The outrage machine was in full cry over the weekend, thanks to reports that the BBC is considering axing the songs Land of Hope and Glory and Rule Britannia from the Last Night of the Proms.
The argument has been raging since July, when BBC Young Musician of the Year judge Richard Morrison used his BBC Music magazine column to call for the end of the “toe-curling, embarrassing, anachronistic farrago of nationalistic songs” in the wake of the Black Lives Matter protests.
From one perspective, the idea that we could better accommodate black and minority ethnic Britons in the Proms experience by dialling down the patriotism seems itself a touch racist, assuming as it does that only white British-born citizens are capable of patriotic feeling. It’s hardly in keeping with the idea that citizenship of modern Britain is capacious enough to welcome all comers.
This, though, assumes that patriotism is a positive value. And the bien-pensant view is that patriotism itself is now outdated, an understanding that sets Proms organisers increasingly at odds with Proms attendees.
The petit-bourgeois ticket-buyers who flock from the shires to enjoy Proms events have for some time now been drifting apart from the cosmopolitan arts professionals who deliver those events. The former remains attached to symbols of British national identity; the latter, not so much.
Hitherto the two groups have been yoked together by the necessity to sell tickets. It’s not wise to outrage paying customers by confiscating their favourite singalong moments. But this year’s Proms will have no audience, thanks to the pandemic. So absent the discipline of ticket sales, we can hardly blame the high-minded mavens of the music scene for wanting to shed all cultural traces of a group whose values they do not share.
And yet it’s hard to escape the sense here of minority interests being used as sock-puppets for a moral agenda driven largely by the (predominantly white) haute bourgeoisie. Proms modernisers may claim the mantle of post-colonial empathy, but their goal is less multicultural sensitivity so than the abolition of national identity in favour of some boundary-less, universal human fellowship.
Doubtless the self-aggrandising music of imperial-era Britain plays differently to those British citizens who are descendants of colonised peoples rather than the colonisers. We should be mindful of this. But the idea that patriotic fellow-feeling as such is incompatible with a multi-ethnic citizenship is not just false but actively destructive to social cohesion. For example, one poll by British Future suggested that minority ethnic Britons identify not less but more strongly with the idea of ‘Britishness’ than their white fellow-citizens.
We could (and probably should) try and loosen our death-grip on imperial-era sentiments that today evoke more bathos than anything else. But that doesn’t mean we should abandon the celebration of national belonging — quite the reverse. If we need to tweak the lyrics of popular songs to accommodate a post-imperial re-evaluation of Britain’s past, let’s do so. But let’s not stop singing together.