Clinging on to hope and glory

Should Britannia still rule the Proms?

Should Britannia still rule the Proms?

The last horn has sounded, the final cymbal has crashed, the socially distanced BBC Symphony Orchestra musicians have packed away their instruments, and the Proms are done and dusted for another year. But the row over those traditional last night favourites, Land of Hope and Glory and Rule, Britannia! looks set to rumble on.

This year, because of coronavirus restrictions, there was no live, flag-waving, sing-along audience crammed into the Albert Hall. Weeks before, reports emerged that BBC bosses were reconsidering the songs’ inclusion because of their perceived association with colonialism and slavery. With a storm brewing, and in what looked very much like a compromise decision, the corporation announced that instrumental versions of the songs would be played. As anger and protests mounted the Beeb quickly declared that singing would be back next year.

I give up. If they don’t get it, they’ll never get it. Isn’t it depressing

But criticism poured in from all sides. Prime Minister, Boris Johnson, who admitted he had been advised against speaking on the matter, said: ‘I think it’s time 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.’

Broadcaster and choirmaster, Gareth Malone, suggested the anthems are out-dated, tweeting, ‘It’s time for Rule, Britannia! to go.’ While Tory MP, Michael Fabricant, speaking on BBC Radio 4’s Today programme said the no singing move this year was ‘…all very sad,’ adding, ‘there’s some lovely words to Rule, Britannia!’

And then, just three days into the tenure of new BBC director general, Tim Davie, there was a total corporation U-turn and the singing was suddenly back for this year, with the controversial anthems to be voiced by 18 BBC singers. One of Davie’s tasks in his new job will be to build bridges with the government as the BBC works to secure new funding, and he had already hit the headlines earlier in the week for threatening to axe left-wing comedy shows.

However, no one at the Proms was prepared to say whether or not the U-turn had come directly on the instructions of the new director general. Though many, including the Prime Minister, were delighted at the change of heart, others were hugely disappointed. Wasfi Kani, founder of Grange Park Opera, said after hearing the news, ‘I give up. If they don’t get it, they’ll never get it. Isn’t it depressing.’

What our surveys show

The title alone – Rule, Britannia! – is suggestive in itself when you note the comma after Rule. Rule, Britannia is the sentiment, an updated version of the song might be entitled, Boss It, Britain! And perhaps that is where the two sides of the argument will never, never, never agree. Revealingly, our surveys have taken into account the views of Brexit Leavers and Remainers.

Overall, a narrow majority (58%) believe the controversial songs are part of our national heritage and should continue to be sung at events like the Proms. There is a sharp difference, however, when those figures are split between Leave and Remain, with 79% of Leavers believing they should be kept but only 36% of Remainers agreeing with that view. There is less overall support for Boris Johnson’s comment about ‘cringing embarrassment’ over Britain’s history. Only 32% agreed with his comments, with only 19% agreeing ‘agreeing strongly’, while 59% disagreed with the Prime Minister and the remainder were unsure.

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