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Paul Vallely: BBC Proms compromise has precedent

28 August 2020

But its Last Night plan has not placated traditionalists, reports Paul Vallely


The Last Night of the Proms at the Royal Albert Hall, in London, in 2014

The Last Night of the Proms at the Royal Albert Hall, in London, in 2014

YOU might have thought a compromise — that most British of solutions in the face of a dilemma — would have satisfied most people in the row over whether “Rule, Britannia!” and “Land of hope and glory” should be dropped from the Last Night of the Proms. But you would have been wrong.

The traditional anthems, sung with gusto by thousands inside the Royal Albert Hall, are “offensive” and “outdated”, critics insist. The songs are a “call to Imperialism . . . and to colonise”. Indeed, they are “racist propaganda”, according to Dr Kehinde Andrews, Professor of Black Studies at Birmingham City University, who says that “they celebrate the British Empire which killed tens of millions of people”.

Those who see the songs as harmless celebrations of Britishness denounce the objectors as zealots demanding ever-higher levels of political correctness. BBC executives responding to their concerns are merely “white guys in a panic”, trying to appease the Black Lives Matter movement. They are playing into a narrative of cultural self-loathing, of “cringing embarrassment about our history” — in the words of Boris Johnson.

A close study of the words of the songs is illuminating. “Rule, Britannia!” has come in for most criticism. “As soon as you say ‘Britons never shall be slaves’, you’re kind of implying that other people can be slaves,” the Indian opera promoter Wasfi Kani says. Kind of. The original words of James Thomson, penned in the 1730s, were actually a call for Britons to resist the “haughty tyrants” who ruled France. His poem gave thanks that this “blest isle” was protected from tyranny by “the azure main”, our “every shore”, and “happy coasts”. Only by ruling the waves could Britons ensure that they “never will be slaves”.

The lyrics of “Land of Hope and Glory” are more problematic. They praise our “equal laws”, which have “well and long” brought Freedom and maintained Truth. But they also celebrate unapologetically the strength of the British Empire, and pray that it shall expand “wider still and wider” and be made “mightier yet”.

Coronavirus safety requirements mean that the size of the Last Night orchestra and choir must be reduced. There will be no audience in the Albert Hall to sing along. Given all that, it seemed to BBC bosses an admirable compromise to play the tunes but not sing the words. The traditionalists were unplacated, decrying the BBC as “Britain-hating” and accusing it of grovelling to “insane ‘woke’ cancel culture nonsense”.

Yet that was how the tunes were first performed by Henry Wood at the Proms in 1905. It was how they were rendered at the Last Night from 2002 to 2007, without the cries of indignation which are the currency of our increasingly polarised society. It is not what you say, but how it is heard which counts nowadays. “It is an object lesson in how to offend all the people all of the time,” the classical music commentator Norman Lebrecht said.

The televised Last Night, which has an audience of tens of millions around the world, is a huge money-spinner for the BBC. That is why the traditional flag-waving renditions will probably return next year. But so, now, no doubt, will the current row.

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