even realise the bloc has an anthem. I assume even fewer know it’s Ode to Joy. Some probably think it’s the Champions League theme (“The champions!”).

But regardless, I’m pretty sure Beethoven would be proud to have the title. He wrote his ninth symphony to Joy at a time when Europe was anything but unifed, yet he chose to include in it a poem that literally calls for “all men to become brothers”.

He even added some of his own words to the start that seem to be calling people to move beyond nationalism: “Oh friends, not these sounds. Let us instead strike up more pleasant and more joyful ones.”

You could argue that he would have hated the EU. Beethoven wrote plenty of pieces of patriotic music for Austria and he also seemed happy to stoke nationalist feelings across Europe during his career. In 1803, for instance, he wrote seven variations on God Save the Queen. A decade later, he included both that anthem and Rule Britannia in his appalling Battle Symphony – a 14-minute crowd pleaser seemingly written solely to get the money rolling in from England.

But with Ode to Joy, his feelings are clear. Listening to it is rather like hearing a hippy strumming a guitar; the sound of someone who has smoked a bit too much dope and decided he can change the world with a song.

Given that, I’m pretty sure if he were alive now, he’d be campaigning for Britain to be remain in Europe. Although perhaps he wouldn’t like what some people have done to his tune around the vote:

Labour desperation and the migrant crisis: the real reasons parliament’s debating an English anthem?

I'm not entirely sure Wayne would sing an English anthem with any more gusto

England’s Brave John Terry and less brave Wayne not singing an English anthem

Yesterday in the UK parliament, MPs debated that most important of issues: whether England should get its own national anthem so people stop singing God Save the Queen at sporting events.

Well, I say they debated it. What actually happened was Toby Perkins, the Labour MP for Chesterfield, introduced the bill and then Conservative MP Jacob Rees-Mogg gave a surprisingly funny 10-minute speech against, in which he warned that an English anthem would destroy the United Kingdom and likely upset Jesus. That sentence will make more sense if you watch the speeches!

A full debate featuring God knows now many MPs will now happen on 3 March.

I spent much of yesterday talking to various TV and radio stations about it – and wrote some quick things for the Telegraph and Guardian too – but about lunchtime a question suddenly hit me: why is this issue getting so much attention now?

The idea of an English anthem has been floated repeatedly since 2006, with most people calling for William Blake’s great Jerusalem, others weirdly for Land of Hope and Glory despite it asking for Britain to re-colonise the world. But those calls have never got as much traction as Perkins’ effort is. Is that simply because we now have Twitter which means even something as bizarre as this gets attention? Is it because people are fed up discussing it and want a solution?

Perhaps, but I think it’s actually got more to do with the recent Scottish independence referendum, discussions over UK membership of the EU and even the migrant crisis – all issues that make many people in England wonder about their national identity and fear it’s being lost.

It’s also, probably, got a teeny bit to do with the disastrous state of the Labour Party under the leadership of the supposedly unpatriotic Jeremy Corbyn (that man who refused to sing God Save the Queen last year). Of the MPs sponsoring the English National Anthem Bill, seven are Labour, four are Conservatives and one’s a Lib Dem.

Is the Labour bias a sign that this is actually a desperate bid by the party to win back some working class support? Toby Perkins would scoff at the idea, of course!