OPINION: Proms U-turn shows Britain really knows how to start a rumpus
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The fiasco over songs sung at The Last Night of the Proms has been a celebration of what Britain does best, says Rachel Moore
One of my early memories was an uneasy feeling watching men in striped blazers and bow ties crushed together frenetically waving union flags belting out “Britons never never never shall be slaves to 1970s TV cameras.
Even then, on our black and white TV, the ‘promenaders’ at The Last Night of the Proms felt out of kilter with the world I was growing up in.
Britain in 1973 didn’t fill nine-year-old me with nationalistic glee and pride or a burning desire to celebrate us ruling the waves.
Filing the crowd under E for eccentric and P for posh, the annual spectacle in the Royal Albert Hall has always left me distinctly uncomfortable.
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Jingoistic, anachronistic, wild-eyed and frenzied, the lyrics of the anthem jarred as much as the gusto and passion they were sung with.
The white-middle class profile of the singalongers underlined that unease. Even as a child it felt inappropriate, even though I couldn’t understand why.
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Covid threw up an opportunity to quietly tweak a century-old custom of glorying in a perceived British greatness. This year, because of restrictions on singing, Rule, Britannia! and Land of Hope and Glory would be instrumental versions rather than rousing choruses.
A chance to change and leave the lyrics, which cause discomfort because of their association with colonialism and slavery in the history books, not revelled in at 140 decibels.
But, instead of quiet change – in line with government guidelines to stop the spread of Covid-19 Britain did what Britain really does best – ignited a right old rumpus. If we were the top of any medal chart, it would be for causing an almighty row in an empty room.
As soon as it was revealed the BBC was going instrumental-only, it was accused of ‘taking the knee’ for Black Lives Matter, pandering to the woke and trampling over centuries of Great Britain’s proud tradition in the name of political correctness. A “politically motivated” decision.
Change isn’t something Britons handle well. Preserving in aspic, however, doesn’t make for a progressive nation. The views are driven by the men who insist on ‘Esq’ on their letters, don bowler hats and insist tradition, etiquette and Britishness upheld at all costs, viewing any change as destructive.
Degenerating rapidly into a right versus left row, a Number 10 spokesperson indicated that PM Johnson would be unhappy about changes to the Proms. He acknowledged “strong emotions” about the line “Britons never shall be slaves”, “we need to tackle the substance of problems, not the symbols”.
Culture secretary Oliver Dowden said “Rule, Britannia! and Land of Hope and Glory are highlights of the Last Night of the Proms. Confident forward-looking nations don’t erase their history, they add to it.”
The right, who take responsibility for keeping everything as it was, started a row that wasn’t there, condemning the woke and the BBC’s “Black Lives Matter Proms’”.
Nigel Farage accused Proms conductor Dalia Stasevska of being “too woke.” “Why not drop her instead?”, he said. Stasevska insisted she had nothing to do with the decision. Oh, and her Finnish nationality was mentioned too by Farage.
So the war of – and about – words raged until yesterday, when the BBC’s new director-general Tim Davie, after hours in the job, threw an incendiary device into the matter with a U-turn and declared a “select group of BBC singers” would now sing the words.
Well, if a big enough row hadn’t already erupted about appropriateness, it will now.
What I wonder is who wants to hear those words when we know the offence they cause by appearing to revel in the colonial overtones, imperialism and celebrate Britain’s role in the slave trade.
They are so out of tune with UK 2020.
The BBC’s U-turn, came on the same day as the Daily Telegraph ran a headline ‘BBC’s new boss threatens to axe left wing comedy shows’ in his mission to raise “trust and confidence” in the BBC.
Exactly how inciting an even greater rumpus about words that clearly cause offence will engender trust and confidence remains to be seen as the Last Night of the Proms plays out on September 12. I fear it won’t end well.
It is clearly nailing its colours to the mast to continue the left versus right attitudes of yesteryear
The BBC said it was “doing everything possible to make it special and want a Last Night truly to remember.”
It can say that again. I’m not sure how the traditional brigade will feel about it making its own news story though.
Shop local: An upside of the last six months is the rise of shop local.
Working from home has meant dropping the nightmare that is supermarket shopping for popping into local shops.
A friend revels in her new simple pleasures. Every morning, before her first Microsoft Teams call at 8.30am, she walks into her village centre to the butcher, bakery and small supermarket for her daily provisions. All doing a roaring trade.
She’s getting her steps in, supporting local businesses, not switching on car engine and avoiding risk of infection.
As home working becomes a new normal, it signals the rise of local communities, more rural flourishing businesses and less CO2 emissions. It’s not all bad.