What’s the purpose of a national anthem?

In the U.K. this week, it seems to be a litmus test for patriotism.

If you haven’t been paying attention to this mini-scandal, newly elected Labour Party leader Jeremy Corbyn didn’t sing “God Save the Queen” at a World War II memorial service yesterday. Corbyn, a rumpled socialist from the old school, was blasted by conservative MPs and newspapers for not showing proper respect to veterans and the war dead, the Queen and the British people in general.

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National anthems are tricky things. They can inspire and help forge a unity of spirit during times of national crisis, but they’re also exclusionary and made trivial by their ubiquity. In the U.S., the “Star Spangled Banner” is played constantly, most notably before sporting events, and standing in solemn silence is considered mandatory. Slouching in your seat impatiently is met with dirty looks, or hurled objects. No matter how many singers have mangled it, or how lowly the contest it proceeds, the anthem remains sacred. Abstaining is not tolerated. Just ask Mamoud Abdul-Rauf.

Thankfully, in the U.S., anthem playing is mostly confined to sports, not other forms of entertainment. Not so in Thailand, where they play it before movies, accompanied by a slide show of the king. In a nation where insulting the monarchy is a criminal offense, you better make sure you stand.

The U.S.’s Pledge of Allegiance is even more problematic, with its insistence that the country is “one nation under God” and implications of disloyalty for those who don’t recite it (as I did as a reporter covering city hall meetings). A Cold War relic, courts have repeatedly found that requiring its utterance to be unconstitutional but that’s of little use to children ostracized by classmates and teachers for bowing out.

Confident nations don’t need pledges and anthems to prod their citizens into loyalty, and a free nation means citizens should be free not to join the herd. Allegiance to a nation isn’t something that comes from rote recitation, and patriotism doesn’t come from singing a song.

The U.K.’s national anthem is particularly thorny. It requires anyone singing it with conviction to believe in God and in the monarchy, positions many Britons don’t agree with. Corbyn is an avowed republican (that’s U.K.-speak for an anti-monarchist) and not singing the anthem was consistent with his principles, if not political realities.

As Obama found during the kerfuffe over the flag pin on his lapel in the 2008 campaign, sometimes political expediency trumps principle. In the future, Corbyn will sing the anthem, the BBC reports.

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