Bruce Bawer is a Shillman Fellow at the David Horowitz Freedom Center.
The first thing to know is that the BBC was never objective. In the 1930s, when Churchill was repeatedly warning his fellow members in Parliament about the dangers of Nazi Germany, the BBC refused him airtime to share his warnings with the general public. In the 1950s, BBC honchos fought tooth and nail against the breakup of their monopoly that finally permitted the introduction of commercial television.
Yes, Thatcher reformed the BBC. But after she was gone, Labour swiftly un-reformed it. Since then, the contents of programs on the Beeb, all of them financed by a hefty license fee extorted from British subjects on threat of imprisonment, have increasingly reflected the social attitudes, political opinions, and cultural tastes of hard-left north London nobs. During the Brexit debate, the Corporation systematically celebrated the EU and depicted Leave supporters as rubes, xenophobes, morons, and “Little Englanders.” Former BBC journalist Robin Aitken MBE, author of a book called Can We Trust the BBC?, recently complained that the BBC “doesn’t have the pulse of the country,” that it “portrays Britishness…in a negative light,” and that its slant is “quite Soviet in its intensity and its ubiquity.” In the run-up to the last general election, Boris Johnson dangled in front of voters the possibility of abolishing the BBC license fee.
Year in and year out, perhaps the only high-profile regular broadcast on the BBC that isn’t poisoned by far-left politics has been the Last Night of the Proms, the annual concert, aired live from Royal Albert Hall, at which audience members proudly wave the Union Jack and the BBC Symphony Orchestra rounds out the evening with lush, rousing arrangements of “God Save the Queen” and the traditional songs “Jerusalem,” “Land of Hope and Glory” and “Rule, Britannia.”
These songs are, for one thing, powerful statements of patriotism. For another, they’re also invaluable parts of Britain’s cultural heritage. The men who created them are among Britain’s most accomplished musical artists. “Rule Britannia,” with words by Scottish poet James Thomson, author of The Castle of Indolence, and music by Thomas Arne, dates back to 1740. “Jerusalem,” one of the most famous poems by one of Britain’s great Romantic poets, William Blake, was set to music in 1916 by Sir Hubert Parry; Sir Edward Elgar, one of Britain’s great composers, is responsible for the now-famous orchestration. “Land of Hope and Glory” was originally a melody from Pomp and Circumstances March No. 1, composed by Elgar in 1901 and familiar to most Americans because it’s been played at generations of U.S. high-school graduations; at the suggestion of King Edward VII, the melody was isolated from the larger work and words added by A.C. Benson so that it could be performed at the king’s 1902 coronation.
Several of the Last Night of the Proms performances can be viewed on YouTube. I’ve watched them over and over again, because, at a time when Brits who dare to put a flag in their front windows should be prepared for a visit from the cops, I find the unashamed displays of national pride by Proms audiences cheering. To watch the audiences proudly sing the lyrics to these masterpieces leads me to think that perhaps there is a silent majority of Brits who, when push comes to shove, won’t let their country be brought down by woke metropolitan crazies who treat the Quran with more reverence than Magna Carta.
That annual injection of hope, alas, may now come to an end. Because of COVID restrictions, this year’s Last Night of the Proms, scheduled for September 12, will take place without a live audience. In the view of the woman tapped to conduct the orchestra this year, Dalia Stasevska of Finland, this makes it “the perfect moment to bring change.” A supporter of the Black Lives Matter movement, Stasevska has reportedly “been involved in regular Zoom calls with David Pickard, 60, director of the BBC Proms, to discuss the night’s programme.”
Quite appropriately, the current mischief began with a July article by one of the BBC’s own columnists, Richard Morrison, in which he slammed “Land of Hope and Glory,” “Rule Britannia,” and “Jerusalem” as “toe-curling embarrassing[,] anachronistic” and “crudely jingoistic” tunes that add up to an “unholy trinity” and that communicate to viewers abroad “a stereotype of Little England that was already being lampooned when I first went to the Proms half a century ago.” It would, he argued, be “insensitive, bordering on incendiary” to play these compositions at this year’s Last Night of the Proms (although he admitted that he was somewhat less offended by “Jerusalem” than by the other two classics). Morrison, who is white, urged the BBC to replace these songs with music that “reflects the attitudes of its 21st-century performers and audiences, not their Edwardian predecessors.”
Morrison’s modest proposal quickly won adherents, among them Kehinde Andrews, a professor of Black Studies at Birmingham City University who has called “whiteness” a “psychosis,” maintained that the only solution to British racism is revolution, described the Queen as “the premier symbol of empire and colonial violence,” compared Churchill to Hitler, called Malcolm X his hero, and criticized Nelson Mandela not for committing acts of terror but for being a “sellout” after his release from prison. Appearing the other day on Good Morning Britain, Andrews gave Morrison his full support, saying that a line in “Rule Britannia,” “Britons never, never, never shall be slaves,” is “racist propaganda” and that the song should in fact be titled “Land of Racism and Servitude.”
Musician Wasfi Kani agreed, suggesting that the Last Night of the Proms replace the offensive songs with “All You Need Is Love.” And Twitter was a-flutter with PC comments from high and low about how the British Empire was evil and how these “pompous, outdated and irrelevant songs…are stained with xenophobic lyrics.”
Of course, there were dissenters. One Tory MP excoriated Morrison’s “virtue signaling.” Another accused the BBC of surrendering to the BLM mob. Brexit standard bearer Nigel Farage proposed that instead of dropping “Rule Britannia” and “Land of Hope and Glory,” the BBC drop its woke Finnish conductor. A former Brexit MEP, addressing the BBC, tweeted: “You do not represent our nation, culture or heritage. You represent those who wish to destroy it.” More than one Tory MP suggested that perhaps it was time, once and for all, to bring an end to the BBC license fee, with one of them musing that it “must be painful for [the BBC] to be funded by millions of people it no longer has anything in common with.”
Yet another Tory MP, Ranil Jayawardena, had this to say: “This is a chance for BBC bosses to prove they have ventured outside the M25 and understand the British people, rather than just campaign groups and lobbyists in London.” And this, when you come right down to it, was the most salient point. Would the BBC, in keeping with its habit of ignoring provincial deplorables and taking its lead from lefty academics, artists, and intellectuals, clip away yet another vital part of British history and culture in the name of some ideologically rooted notion of social progress? Or would the Beeb’s bosses finally realize just how out of touch they’ve been – and just how thin the ice is on which they’re standing – and show at least some sense of obligation to the majority of their fee-payers, and at least some sense of respect for the magnificent cultural legacy that they are, after all, supposed to be helping to preserve?
The answer came last evening. In an announcement, the producers of the BBC Proms wrote that they would
reinvent the Last Night in this extraordinary year so that it respects the traditions and spirit of the event whilst adapting to very different circumstances at this moment in time. With much reduced musical forces and no live audience, the Proms will curate a concert that includes familiar, patriotic elements such as Jerusalem and the National Anthem, and bring in new moments capturing the mood of this unique time, including You’ll Never Walk Alone, presenting a poignant and inclusive event for 2020.
The programme will include a new arrangement by Errollyn Wallen of Hubert Parry’s Jerusalem alongside new orchestral versions of Pomp and Circumstance March No. 1 “Land of Hope and Glory” (arr. Anne Dudley) and Rule Britannia! as part of the Sea Songs, as Henry Wood did in 1905.’
Translation: the BBC was going to do its best to have it both ways. Using the “much reduced musical forces” and lack of a live audience as an excuse, the Proms would omit the lyrics to both “Land of Hope and Glory” and “Rule Britannia,” folding the former back into Pomp and Circumstance March No. 1 and burying the latter in Wood’s innocuous Sea Songs medley. This, presumably, would render these melodies more palatable to those viewers who find the street riotings of “this extraordinary year” so admirable.
But of course the last part of the Last Night of the Proms has never been either an American high-school graduation or a performance of sea shanties. It’s been an exercise in British patriotism, one of the few such exercises that could be seen on British TV, especially on the BBC, in recent years. With this decision, the BBC appears to have decided to dump the patriotic singing of these stirring songs into the dustbin of history. And what, aside from “You’ll Never Walk Alone,” by the American songwriters Rodgers & Hammerstein, will be the “new moments” added by the Proms people in order to “captur[e] the mood of this unique time” and make for a truly “poignant and inclusive event”? The imagination reels.