For many Britons, summer isn’t complete until they put on a funny hat, wave a Union Jack and belt out Rule, Britannia! and Land of Hope and Glory during the final concert of the BBC Proms annual music festival.
The patriotic anthems have been part of the Last Night of the Proms for almost 70 years. Every summer, crowds gather in front of giant television screens in parks across the country to sing along with the BBC orchestra and choir as they perform in London’s Royal Albert Hall.
But in a stark break with tradition, the BBC has announced that the songs won’t be sung when the festival ends Sept. 12 after a row broke out over whether the lyrics glorify colonialism and slavery. Instead, the broadcaster has said the orchestra will only play instrumental renditions of the pieces.
The BBC has blamed COVID-19 restrictions, which have meant no live audiences and strict physical-distancing rules for musicians. “The Proms will reinvent the Last Night in this extraordinary year so that it respects the traditions and spirit of the event whilst adapting to very different circumstances at this moment in time,” the broadcaster said in a statement.
The move to silence the singing has sparked outrage among traditionalists, including Prime Minister Boris Johnson, who told reporters Tuesday that he couldn’t believe the decision. “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 bout of self-recrimination and wetness,” he said.
The opposition Labour Party also struck back. “The pomp and pageantry of the Last Night of the Proms is a staple of British summer,” a party spokesperson said. “The running order is a matter for the organizers and the BBC, but enjoying patriotic songs does not – and should not – present a barrier to examining our past and learning lessons from it.”
By Tuesday, more than 20,000 people had signed an online petition calling on the BBC to reverse its decision. “Few can be offended by the words of these patriotic songs, while for many of us they are a vital element of our heritage and have sustained us in moments of national peril,” said Christopher Silvester, who started the petition.
Many opponents of the decision have blamed guest conductor Dalia Stasevska, 35, who reportedly wanted to reduce the patriotic elements of the program. “Dalia is a big supporter of Black Lives Matter and thinks a ceremony without an audience is the perfect moment to bring change,” a BBC source told the Sunday Times.
In its statement, the BBC hit back at attacks on the Finnish conductor. “We very much regret the unjustified personal attacks on [Ms. Stasevska] made on social media and elsewhere. As ever, decisions about the Proms are made by the BBC in consultation with all artists involved,” it said.
Rule, Britannia! and Land of Hope and Glory have long been controversial. Critics say they celebrate Britain’s imperialist past and slave trading history.
Rule, Britannia! originates from a poem by James Thomson and was set to music by Thomas Arne in 1740, when Britain dominated the slave trade. The chorus includes the lines “Rule, Britannia! Britannia, rule the waves! Britons never, never, never shall be slaves,” which critics say implies that it’s all right for others to be enslaved.
The words to Land of Hope and Glory were written in 1902 by poet Arthur Christopher Benson. He drew inspiration from the last will and testament of mining magnate Cecil Rhodes, who championed British imperialism and bequeathed his fortune to promoting “the extension of British rule throughout the world.” A statue of Rhodes, who also created the Rhodes Scholarship, is slated to be removed from the University of Oxford after it was targeted by the Black Lives Matter movement this summer.
Classical music critic Richard Morrison said the songs had no place in the Proms lineup. “With massed choirs and a packed, flag-waving audience ruled out on medical grounds, there will never be a better moment to drop that toe-curling, embarrassing, anachronistic farrago of nationalistic songs that concludes the Last Night of the Proms,” Mr. Morrison wrote in a recent column in the BBC Music Magazine. “And I don’t mean drop them just for this year. I mean forever.”
Kehinde Andrews, a professor of Black studies at Birmingham City University, said the songs glorify the British empire, which killed millions of people under colonialism. “If dropping racist propaganda from taxpayer-funded TV is ‘controversial,’ then there is no hope for the serious work that needs to be done to address racism,” he said on Twitter Tuesday.
This isn’t the first time questions have been raised about the Last Night of the Proms and its repertoire of songs.
On the eve of the Gulf War In 1990, then-Proms conductor Mark Elder was replaced after he suggested it would be “callous in the extreme” to sing Rule, Britannia! and Land of Hope and Glory as hostilities were rising in the region.
In 2008, Culture Minister Margaret Hodge criticized the BBC for not making the Proms more inclusive. “The audiences for many of our greatest cultural events – I’m thinking in particular of the Proms – is still a long way from demonstrating that people from different backgrounds feel at ease in being part of this,” she said. She was swiftly rebuked by Prime Minister Gordon Brown, who called the Proms a “wonderful, democratic and quintessentially British institution.”
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