Boris Johnson today took on the BBC in the row over whether Rule Britannia and Land of Hope and Glory should be axed from Last Night of the Proms after the centuries-old patriotic songs were labelled ‘racist propaganda’.
The BBC is said to be considering dropping the anthems from the concert on September 12 amid fears of criticism in the wake of the Black Lives Matter movement because of their apparent links to colonialism and slavery.
The songs are best known for being a triumphant finish to the BBC’s coverage of the Proms each year, when thousands of flag-waving ‘prommers’ normally descend on the Royal Albert Hall in Kensington, West London.
Conductor Dalia Stasevska, 35, who is from Finland, is said to believe this year’s ceremony without an audience is ‘the perfect moment to bring change’, but critics have accused the BBC of pandering to political correctness.
And a spokesman for Boris Johnson said today that the Prime Minister believes in tackling the ‘substance’ not the ‘symbols’ of problems, adding: ‘This is a decision and a matter for the organisers of the Proms and the BBC.
‘But the PM previously has set out his position on like issues and has been clear that while he understands the strong emotions involved in these discussions, we need to tackle the substance of problems, not the symbols.’
During a debate on ITV’s Good Morning Britain today, freedom of speech campaigner Inaya Folarin Iman insisted criticism of the two songs was ‘absurd’, adding that they bring ‘a lot of people joy and happiness’.
However Kehinde Andrews, a black studies professor at Birmingham City University, claimed the line ‘Britons never, never, never shall be slaves’ from Rule Britannia is ‘racist propaganda’ from the days of the British Empire.
His comments have been echoed by musicians Chi-chi Nwanoku, who founded the first BAME majority orchestra in Europe, and Wasfi Kani, founder of Grange Park Opera in Surrey, who are also uncomfortable with the line.
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Speaking on Good Morning Britain today, Mr Andrews, who told how he did not watch the Proms, said: ‘I don’t think it’s about banning the songs, it’s about saying what songs are appropriate.
”Britons never, never, never shall be slaves,’ – that’s racist propaganda at a time when Britain was the leading slave trading nation in the world. The idea that we’re having this conversation now, that’s a disgrace.’
He added said: ‘The fact that the majority of people think this is OK doesn’t mean it’s OK. That’s because of a deficit in our school system that don’t teach the horrors of the British Empire. It’s not something to celebrate.
‘Land of Hope and Glory, a much more reasonable name for the song would have been Land of Racism and Servitude. I understand that’s not a catchy song, but that’s the nature of the country we’re talking about.’
But Ms Iman accused Mr Andrews of having a ‘one dimensional view of Britain’, adding: ‘He sees it as a land of racism and hate and all of these things, that’s completely and fundamentally divorced from what most people believe to Britain.
‘We recognise that it has a complex history full of horror and terror but also triumph and uplifting things. I think we need to teach history holistically and not try and teach a narrative of cultural self loathing, which I think is very divisive.
‘I don’t think this helps a single ethnic minority life. I find it very hypocritical that a lot of people don’t have a problem with music that talks about stabbing and violence and the N word this and the N word that, but a song that brings a lot of joy to the British people is somehow an issue of censorship.’
She also argued: ‘Many things are being done in the names of ethnic minorities, protecting them and stopping them being offended, when that’s simply not how they feel and I’m being spoken for when actually his song brings a lot of people joy and happiness.
‘The majority of people don’t listen to the song and go ‘oh we want to reimpose colonialism and slavery,’ songs can take on new meaning, it’s become part of a new story that represents pride.’
But Nwanoku, founder of the Chineke! Foundation which supports upcoming BAME musicians, told The Guardian : ‘The lyrics are just so offensive, talking about the ‘haughty tyrants’ – people that we are invading on their land and calling them haughty tyrants – and Britons shall never be slaves, which implies that it’s OK for others to be slaves but not us.
‘It’s so irrelevant to today’s society. It’s been irrelevant for generations, and we seem to keep perpetuating it. If the BBC are talking about Black Lives Matter and their support for the movement, how could you possibly have Rule Britannia as the last concert – in any concert?’
Ms Kani also raised concerns with the line on slavery, telling BBC Radio 4: ‘I’m Indian, my parents came from India, I received a wonderful education in Britain, but I don’t actually feel very British when I hear things like that.
‘I don’t feel very British when I have people say to me ‘go home p***.”
The musician instead suggested the songs could be replaced with I Vow to Thee My Country or The Beatles’ All You Need Is Love.
M s Kani, whose parents sought refuge in Britain after the partition of India in 1947, also told the Sunday Times: ‘I don’t listen to Land of Hope and Glory and say ‘thank God I’m British’ – it actually makes me feel more alienated.
‘Britain raped India and that is what that song is celebrating.’
Culture Secretary Oliver Dowden said that ‘confident, forward-looking nations don’t erase their history’.
He wrote on Twitter: ‘Rule Britannia! and Land of Hope and Glory are highlights of the Last Night of the Proms.
‘(I) Share concerns of many about their potential removal and have raised this with (the) BBC.
‘Confident forward-looking nations don’t erase their history, they add to it.
Flag-waving crowds will be absent from London’s Royal Albert Hall during the 125th annual Last Night of the Proms concert due to the coronavirus outbreak.
Organisers have been forced to change the entire Proms season because of coronavirus restrictions, which limit the number of singers and musicians who can perform together.
Live audiences have been banned, and this year’s conductor for the Last Night, Dalia Stasevska, 35, from Finland, was said to be keen to modernise the evening’s repertoire and reduce its patriotic elements.
A BBC source told the Sunday Times: ‘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 spokesman refused to confirm or deny reports that the songs could be dropped, but said plans for the Last Night were still being finalised.
Rule Britannia and Land of Hope and Glory are both popular anthems at the Proms but there have been previous calls for them to be dropped over perceived associations with colonialism and slavery.
Organisers of this year’s Proms were said to be considering ditching them in the wake of the Black Lives Matter protests but have yet to agree the controversial move, according to the Sunday Times.
Miss Stasevska has been involved in regular Zoom calls with David Pickard, 60, director of the BBC Proms, to discuss the night’s programme, along with South African soprano Golda Schultz, 36, who will perform.
Organisers have had to scale back the number of musicians on stage because of social distancing requirements.
Rule Britannia is usually performed by 80 members of the BBC Symphony Orchestra and a 100-strong choir, but this year a much smaller orchestra will play alongside just 18 singers.
Jan Younghusband, head of BBC music TV commissioning, confirmed that Rule Britannia’s inclusion in the Last Night repertoire was still under review.
She said: ‘We have a lot of problems about how many instruments we can have. It is hard to know whether it is physically possible to do it.
‘Some of the traditional tunes, like Jerusalem, are easier to perform… We also don’t know if we’ll be in a worse situation in two weeks’ time.’
Rule Britannia, a poem by Scottish playwright James Thomson, was set to music by English composer Thomas Arne in 1740.
But lyrics including the line ‘Britons never, never, never shall be slaves’ have prompted anger in light of Britain’s own role in the slave trade.
Land of Hope and Glory was composed by Edward Elgar and Arthur Benson later added the lyrics in 1902.
The words were reputedly inspired by colonialist Cecil Rhodes, whose statue was among those targeted for removal by the Black Lives Matter protests.
Politicians and campaigners voiced their anger over moves to drop the songs.
International trade minister Ranil Jayawardena, the MP for North East Hampshire, shared an article about the row with his followers on Twitter.
He wrote: ‘What a load of… [sic] This is a chance for BBC bosses to prove they have ventured outside the M25 and understand the British people, rather than just campaign groups and lobbyists in London.’
Conservative MP Paul Bristow tweeted: ‘Is it time to put the BBC out of its licence fee misery? It must be painful for them to be funded by millions of people it no longer has anything in common with?’
And Brexit campaigner Nigel Farage tweeted: ‘So the BBC may drop Rule Britannia and Land of Hope and Glory from The Proms because the Finnish conductor is too woke. Why not drop her instead?’
Headteacher Katharine Birbalsingh, whose father was Indian-Guyanese and whose mother was Jamaican, said she had ‘waved flags and sang Rule Britannia’ at the Royal Albert Hall last year with black friends.
She said: ‘The white people in the audience did not tell us to stop, that the song isn’t ours, that we are too black to sing it. So what’s the problem?’
Susan Hall, the leader of the Conservatives in the Greater London Authority, said: ‘Rule Britannia and Land of Hope and Glory are favourites for millions of us.
‘Why should so many of us have traditions wrecked because it’s considered non PC – ridiculous.’
Former Brexit MEP Alexandra Phillips tweeted: ‘Do this at your peril, BBC. If you ban patriotic songs at Last Night of the Proms you should have the name British Broadcasting Corporation rescinded.
‘You do not represent our nation, culture or heritage. You represent those who wish to destroy it.’
Former Conservative MP Neil Hamilton said the BBC had ‘decided to surrender to the Black Lives Matter mob’.
Proms presenter Josie d’Arby, who is black, said the Proms programme this year reflected ‘respect for the current climate’.
She said the Last Night should be inclusive but retain tradition, adding: ‘Part of being inclusive involves including your traditional audience and the diehard fans.’
Live performances at the Royal Albert Hall start on Friday with a piece written by Hannah Kendall, 36, a black British composer.
The Proms’ live soloists include Anoushka Shankar, who will perform on the sitar in honour of her late father, Ravi; the cellist Sheku Kanneh-Mason – who played at the wedding of the Duke and Duchess of Sussex – and his sister, the pianist Isata Kanneh-Mason; and the Japanese-born pianist Mitsuko Uchida.
A BBC spokesman said: ‘We are still finalising arrangements for the Last Night of the Proms so that we are able to respond to the latest advice in regards to Covid-19 and deliver the best offering possible for audiences.
‘We have announced that conductor Dalia Stasevska, soprano Golda Schultz and the BBC Symphony Orchestra will perform at the Last Night of the Proms this year. Full details will be announced nearer the time.’