East London Humanists chair Paul Kaufman finds a precedent for national anthem debate


- Credit: Archant

The kerfuffle over Jeremy Corbyn not singing the national anthem may have died down, but the issues have not gone away.

It is worth examining these in rather less emotive terms than previously.

It is unclear why Corbyn didn’t sing. It could have been because he is a republican, or because he is an atheist, or both. His explanation that his mind was elsewhere is possible, although rather lacking in credibility. At least it took the sting out of what is a diversion from political issues of more substance.

What is really striking is the venom heaped upon Corbyn for acting in a way which is true to his beliefs in a country which prides itself on freedom of expression and belief.

There is an interesting historic precedent. Charles Bradlaugh was an East Ender who was kicked out of home at a young age for his atheist views. He went on to found the National Secular Society and in 1880 was elected Member of Parliament for Northampton. He refused to swear the religious oath which was then required of all MPs. Instead he respectfully asked to be allowed to affirm in accordance with his beliefs. A debate raged in Parliament and in the country at large. At one point Bradlaugh was imprisoned in a small cell under Big Ben. He was re-elected to Parliament four times as the dispute continued. He was eventually allowed to affirm and took his seat in 1886.

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So what do those who attack Corbyn expect anyone who doesn’t believe in a Christian God to do when called upon to utter words of devotion? Is it a choice between being condemned for not sharing their belief, or for being a hypocrite by pretending to do so? Would they, for example, insist that a future Muslim prime minister asks God to save the Queen?

This episode shows that we have a long way to go to achieve a fully secular society which guarantees a level playing field for all beliefs. More from Paul

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