Boris Johnson says time to stop ‘cringing embarrassment’ about British history after BBC Proms drops Rule Britannia lyrics

Prime minister says he 'cannot believe' BBC has dropped lyrics to Rule Britannia

Jon Stone
Policy Correspondent
Tuesday 25 August 2020 16:00 BST
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PM calls for end to ‘self-recrimination and wetness’ over BBC Proms song stance

Boris Johnson has said it is time to stop “self-recrimination and general wetness” about the history of the British Empire, following a row over a nationalistic song.

The BBC confirmed on Tuesday it would play only an orchestral version of the song “Rule, Britannia!” at a regular concert it holds in London, a move backed by the corporation’s boss Lord Hall.

But the prime minister said there should be no “cringing embarrassment” over such celebrations of empire.

The “Last Night of the Proms” is an annual concert held at the Royal Albert Hall in London, which is often decked out in union flags for the occasion.

It usually features the song “Rule, Britannia!”, which was written in 1740 during the British Empire and whose lyrics focus on the dominance of the Royal Navy over other countries.

Critics of the song say it is jingoistic, but many have pointed out there have been few demands to actually remove it from the programme.

The episode comes amid a popular reassessment of the history of the British empire and whether there has been sufficient recognition of atrocities committed in its name.

A similar debate about history is taking place over much of the western world, sparked most recently by the Black Lives Matter movement originating in the United States.

The prime minister said during a visit to Devon on Tuesday: “I just want to say ... if it is correct, which I cannot believe that it really is, but if it is correct, that the BBC is saying that they will not sing the words of ‘Land Of Hope And Glory’ or ‘Rule, Britannia!’ as they traditionally do at the end of The Last Night of the Proms,”

“I think it’s time we stopped our cringing embarrassment about our history, about our traditions, and about our culture, and we stopped this general fight of self-recrimination and wetness. I wanted to get that off my chest.”

But BBC director general Lord Hall said: “I think they have come to the right conclusion”, referring to the organisers of the event.

The concert normally features a live audience but will be filmed without one this year due to the coronavirus pandemic.

Commenting on the discussion, a Labour Party spokesperson said: “The pomp and pageantry of the Last Night of the Proms is a staple of British summer.

“The running order is a matter for the organisers and the BBC, but enjoying patriotic songs does not – and should not – present a barrier to examining our past and learning lessons from it.”

Earlier this summer The Independent revealed that Mr Johnson was arguing as recently as 2002 that colonialism in Africa should never have ended. The prime minister also dismissed Britain’s role in the slave trade.

“The continent may be a blot, but it is not a blot upon our conscience,” Mr Johnson wrote at the time, referring to Africa. “The problem is not that we were once in charge, but that we are not in charge any more.”

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