For North Korea, it is a rousing anthem with a bold opening line: “Let morning shine on the silver and gold of our land.” For Vladimir Putin, it’s a chanson-like melody, Where does the motherland begin?, from his favourite Soviet spy film. And for Gavin Williamson, it’s a new “patriotic” song with the chorus line “Strong Britain, Great Nation”.
The education secretary has provoked outrage – both real and amused – for suggesting children should sing the song on Friday to mark “One Britain, One Nation” (OBON) day. Williamson has praised the campaign by a former policeman, Kash Singh, and encouraged all schools to take part. “Children can learn about our shared values of tolerance, kindness, pride and respect,” the education department tweeted.
A video of the song sung by Bradford schoolchildren features the flags of England, Northern Ireland, Scotland and Wales. Footage shows them waving union jacks and posing for group photos holding the OBON banner. The lyrics say: “We are British and we have one dream / To unite all people in one great team.” The song ends with the words: “Strong Britain, Great Nation!” repeated four times.
Critics pointed out that most Scottish schools will have already broken up by Friday for the summer holidays. And, they note, Northern Ireland is not a part of Great Britain. Others have gone further – posting memes with Boris Johnson’s face pasted on the body of North Korea’s Kim Jong-un.
There have been inevitable comparisons with the Hitler Youth and with the school song sung by millions of young East German communist pioneers: “Uns’re Heimat”, or “Our homeland”. Some have suggested alternative patriotic anthems, including the Sex Pistols’ God Save the Queen or Pink Floyd’s We Don’t Need No Education. Comments have ranged from “brainwashing” and “stomach-churning”, to “hyper-creepy”.
Even the usually flag-waving Daily Express struck a sceptical note on Wednesday, reporting that some parents have threatened to boycott the event and to take their children out of school in protest. “Leaving aside the significant concern that this all seems very Hitler Youth, why on earth are you encouraging singing in schools during a global pandemic when cases are rising in schools?” one asked Williamson on Twitter.
Meanwhile the LBC host James O’Brien played the song on his show on Wednesday while standing ironically to attention. Striking a tone both weary and incredulous, he said: “I wish I was joking. It’s real. It’s actually real. I don’t know how much time we can spend on it without collapsing into fits of giggles coupled with a really weird sense of desolation.”
Singh defended his concept, which began in Bradford and West Yorkshire. He said it had been “very successful indeed”. “This country is a brilliant country, I came to this country as a six-year-old kid who couldn’t speak a word of English. My parents were labourers, they worked in a factory and foundry. There are fantastic people in this country,” he told the Telegraph and Argus.
He added: “I think we need to celebrate that and create this spirit of oneness and togetherness, and showcase that we’re all one people of this country regardless of where you’re from.” The campaign has attracted support from former politicians including Norman Tebbit and the MP Brandon Lewis, as well as the actor Joanna Lumley.