Rule Britannia: a storm in a teacup, capitalised on by Johnson and the Mail

Rule Britannia – and how the Tory media have capitalised on it

By Michael Church

From the Independent, 26.8.20

You couldn’t make it up. First the chronology. On Sunday, in what seemed like a kite-flying piece, the Sunday Times suggested that “Rule, Britannia” and “Land of Hope and Glory” were to be expunged from the Last Prom, to placate the Black Lives Matter movement. The young Finnish conductor Dalia Stasevska, who would be on the podium, was said to favour modernising the repertoire: a ceremony with no audience, she felt, would be the perfect moment to bring change.

Despite support for this eminently reasonable idea from respected figures including Wasfi Kani, chief executive of Grange Park Opera and of Indian descent, this was the cue for bedlam in the media. In the face of howls of outrage in Tory newspapers, and a deluge of hate-mail for Stasevska, the BBC put out a meekly defensive statement on Monday which included “the full programme” for the evening, which did not include the two songs in question.

A few hours later that programme was revealed to be far from full. What was now revealed was a predictably anodyne exercise in multi-ethnic and social box-ticking. Come Tuesday morning, the message was different again: the songs would indeed be there, but in purely instrumental form, with no words. This was partly for Covid reasons – even socially–distanced singing by the audience would be a health risk – and partly for artistic ones: without 5,500 people belting out the songs with full welly, the point of the exercise would be lost.

Later on Tuesday, Lord Hall, the BBC’s outgoing director-general, poured petrol on the flames by promising that next year the words would be back. This message was reinforced by his successor Tim Davie, who takes up office next week.

Meanwhile, as was inevitable, the politicians were weighing in. Culture secretary Oliver Dowden was one of many Tories who wanted the songs back in their traditional form. As was also inevitable, Boris Johnson saw in this situation a God-sent opportunity for one of his populist interventions: “I think it’s time we stopped our cringing embarrassment about our history, about our traditions, and about our culture, and we stopped this general fight of self-recrimination and wetness,” he proclaimed in his best blustering manner, clearly relieved that he could at last sound prime-ministerial after cowering in the wings while his ministers messed up the education system. That word “wetness” was the infantile give-away, harking back to the Bullingdon Club whose upper-class drunks knew (quite correctly) that one day they would rule the world.

It has been pointed out that Thomas Arne’s rousing song “Rule, Britannia” predated imperialism: the servitude to which Britons would never, never surrender was at the hands of the Spanish who were harassing British traders in the 1730s. But even if it had been about imperialism, so what? It was an exuberant reflection of one side of British culture three centuries ago. If we were to go through the works of Purcell and Handel, Verdi and Wagner, filleting out every phrase which was un-PC, we would have very few operas left. A stronger, more confident BBC would have dismissed such simplistic revisionism out of hand.

But as Jonathan Dimbleby has argued, what Johnson is doing is turning the whole affair into a Trump-style culture war. “Cringing embarrassment” furnished a perfect Daily Mail headline today; it’s no surprise that Vera Lynn should be back in the top 20. From all this it is but a short step to demanding that the wimp-like lefties of the BBC should be defunded. And that plays straight into the Johnson-Cummings campaign – which had been losing ground, thanks to the BBC’s impressive coverage of the pandemic – to castrate the BBC by making the licence-fee optional.

No one should be surprised that Johnson’s response to the controversy – and that of his braying followers – should be both ignorant and simple-minded (it’s time people disabused themselves of the notion that Johnson’s facility for memorising verse indicates any real intelligence –  he’s perfectly cast as leader of the Stupid Party). But it’s tragic that the BBC should provide them with an opening for their attack. The BBC has been guilty this week of a terrible own goal.

The Last Prom is no stranger to controversy. Remember the fate of John Adams’s piece Short ride in a fast machine, scheduled for the Last Prom in 1997 but hurriedly replaced after Princess Diana’s death, then jumped out of a similar slot when it coincided with 9/11? Remember the anger of the hooray-henrys  over Birtwistle’s Panic?

This week’s controversy may be a storm in a teacup, but there is a  serious debate simmering behind the scenes. Britain is now a quintessentially multi-ethnic country. And as I have argued in this newspaper for more years than I care to remember, it’s high time that this event – and indeed the Proms in general – reflected that fact. The BBC has long kow-towed to what it fondly imagines to be the requirements of “youth” – with things like the “Ibiza Prom” – but its conception of classical music remains relentlessly and predominantly white-European and American. There are some wonderfully sophisticated classical musics out there – and not just the Indian raga music which will be heard in the context  of an electronic jam session in this forthcoming Last Night. The monotheistic religious works which fill the schedules – the Requiems and Stabat Maters –  should be balanced by sacred music from the Jewish and Sufi traditions,. and all this should be heard at the Royal Albert Hall. Then the Proms audience – when it eventually returns – will no longer be what it has always been, a sea of white faces.

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