LONDON (AP) — The BBC has ditched the lyrics of “Rule, Britannia!” for its traditional end-of-summer concert amid a debate over the song’s celebration of the British Empire at a time when critics are reevaluating the nation’s colonial past.
Britain’s publicly funded broadcaster said late Monday that the final night of its Proms concert series would feature instrumental versions of “Rule, Britannia!” and another patriotic mainstay, “Land of Hope and Glory,” instead of traditional singalongs.
The BBC statement didn’t directly address the controversy, but said the decision reflected “this extraordinary year’’ and the fact that there will be no live audience due to the COVID-19 pandemic. Critics accused the broadcaster of caving in to political correctness and pressure from social justice campaigners.
“The BBC will allow the tune to be played but not sung, thereby offending all shades of opinion all the time,’’ music critic and author Norman Lebrecht wrote in a blog post after the BBC announced the program for the Sept. 12 concert. “There is no excuse for such cowardice. At least one BBC head should roll.”
The controversy arose Sunday when the Sunday Times newspaper reported that the BBC was considering scrapping the songs amid concerns about their “perceived association with colonialism and slavery.’’ Dalia Stasevska, the 35-year-old Finn who will conduct the concert, was seeking to modernize the event and reduce the “patriotic elements,’’ the newspaper said, without citing a source for the information.
The BBC on Monday rejected the “unjustified personal attacks’’ on Stasevska and said the changes in the program were made by the corporation after consulting all the artists involved.
“The Proms will 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,″ the BBC said.
Late Tuesday, it issued a second statement saying that the lyrics would return to the program in 2021.
The Proms is an annual series of summer concerts that was created in 1895 and has been organized by the BBC since 1927. The final night has traditionally featured a triumphant emotional singalong of patriotic songs like “Rule, Britannia!” It’s a flag-waving fixture on the calendar and is seen as an expression of national pride in Britain.
“Rule, Britannia!” was first performed in 1740 when Britain, backed by the might of the Royal Navy, was building an empire that stretched from India to South Africa and Jamaica. While the empire is long gone, it remains embedded in the song’s lyrics, which suggest Britain was created at “Heaven’s command’’ and end with the rousing chorus:
“Rule, Britannia! Britannia rules the waves! Britons never, never, never will be slaves.”
Kehinde Andrews, a professor of Black Studies at Birmingham City University, said the line represented racist propaganda at a time when Britain was the world’s leading slave-trading nation.
“If dropping racist propaganda from taxpayer-funded TV is controversial, then there is no hope for the serious work that needs to be done to address racism,’’ Andrews tweeted.
British Prime Minister Boris Johnson waded into the controversy, saying that he couldn’t believe the BBC had made such a decision.
“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,″ Johnson said. “I wanted to get that off my chest.”
The Proms debate is just the latest salvo in Johnson’s criticism of the BBC since he took office last year. His Conservative Party has criticized the broadcasting corporation for refusing to fund free TV licenses for people over 75. Senior members of Johnson’s government have refused to appear on the BBC’s flagship morning radio program because of complaints about its alleged liberal bias.
But the real issue may lie within the BBC, which lacks confidence when dealing with issues involving race, said Trevor Phillips, a former chairman of Britain’s Equalities and Human Rights Commission.
“The principle reason it has no confidence … is that there is no ethnic diversity at the top of its decision-making tree,” Phillips told Times Radio. “What you have is rooms full of white men panicking that someone is going to think they are racist.”