When it comes to the song “Rule Britannia,” context is needed.
In my Thursday column on the many faces of revolution, there’s a walk-on part for “Rule Britannia” which is at present provoking Britain’s progressive establishment into one of its periodical fits of woke morality. These fits are occurring more frequently these days both because more and more traditional institutions from the British Museum to the National Trust are falling into woke hands and because ordinary people are noticing that their culture and entertainments are being made to conform to progressive priorities and expressing an opposite irritation in response. On this occasion a row burst forth when it was announced that the traditional performance of “Rule Britannia” on the “last night of the Proms” — i.e., the BBC’s annual summer Promenade Concerts — would not take place because its lyrics were boastful, xenophobic, vulgar, etc., etc.
Now, the first thing to be said about this row is that when clever people do silly things, they contrive to be far sillier than any normal bloody fool could manage naturally. The second — and vitally important — thing to say is that the BBC can claim a matchless record of musical excellence in supporting and staging the Proms at the Albert Hall (and other musical venues in London) since 1927. Originally founded by Sir Henry Wood in the 1890s, the concerts are six weeks of great music by fine orchestras at cheap prices in London’s late summer. Wood himself was a great conductor who founded the Proms on the following principle:
I am going to run nightly concerts and train the public by easy stages. Popular at first, gradually raising the standard until I have created a public for classical and modern music.
He succeeded brilliantly. He had some distinguished predecessors, including Sir Arthur Sullivan (of whom more later), but Wood managed to keep his concerts a permanent summer fixture with the help of a string of private benefactors until in 1927 the BBC stepped in to provide them with a permanent benefactor too. Ever since, scrupulously titling them the “Sir Henry Wood Promenade Concerts,” the BBC has done English music, indeed all music, proud.
Now, what went wrong here? It’s hard to be precise, because most of the discussion has been conducted via anonymous leaks to the press, some of which are then retracted anonymously when they prove to have misread the public mood. It was shamefully put about, for instance, that the Finnish lady conductor, Dalia Stasevska, who was to conduct the Last Night had objected to “Rule Britannia” on the grounds of its inappropriate patriotism and requested it be dropped. That inspired indignant media articles and angry messages to her private email address (probably on the lines of “Go Back to Finnishry”), whereupon it was re-leaked that she had raised no objection at all. No one else has stepped forward to claim authorship of the decision, and there may be some justice in that. It sounds like one of those decisions, common in corporate life, that are taken by osmosis:
“This social distancing thing . . . might be a good way of, er, reforming the Last Night of the Proms.”
“Reforming? Ah, I see what you mean . . . no audience participation . . . all done virtually . . . No, er . . .”
“No singing . . . no flag-waving . . . no Rule . . . yes, that sort of thing.”
“Purely for medical reasons, of course.”
“Of course, we don’t want to be irresponsible.”
“Well, we seem to be agreed. No need for a vote, wouldn’t you say? Next item, that documentary proposal on did Jane Austen have her own slave . . . isn’t this rather old hat?”
Some support for this view of things is provided by Catriona Lewis, the producer of the BBC’s Sunday night program of hymns and religious music, Songs of Praise. She wrote an indignant tweet about the song “Rule Britannia” which ran:
Do those Brits who believe it’s OK to sing an 18th century song about never being enslaved, written when the UK was enslaving and killing millions of innocents, also believe it’s appropriate for neo-Nazis to shout, ‘We will never be forced into a gas chamber.’
“Slavery was Britain’s holocaust,” she added.
Context is needed here. “Rule Britannia” was written in 1740 when slavery was a near-universal institution worldwide. It had not existed in England since the 13th century, but Britons were frequently captured by raiding Barbary pirates, with Devon and Cornwall especially badly hit, and sold as slaves in the vast slave markets of North Africa. More than one million Europeans were enslaved in this way over 200 years. It was a major political topic in the countries concerned; charities were founded to buy back their enslaved compatriots; and both Britain and the United States launched raids to free captives and punish pirates. All this went on fitfully until 1824 when a British fleet bombarded Algiers and 1830 when the French conquered Algeria.
Slavery was not just something that the Brits, like everyone else, did, it was also something that they suffered too. So it was natural that they should celebrate the fact that as a nation with growing power “they never, never, never shall be slaves.” That helped to feed a growing national sentiment that slavery was a great evil rather than simply a profitable business and that Britain’s participation in the slave trade was accordingly a great disgrace.
Abolitionism was the great idealistic cause of British politics in the 18th and 19th centuries, fueled by a mixture of Protestant Christianity and national pride. In 1777, Lord Mansfield ruled that a slave visiting England (as it happens, from America) became free by breathing English air and could not be forced back into servitude. Pitt the Younger, as prime minister, was an early political ally of the Abolitionists, urging that since Britain had dominated the Atlantic slave trade, so it had a special duty to outlaw it. The Anti–Slavery Society in London ran what was the first human-rights campaign in history by distributing a medallion that showed a black man in chains and the words “Am I not a Man and a Brother?” It was worn on lapels, as bracelets, and as a blend of declaration and decoration it spread the message of abolition throughout the world. At the Congress of Vienna in 1815, Lord Castlereagh, the British foreign secretary, insisted on a clause in its treaty committing all the signatory powers to end slavery. That itself was a major step in international law. Meanwhile, successive Acts of Parliament from 1807 to 1833 ended slavery throughout the British Empire, and as the Empire kept expanding in the 19th century in Africa and the East Indies, it brought slavery to an end in those countries too. Above all, the Royal Navy’s West Africa squadron was established in 1808 to patrol the Atlantic and to halt the slave trade by military force. Between its foundation and 1867, it seized 1,600 slave ships and freed 150,000 Africans. An estimated 1,587 sailors died on what was a notoriously dangerous posting between 1830 and 1865.
So the Brits delivered more than “Rule Britannia” promised: It wasn’t only Brits who never would be slaves but anyone living under British rule or on the high seas. It was, moreover, a peculiarly national achievement. In order to buy the slaves their freedom peacefully, the British government raised 20 million pounds sterling in a loan on the money markets. That’s 2.4 billion in today’s money. The British taxpayer finally paid off the last instalment of the loan on February 1st, 2015.
My conclusion is that Ms. Lewis’s comparison of Brits singing “Rule Britannia” with neo-Nazis singing about being forced into gas chambers is so wide of the mark that it makes me wonder what on earth they’re singing on Songs of Praise these days. But the malady seems to be a collective rather than an individual one. Such opinions — it would be generous to call them ideas — are almost compulsory in wokerati circles inside and outside the BBC. And they seem to have become both acute and chronic in the last few years.
I blame Brexit. It has unsettled Remainers in the media so severely that they see threats, insults, and dangers in the lightest expression of contrary taste or opinion — jokes, songs, concert programs, or 18th-century drinking songs. It’s been a long time since anyone sang “Rule Britannia” with any serious imperialist intent. Ditto “Land of Hope and Glory.” The Last Night of the Proms is only half a serious concert. Its second half is a jolly end-of-term romp at which a succession of conductors — most famously Sir Malcolm Sergant (“Flash Harry” to his admirers) and Sir Andrew Davis — ham it up with closing speeches and the promenaders (i.e., the cheap standing seats) play games such as clapping against the grain in order to throw the orchestra off the beat.
“Rule Britannia” itself is a cheerful, rousing, quite unaggressive, popular song from a different age sung by an audience out to enjoy a good time. Is it sung ironically? No, there’s an edge of hostility or subversion to irony which isn’t present in the kind of pantomime atmosphere on the Last Night. Is it then patriotic? Well, it’s not actually hostile to the country, which may be why it’s irritated the BBC mandarins in ways they can’t quite explain. That may also be the reason why on a recent post-Brexit Last Night, some people in the audience turned up to wave European Union flags at the finale. They were mentally canceling Brexit as best they could, by annoying those they though were Brexit supporters. For myself I would say “Rule Britannia” is a song of comic self-congratulation akin to a pastiche rather than a satire.
That’s why the event is pretty popular with foreigners. I remember one occasion when I was a guest of Charles Crawford, the British ambassador to Poland, at a Last Night of the Proms beamed into the concert hall from Kensington to Cracow. The mainly Polish audience, equipped with Union flags, bowler hats, and other emblems of Britishness such as umbrellas, all sang along, half-knowing, half-reading the lyrics, and waving their flags at what they guessed were appropriate intervals. After which Charles made a witty speech in praise of Polish plumbers and we all departed peacefully into the night. If you doubt something like that can happen, here’s a German version of the same thing — except that this concert is not being beamed in from Kensington but performed at the Potsdam Sanssouci Music Festival where Deborah Hawkesley knocks ‘em dead with zest, sex appeal, and patriotic brio. Hear it here.
My congratulations to Ms. Hawkesley . . . and to her audience.
If you want a song that makes its lyrical and musical intentions, which are satirical, clear but when those intentions have themselves been subverted into purer comedy by time and events, here’s “For he is an Englishman” from Gilbert and Sullivan’s H. M. S. Pinafore. Gilbert’s lyrics are a satire on the complacent jingoism of the Victorian middleclass at a time when Britannia really did rule the waves and the Brits had maybe got a bit above ourselves. Sullivan’s music satirizes the kind of musical jingoism that the BBC thinks it hears in Rule Britannia. It’s sung by Australians — so you know they don’t really mean it: