But this year, “Land of Hope and Glory” and “Rule, Britannia!” are at the center of a toxic culture-war debate that many say is distracting from the country’s real problems with systemic racism.
Fury erupted when a newspaper claimed that the BBC, which organizes and broadcasts the event, was planning to replace the anthems out of concerns that the songs’ lyrics — which laud the country’s past glories — might be out of place in an age of historical reckoning.
The BBC’s subsequent announcement that the “Last Night of the Proms” event on September 12 would feature orchestral versions of the songs, without the contentious lyrics, has done little to dampen the furor from critics who claim that too much ground is being ceded to “politically correct” agitators. Government ministers, including Prime Minister Boris Johnson, waded in to express outrage.
“I think it’s time that we stopped our cringing embarrassment about our history, about our traditions and about our culture, and we stop this general bout of self-recrimination and wetness,” said Johnson, who has repeatedly been accused of stoking divisions that emerged from Brexit.
Culture Secretary Oliver Dowden tweeted that he had raised the “concerns of many” with the BBC, which is funded by a compulsory license fee, while Business Secretary Alok Sharma told Sky News he “would like to see the lyrics sung.”
But anti-racism campaigners, academics and political commentators said the condemnation of the BBC — already under fire from the Conservative Party over its alleged liberal bias — from government MPs and right-wing newspapers was disingenuous.
“You hid from accountability on Covid deaths and made not a single statement on the A-level [high school exams] fiasco. But on the proms you’re hard. Big guy,” author Nesrine Malik tweeted at Johnson.
The “Last Night of the Proms” is a peculiarly British spectacle. The Royal Albert Hall in London is packed with a largely white audience, many draped in red, white and blue costumes, waving Union flags and singing along to patriotic anthems that recall an age of national power and glory that hasn’t existed for decades.
“Rule, Britannia!,” set to music in 1740, lauds the country’s historic naval prowess:
The nations, not so blest as thee,
Must in their turns to tyrants fall;
While thou shalt flourish great and free,
The dread and envy of them all.
Rule, Britannia! Britannia, rule the waves!
Britons never, never, never shall be slaves.
“Land of Hope and Glory,” written in 1901 when the British Empire was at its peak, hails a conquering nation:
Land of hope and glory, mother of the free
How shall we extol thee, who are born of thee?
Wider still and wider shall thy bounds be set
God, who made thee mighty, make thee mightier yet
Kehinde Andrews, professor of Black Studies at Birmingham City University, told CNN that the patriotic songs were “blatantly racist propaganda” written to promote the British Empire — with “Rule, Britannia!” written in the 18th century when the country was one of the biggest slave trading nations in the world.
He said he was surprised by the “furore” stirred up on social media and echoed by lawmakers including the Prime Minister.
“No one’s banned the song, no one’s said nobody can listen to it, it’s not being burned in the Houses of Parliament,” he said. But he said Britain should move on. “Is this a song you want to sing to celebrate our public service broadcast television? No it’s not, it’s not appropriate.”
The “Proms” finale was always going to be different this year, with coronavirus precluding the live audience and large choral groups that provide much of the celebratory atmosphere. But British newspaper The Sunday Times suggested that BBC “Proms” organizers chose to drop the lyrics to modernize the evening and “reduce the patriotic elements” following Black Lives Matter protests.
The BBC said the decision was prompted by Covid-19 restrictions on performer numbers and that the songs would be sung as normal next year. It condemned “the unjustified personal attacks on Dalia Stasevska, BBC Symphony Orchestra Principal Guest Conductor made on social media and elsewhere.”
Commentators said the controversy highlighted a deep reluctance in Britain to confront pervasive inequality.
Nazir Afzal, a former chief prosecutor for North-West England, said on Twitter that controversies over the Proms and the removal of a British Museum statue were “distractions deliberately timed to stop us focussing on the systemic problems we have … Can we get back to saving our citizens & tackling real inequality.”
The UK government has attracted vociferous criticism over its handling of the coronavirus outbreak, with 41,535 deaths recorded in the country, the fifth-highest tally in the world, according to Johns Hopkins University. The nation’s economy shrank 20.4% in the second quarter of 2020, its worst quarterly slump since records began in 1955.
And Johnson has been beset by scandal, including his chief adviser apparently flouting lockdown rules; failures with personal protective equipment and the test-and-trace program; and U-turns over botched school exam results and reopening plans.
Andrews said the “frenzy” over the issue suggested “this really isn’t about those two songs, what it’s about is there’s this really narrow version of Britishness and more probably Englishness, which is pro-empire, really white as well.”
The Brexit effect
The backlash from senior lawmakers follows a reluctance by many on the right to support Black Lives Matter protests against systemic racism that has seen Black, Asian and Minority Ethnic (BAME) communities worst affected by the UK’s coronavirus crisis. Analysis by government agency Public Health England found that people of Bangladeshi heritage who tested positive for the virus were around twice as likely to die as their white British peers, while those from other minority communities, including those of Chinese, Indian, Pakistani and Caribbean descent, had a 10% to 50% higher risk of death when compared to white Britons.
Andrews sees the “Proms” debate as an effort by right-wing media to undermine momentum from the Black Lives Matters movement by claiming it is trying to eradicate traditions.
“It is worrying. Because if this is the level of conversation about this, how are we possibly going to have a conversation about the police, and what needs to be done about the wealth gap, which is huge, about health inequalities, about the actual serious issues?” said Andrews.
“Covid is a perfect example of just how structural the inequalities are,” he added. “It is kind of this perfect cocktail if you like, which just shows you how institutional racism works.”
He said anti-immigrant feeling in the UK had become more dominant since the 2016 Brexit referendum and the appointment of Johnson as prime minister. The campaign to leave the European Union “really drew on this idea of, you know, making Britain great again, we could be free from the EU and go back to Britain’s former glories,” added Andrews.
“They can’t acknowledge the real problematic role of Britain’s past, because to do so will be to kind of undo that project.
“We should move on from these songs, if we do really want an anti-racist public space, but I think a lot of people really don’t want an anti-racist public space and that’s really the problem,” he said.
“There’s part of me that wants to say it’s not important, but actually, the reaction to that is actually really important because it shows you how poisonous the public debate is.”