Culture secretary Oliver Dowden has put pressure on the BBC not to drop flag-waving anthems “Rule Britannia” and “Land of Hope and Glory” from the Last Night of the Proms.
The cabinet minister said he had raised concerns with the broadcaster about reports that it was considering removing the songs from the high-profile final performance of the annual classical music festival because of sensitivities over their links with colonialism and slavery.
It came as Downing Street signalled that Boris Johnson would not be happy if they were ditched, telling reporters the prime minister believes those involved in sensitive debates over race should focus on the “substance” of the problem, rather than “symbols”.
No 10 insisted that the decision on whether to play the traditional anthem – as well as “Land of Hope and Glory” – was one for the BBC and the organisers of the Proms concert.
But a spokesman made clear that the prime minister does not support symbolic gestures of this kind, reportedly being considered in the wake of the Black Lives Matter protests over racial discrimination.
Reports of discussions over a proposal to drop the tunes – both favourites with the flag-waving Last Night audiences – for this year’s virtual programme have not been denied by the BBC.
Asked whether the PM would back their removal, the No 10 spokesman told reporters: “This is obviously a decision and a matter for the organisers of the Proms and the BBC.”
But, in an apparent reference to Mr Johnson’s earlier statements of opposition to the destruction of statues of historic figures involved in the slave trade, the spokesman added: “The PM previously set out his position on like issues.
“He has been clear that, while he understands the strong emotions involved in these decisions, we need to tackle the substance of problems, not the symbols.”
In a tweet, Mr Dowden said: “‘Rule Britannia’ and ‘Land of Hope and Glory’ are highlights of the Last Night of the Proms. Share concerns of many about their potential removal and have raised this with the BBC.
“Confident forward-looking nations don’t erase their history, they add to it.”
The Sunday Times reported that organisers of this year’s season of the popular classical music concerts were considering scrapping the songs because of their perceived association with colonialism and slavery.
Finnish conductor Dalia Stasevska, who will perform on the Last Night, is among those reportedly keen to tone down the more overtly patriotic elements and give it a modern update.
A spokeswoman for BBC Proms said: “We are still finalising arrangements for the Last Night of the Proms so that we are able to respond to the latest advice in regards to Covid-19 and deliver the best offering possible for audiences.”
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