A patriotic singalong?
In the U.S. the powder keg was lit by the killing of George Floyd and the shooting of Jacob Blake in Kenosha, Wisconsin. In Britain, less dramatically, a culture war has erupted over a popular singalong evening of patriotic tunes. The “Last Night of the Proms” is a late summer concert in London, marking the end of a classical music festival which has run for more than 100 years.
The BBC — sponsor and broadcaster of an event that’s watched by millions at home and abroad — is in the line of fire after its flip-flopping over whether to abandon a couple of jingoistic songs played at the concert each year.
This storm in a musical teacup reveals a crisis of confidence at the top of the state broadcaster, just at the moment that its new director general, Tim Davie, takes his post. The BBC’s (exclusively white) senior executives are terrified of accusations of racism. But, under attack from Conservative politicians, they also need to prove they’re in touch with the values of the broad mass of the British population.
The public broadcaster’s floundering over the issue shows its increasingly awkward place in national life. If a U.S.-style culture war does engulf Britain, you can bet that this often beleaguered institution will be caught in the crossfire.
Held traditionally at Kensington’s Royal Albert Hall, the concerts feature renditions of “Rule, Britannia!” and “Land of Hope and Glory,” set to music by the English composers Thomas Arne and Edward Elgar. Audience members wave Union Jack flags (though defiant internationalists have been flourishing the stars of the European Union of late) and lustily sing the bombastic lyrics.
There were reports that the songs would be dropped from the program because of objections from Dalia Stasevska, the Finnish conductor of this year’s Last Night and a supporter of Black Lives Matter, although people close to her say it was a BBC decision. After an outcry over the tunes’ possible exclusion, the broadcaster says they’ll be played, but without the lyrics.
“Rule, Britannia!,” which dates from the rise of the country’s naval supremacy in the 1740s, includes the line that “Britons never, never, never shall be slaves” and another verse condemns “haughty tyrants.” “Land of Hope and Glory” is especially disliked because “the mother of the free” — the song’s description of Britain — ruled a vast unfree empire at the time of composition.
But the country’s national anthem, the dirge-like “God Save the Queen,” is hardly any better, with its talk of “scattering enemies” and confounding “knavish tricks.” That’s the thing about patriotic tunes: Most of them are embarrassing because they reflect an earlier time’s political consciousness and vocabulary. The French have taken to censoring the bloodthirsty words of “La Marseillaise.”
Nobody sings “Rule, Britannia!” in real life. It’s a relic whose significance lies in this one evening’s celebrated entertainment, while “Land of Hope and Glory” isn’t even belted out at Conservative Party conferences anymore. If the BBC really wants to be rid of them, it should have the courage of its convictions. Or else it should admit that this is a harmless annual tradition and explain the historical context of the songs.
When the story first appeared that the BBC intended to drop the tunes, a wildfire online petition instantly demanded their retention. Tory members of Parliament and right-wing newspapers happily joined the fray — any excuse to bash a public-service broadcaster that’s seen as a bastion of liberal woolliness.
Prime Minister Boris Johnson condemned the Beeb’s “cringing embarrassment about our history,” and even the Labour opposition dissociated itself from the corporation’s woke politics. Its new leader, Keir Starmer, knows that his predecessor Jeremy Corbyn’s lack of patriotism cost the party the votes of millions of white working-class people.
The (Black) former head of the U.K.’s Commission for Racial Equality, Trevor Phillips, also took a swipe. Phillips thinks Britain’s recent record on race isn’t that bad — “there is no history of long term ethnic segregation of the kind one can see in any U.S. city.” In his view, the BBC has a guilty conscience for failing to promote Black and Asian people to its top jobs. That guilt is expiated in gesture politics such as censoring songs.
This is unfortunate because, elsewhere in the organization, the BBC has a decent story to tell about its promotion of ethnic minorities. In front of camera and microphone, nearly 26% of its journalists are Black-Asian Minority Ethnic (BAME) people. That’s more than double their representation in other media organisations. Some 9% of BBC management is from BAME backgrounds.
The broadcaster’s ambition — and justification for the compulsory license fee that pays for its existence — is to serve all races, regions, classes and demographics while fostering a sense of national community. Sometimes it succeeds, as it did at the beginning of the coronavirus lockdown. But its preachiness can grate. The BBC’s reporting of the BLM movement, for instance, has been wholly uncritical. While its ethnic representation is diverse, the cultural assumptions and comfort zones of many of its journalists are uniform.
As a former BBC chairman Michael Grade admitted this week, the organization is often inclined to group-think. Outside London, many people see globalization and rapid change as a threat to national identity, but do the BBC’s London-based programs reflect that fear or even understand it? Too many of its journalists failed to understand the allure of Brexit. State services are often applauded automatically, while private enterprise is cast as the villain.
Davie says he sees the problem in these BBC biases. He wants his news and current affairs divisions to challenge assumptions and show more intellectual curiosity about the whole of the country.
But there’s an inherent problem in being a national broadcaster in such febrile cultural times: You’re damned whatever you do. Ban “Rule, Britannia!” and you’re a joyless social-justice warrior, allow it and you’re an insensitive purveyor of imperialist rabble-rousing. Davie needs to be firm and clear about which national oddities and quirks are worth preserving — and why. Sometimes that means facing the music, even if it’s “Land of Hope and Glory.”
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