The BBC has triggered a new ideological battlefront by announcing that Rule, Britannia and Land of Hope and Glory will not be sung at this year’s Last Night of the Proms.
If you are not British you may not realise that the Proms in question, sometimes known as “the BBC Proms” or by the full formal title, the Henry Wood Promenade Concerts, is a fabulously popular series of classical music orchestral concerts held daily over eight weeks each year. Founded in 1895, it is mainly staged in London’s Royal Albert Hall and broadcast by the BBC.
This year’s controversy began when it was announced that the big finale, the Last Night of the Proms, will be played by a reduced orchestra, with no audience participation — indeed, with no audience — owing to Coronavirus restrictions.
However, this omission has provoked speculation that the BBC is in the process of banning the two songs for good and that the move is linked to the rise of the Black Lives Matter movement.
The main reason for this speculation is that some artists have complained about the racist and imperialist connotations of the two historic compositions.
Prime Minister Boris Johnson has made it clear that he too is upset about the possible removal of the two songs. As The Guardian reported: “No 10 signaled, via a spokesperson, that Boris Johnson would be unhappy about changes to the Proms, and that while there are ‘strong emotions’ about the line ‘Britons never shall be slaves’, we need to tackle the substance of problems, not the symbols”.
But The Guardian itself is not impressed by the backlash to the possible removal of the songs, painting the idea as a right-wing overreaction. Under the headline “This phoney war over Last Night of the Proms is everything we deserve”, The Guardian lampooned the concerns:
“… the culture secretary, Oliver Dowden, got his own flags down from the loft and waved them around as passionately as possible, adding: ‘Rule, Britannia and Land of Hope and Glory are highlights of the Last Night of the Proms. Confident forward-looking nations don’t erase their history, they add to it.’ Nigel Farage looked up from the Wetherspoons app long enough to tweet: ‘So the BBC may drop Rule, Britannia and Land of Hope and Glory from the Proms because the Finnish conductor is too woke. Why not drop her instead?’
Actor Laurence Fox mobilised his army of curious thinkers: ‘I feel so honoured to be British and part of the incredible and diverse modern nation we have become. Without the past, we wouldn’t be where we are today. I wish the BBC would stop hating Britain so much.”
But there is something to be concerned about here. When Sir Henry Wood entrusted his Promenade concerts to the BBC, he had no fears for the future of his dream of making classical music “accessible” to the masses — an aim of which one would have thought the diversity-fixated BBC would approve. But he would have surely been concerned by developments in recent years, with the BBC showing increasing discomfort with British history.
As two of Britain’s most pominent journalists, Charles Moore and Ivan Hewett, have pointed out, when studied in historical context, the songs in question owe their origins to a deep-seated desire for freedom, not a desire to impose slavery on the rest of the world.
If we ever witness the Last Night audience pouring forth from the Albert Hall intent on assaulting and enslaving non-Britons it might add substance to the flimsy complaints of critics. But anyone who has ever studied this particular audience will observe not only a general good-naturedness but also a forest of foreign flags waving alongside the Union Jacks. Even EU flags, which have increasingly featured post-Brexit, are tolerated.
And this is the paradox that the broad-minded “internationalists” at the BBC cannot grasp: patriots from all countries can empathise with the patriotism of the Last Night, demonstrating that national feeling is a truly international affair. Clearly, nations do not always live up to their lofty aspirations, but the answer to this problem is not to abolish the lofty aspirations but to try even harder to reach them.
Since the Corporation now seems embarrassed by any hint of patriotism, and is eager to ditch any alleged nationalistic trappings, presumably they will be dropping the first “B” in their name, henceforth to be known simply as the Broadcasting Corporation — until , of course, someone points out the unacceptably capitalistic historical associations of corporations, at which point they will drop all words, cease to be a broadcaster and abolish themselves.
For some of us, that day cannot come too soon; and if we cannot find the words to express our feelings it will be because we are speechless with joy.