The Last Night of the Proms is a British institution, both the culmination of an eight-week annual series of classical-music concerts and an opportunity to indulge in the gauchest excesses of national pride. Broadcast simultaneously on BBC television and radio, the Last Night has for decades been awash with flags, fancy dress, and a veritable orgy of empire-era patriotism. Almost without fail, the set list includes “Jerusalem,” “Land of Hope and Glory,” and “Rule, Britannia!”
Except this year that won’t be the case. Not only has the coronavirus ensured that this year’s Last Night will be conducted without an audience, but a jumpier than usual BBC has announced that both “Land of Hope and Glory” and “Rule, Britannia!” would be performed without lyrics, due to their perceived association with Britain’s imperial history.
The censorship is temporary—the BBC has confirmed that the anthems will return in full next year—but that hasn’t prevented a firestorm of anger from being hurled at the corporation. Polls have shown that the majority of British people oppose the decision. Newspapers are petitioning for a full reinstatement. Nigel Farage has called the BBC “not fit for purpose.” Boris Johnson declared that “it’s time we stopped our cringing embarrassment about our history, about our traditions, and about our culture.”
“Land of Hope and Glory” and “Rule, Britannia!” would be performed without lyrics, due to their perceived association with Britain’s imperial history.
On Wednesday, in the face of insurmountable opposition, the BBC caved. A press release was issued stating that “both pieces will now include a select group of BBC Singers. This means the words will be sung in the Hall, and as we have always made clear, audiences will be free to sing along at home.” Some might claim that this is too little, too late, but the optimists among us will be happy to be presented with a little socially distanced empire-era karaoke.
Naturally, this isn’t the first time that the songs have caused problems for the Proms. In 1969, the BBC’s controller of music banned both “Land of Hope and Glory” and “Rule, Britannia!,” citing a desire to make the show attractive to Europeans. This caused such a wave of post-empire bristling—even the left-wing Guardian spluttered that “at this rate the English will soon have nothing much left to boast about”—that the ban was quickly overturned. And the songs were quietly dropped for the first post-9/11 concert, since their mood of unabashed triumphalism did not suit the public mood.
And yet, this time the reaction could have lasting consequences. The BBC has never been in a weaker position. By today’s divided standards, the corporation’s near-pathological obsession with balance and neutrality means that it creates opponents wherever it steps. This, after all, is a corporation so aggressively neutral that when its news department wanted an interview with itself about its gender-based pay discrepancies in 2017, it denied its own request and had to read a statement that it had issued about itself instead. To underline this directionless bloat, one of the BBC’s most popular sitcoms of recent years was W1A, a comedy specifically about the headless BBC bureaucracy, filmed in the BBC offices.
Things are so bad that two groups, one headed by Rupert Murdoch, have announced plans to skirt the peripheries of Britain’s impartiality laws by launching new, opinionated news channels. Both are designed to cater to those left disenfranchised by the BBC’s unwillingness to take a stand on any issues. In short, the BBC has created a vacuum, and Fox News is going to fill it. Land of hope and glory indeed.
Stuart Heritage is a Writer at Large for AIR MAIL based in Kent, U.K.