Rule, Britannia! is out of tune with the times | Letters

The song should be axed from the Last Night of the Proms, says Adelheid Russenberger, while Prof John Barrell thinks the lyrics apply only too well to present-day Britain. Plus letters from Malcolm Shifrin, Penelope Putz, Karen Lewton and Ruth Lewis

The suggestion that Rule, Britannia! and Land of Hope and Glory should be axed from the Last Night of the Proms is not, as No 10 suggests, a distracting focus on the symbols rather than the substance of a problem (Rule, Britannia! will be played at the Proms but not sung, BBC confirms, 24 August).

Symbols matter. They act as dog-whistles and means of legitimising discriminatory ideologies. The substance of racism in the UK is underpinned by an inaccurate nostalgia for a “Great Britain” which spread its “civilising” influence across the world in the 19th century and stood alone against the powers of European fascism in the 20th century. The jingoistic, flag-waving Rule, Britannia! of the Last Night of the Proms feeds into this false narrative, implying that to be British is to be a white imperial victor.

A confident, forward-looking nation – as the culture secretary, Oliver Dowden, claims we are – would not feel obliged to maintain archaic and offensive traditions, nor lack the creativity to build something more meaningful in its place. Why not hand the Last Night of the Proms to up-and-coming conductors and composers, to select or compose pieces that respond to contemporary Britain? The Last Night of the Proms could become a moment to reflect on the UK’s culture, diversity, unity, and disunity through music, rather than a tone-deaf refusal to let go of a myth of British exceptionalism.
Adelheid Russenberger

• When the words of Rule, Britannia! were written, the word “slave” had a wider range of meanings than it has today. The claim that Britons would never be slaves would have been understood to mean that Britons would never consent to be the subjects of an arbitrary ruler, a “haughty tyrant”, such as had been removed by the revolution of 1688.

If the song is taken as referring only to chattel slavery, by which Britain was greedily enriching itself in the 18th century, it is certainly offensive. But a note on the programme of the Proms could make it clear that what the song was deploring was the kind of infringement of the rights of free-born Britons exemplified the recent attempt to prorogue parliament, and the apparent determination of the present government to limit the role of the Commons.

Thus understood, the song is revealed as entirely appropriate to present-day Britannia.
Prof John Barrell
Brilley, Herefordshire

• If there is an audience at next year’s Proms, I can’t see the BBC playing Rule, Britannia! without words again in case the Prommers just sing along anyway. The words are grim, but it’s a rousing tune. Perhaps someone could sponsor a competition for new words, with the winning entry included in the programme? Ditto Land of Hope and Glory – Elgar reportedly hated the words.
Malcolm Shifrin
Leatherhead, Surrey

• Here’s one I prepared earlier when attending a local Proms in the Park. I found I was suddenly affronted by the mindless jingoism and came up with: “World of hope and beauty, world we hold so dear / How shall we preserve thee, from our greed and fear? / Further still and further, shall our love increase / God who dwells within us, make our care ne’er cease.”
Penelope Putz

• I suggest that Land of Hope and Glory and Rule, Britannia! be replaced by God Save the Queen – the Sex Pistols’ version. It has a really rousing chorus that everyone could join in with at home. All together now: “No future, no future, no future for you! No future, no future…”
Karen Lewton
Newcastle upon Tyne

• “Cool Britannia, Britannia loves its raves / Britons ever, ever, ever shall be knaves” (Police crack down on illegal raves ahead of introduction of £10k fine, 23 August).
Ruth Lewis

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