Rule, Britannia!: should we still be singing the jingoistic anthem?

Queer singer Jamie Barton closed the Proms with a subversive rendition of the song, but its alliance with an anti-gay British empire leaves me queasy

What’s not to love? A queer opera singer exuberantly waving the Pride flag in front of a cheering audience at Last Night of the Proms, broadcast to millions of people. It is the sort of thing that is guaranteed to send every pink-faced Home Counties golf-club reactionary into paroxysms of rage. But at the risk of inviting predictable groans, watching the symbol of queer liberation being dramatically brandished during a rendition of Rule, Britannia! left me somewhat queasy.

An overtly jingoistic song dating back to the mid-18th century, it became an anthem of a British empire that imposed anti-gay laws from India to Africa. Indeed, 35 of the 53 Commonwealth nations – mostly ex-British colonies – have laws criminalising homosexuality, some designed by colonisers who themselves passionately sang along to Rule, Britannia!.

Yes, singing Rule, Britannia! is an integral part of the Proms tradition, and some will see Jamie Barton’s rendition as a subversive update. Neither am I some grumpy hater of traditional songs: Jerusalem, also raucously sang that evening, would make a fine English national anthem. It is just symptomatic of how the British never came to terms with the legacy of empire: whether it be the millions who perished in unnecessary famines in India or who were locked up in concentration camps in South Africa and Kenya, let alone the legacies of colonialism – whether that be poverty, conflict, or Victorian anti-gay laws and homophobic attitudes.

The other problem is that Britain lacks popularly known and accepted anthems of rebellion and struggle: our national anthem is, after all, an awful dirge that says nothing about the country we live in, and merely cries subservience to the monarchy. A few weeks ago, I watched a militant protest in Avignon, southern France, decrying police violence. It culminated with a rendition of La Marseillaise, the French national anthem: unthinkable in our own country, but here is a song instructing citizens to “form your battalions” and “march”, demanding “tyrants and you traitors” tremble. Britain is a revolutionary society, too – England had its revolution more than a century before France – but it is a tradition that is deliberately smothered. Perhaps it is time to reclaim some of that spirit.


Owen Jones

The GuardianTramp

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