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Artillery Row

Turning the tide on cancel culture

One man’s crusade against the woke decolonisation of our patriotic anthems

I can’t say I spluttered into my breakfast last Sunday when I read about the BBC deciding to drop the sung versions of Rule, Britannia! and Land of Hope and Glory from the Last Night of the Proms, but I spluttered into my dim sum lunch instead. What were they thinking? Did they not understand that these songs are a huge part of our heritage? After all, the BBC has played a significant role in perpetuating that heritage in television broadcasts over the years.

The Sunday Times quoted anonymous BBC sources as saying that this year’s conductor, a Finnish lady by the name of Dalia Stasevska, is a big supporter of the Black Lives Matter movement and that she wants to abandon these patriotic anthems to better reflect our changing times. Well, I have some sympathy for the cause of Black Lives Matter, though I didn’t post the ubiquitous black square on my own social media and, like Dominic Raab, would not take the knee. But what has that got to do with singing our favourite patriotic anthems?

The BBC has awakened the sleeping British lion and will have to reap the consequences

Had any of the critics actually read the lyrics of these two great songs? Were they aware that Rule, Britannia! was written for an eighteenth-century opera about our ancestors, the Anglo-Saxons, throwing off the yoke of Viking tyranny? The anthem is an ode to freedom which gained popularity at a time in our nation’s history when we were resisting another form of tyranny: that of Napoleon Bonaparte’s campaign on Europe. The fact that Britain played a significant role in the transatlantic slave trade and then became the first major power to abolish slavery in its colonies should not embarrass us when we sing “Britons never, never, never shall be slaves”. The sentiments remain detached and unsullied.

Similarly, Land of Hope and Glory, although its words were written at the height of British imperialism, celebrated Britain as a “mother of freedom”, and viewed the empire as extending such freedoms across the world. Regardless of the fact that the British Empire had its fair share of controversies and shameful episodes, the message remains a positive one that continues to resonate.

Neither of these songs are jingoistic. Jingoism pertains to a blind patriotism in support of an aggressive foreign policy, which none of the lyrics hint at. Nor do they represent a post-colonial nostalgia, let alone allude to any hegemonic intentions.

What is more, the Last Night of the Proms doesn’t take itself too seriously. Yes, there is flag-waving, cheering, hooting, honking of horns (in the performance of the Hornpipe), but it is all done in a spirit of pomp and pageantry. There is certainly no underlying dark desire for a revival of empire.

At first, I assumed that someone, somewhere would have beaten me to the chase by launching a petition demanding that this ludicrous decision be overturned. I logged on to change.org and could find nothing on the subject. A couple of years ago I had launched another petition via the same platform. It accumulated over a thousand signatures and persuaded Westminster Council to change its mind on a particular issue. So, I knew how effective a petition, even one that collects a relatively small number of signatures, can be.

I ought just to explain why change.org is such an effective platform for this type of campaign. Not only is it incredibly ergonomic, it also includes links to enable sharing on a wide range of social media. In addition, there is a section that allows signatories to “chip in” with donations of, say, £10 or £20. Although signing a petition does not require a donation, these contributions enable change.org to continue supporting grassroots campaigns across the UK.

As those plucky characters tend to say in old British war movies, I’m glad to have done my bit

Immediately, I began drafting a text. I was careful not to make my wording too strident or flagrantly political, as I wanted to attract the largest possible number of signatories and did not wish to alienate potential supporters with ill-chosen words. I didn’t shout “Defund the BBC!”, though plenty of the petition’s supporters would do just that when giving their reasons for signing. I pointed out that “few can be offended by the words of these patriotic songs”, that they were “a vital element of our heritage and have sustained us in moments of national peril”, that their annual singing had become a “much-cherished ritual”, and that “they are sung with pride and sentiment, but also with a degree of joshing humour and wry self-mockery that is characteristically British.”

If the BBC were to exclude these songs – note that I said songs, not tunes – “the lives of patriotic Britons of all colours and creeds will be diminished by this insensitive act of cancellation”.

Once I had checked the text several times, not only for typos but for any phrase that might be misconstrued, I pushed the button marked “Publish”, and began sharing with like-minded friends. To say that it was like lighting the blue touch paper and standing back is no exaggeration.

By the time I went to bed on Sunday night, my petition had gained 3,000 signatures and I could tell that it was going to do well. When I woke the next morning, it had reached 5,000. Then it reached 10,000 in the first 24 hours, 30,000 in the following 24 hours, and onwards and upwards.

Interestingly, there has been a petition on change.org since June demanding that the BBC ban Rule, Britannia! and Land of Hope and Glory from the Last Night of the Proms. When I checked on Tuesday it had garnered 348 signatures – not particularly impressive for three months! There had been a slight increase since the previous day, but not much. My petition, on the other hand, surpassed 10,000 signatures within 24 hours of going live.

Of course, what any petition needs to succeed is media attention. The scribes of the national press had been hard at work throughout Sunday preparing news reports and editorial comments about the BBC’s decision, so I was lucky that Monday morning saw a barrage of support for the campaign. This publicity continued into Tuesday’s print editions. Culture Secretary Oliver Dowden weighed in, maverick Tory MP Michael Fabricant produced some good quotes, and, finally, the Prime Minister expressed his dismay at the BBC.

In an updated message to all signatories on Tuesday morning I thanked them for their support and noted that it was “a slap in the face of all the diversity wallahs at the BBC … to have seen so many female signatories”.

I then got down to business with my next statement:

The BBC’s pathetic justification for not having soloists and chorus but only playing orchestral versions of these patriotic songs is, of course, the coronavirus pandemic. And yet they managed to use soloists in their VE Day and VJ Day televised concerts. Indeed, they used a gospel choir in the VJ Day concert. Admittedly those concerts were filmed outdoors, but nonetheless the Albert Hall is perfectly suited to the social distancing of singers and with all the BBC’s expertise in the use of microphones it should be possible to accommodate a reduced chorus. The failure to do this betrays the BBC’s true colours and reveals their political agenda.

I also singled out one comment by a signatory which I had found particularly touching. It was from Verdine Lewis-Stevens:

This must not happen! I am the British-born child of a colonial and am well aware of the abuse served up to my forebears – but there is nothing wrong with patriotic songs in context. Black British citizens can proudly sing that they never never never shall be slaves, because the British were the first to abolish slavery and make all who live under the British flag FREE, no matter their creed or colour. We should celebrate that.

On the second day of reactions (Tuesday), the BBC was desperate to assure us that the singing of these patriotic anthems would be back next year, but that they will perform only orchestral versions in 2020. How weasel-ish is that? They also invited our sympathy for poor Dalia Stasevska, the Finnish conductor, who had apparently been bombarded with nasty messages. Of course, I wish her no ill. She is, by all accounts, a brilliant young conductor. For all I know, she may not have been pushing to remove these anthems from her concert and it may simply have been a misinterpretation that was then voiced by an anonymous BBC source for the Sunday Times article.

However, a friend of mine had this to say on the subject of Dalia and national heritage:

Finland, of course, has its ‘flag day’ on 8 December – the birth date of Johan Sibelius who wrote ‘Finlandia’, their adopted national anthem. Sibelius used music as a ‘tool’ in Finnish independence from the Russian Empire. So, Finland, like every other country in the world, uses music in national sentiment. However, Elgar, the composer of the music (and A. C. Benson, the author of the lyrics), never requested – unlike, er, Sibelius – that soldiers march alongside Nazi troops to invade the Soviet Union. Nor were either of them awarded the Goethe-Medal by the Nazi regime with a certificate signed by Adolf Hitler. I presume Finland isn’t about to give up ‘Finlandia’ so perhaps Ms. Stasevska might like to get back in her box and stop trying to ban Land of Hope and Glory, which was written for the coronation of Edward VII, nearly seventy years after the UK had abolished slavery.

Who knows where the next few days will lead us? I have fever-dreams of my petition – our petition – reaching stratospheric heights of a quarter of a million signatures, then one million and beyond. There is even talk of someone organising a mass event to sing these anthems outside Broadcasting House. It’s all very well Alexander Larman arguing that the Prommer is an unsympathetic figure, a boorish “gammon” and most probably a Brexiteer (although the Last Night of the Proms used to attract its fair share of European Union flags as well as Union Jacks), but Larman underestimates the importance of this current episode. Certainly, the BBC has awakened the sleeping British lion and will have to reap the consequences.

Of course, you might say I was pushing at an open door and that someone would have started a petition on this subject at some point anyway. That’s undoubtedly the case, but I’m proud to have been the one who gave that first little push. As those plucky characters tend to say in British war movies, I’m glad to have done my bit.

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