The Rule Britannia debate: Watch both sides now

The Rule Britannia debate: Watch both sides now


norman lebrecht

August 25, 2020

A quiet afternoon on BBC Television.



  • Player says:

    Norman, has someone dropped something in your tea? I like what I see…!

  • Oracle of Londonberry Junior says:

    They should drop being an anti-british zombie nation, that caters to any and every person screeching “racism”, or wearing pink heards and waving wildly.

    If they want you to rid yourself of your culture and history and worse: rewrite history from their view today and actually teach that (i.e. distribute GUILT all around)… then maybe it’s time to stop being the civil “don’t-resist” polite articulate scared stupid britains that we once respected, but are beginning to hate more and more.

  • Gaffney Feskoe says:

    Although I am not British, I vote with Norman on this one.

  • RW2013 says:

    Well argumented Norman!

  • Karl says:

    Good for you NL! Don’t let malcontents and morons destroy your national pride. We have to put up with the black national anthem here at sporting events now, and a prominent moron calls our independence day a celebration of white supremacy.

    • Patricia says:

      I intend to celebrate all American national holidays with white supremacist enthusiasm.

      • Mind yours says:

        And there we have it an admission that this really is about white supremacy is your real name Donald Patricia?

    • Mrs Doyle says:

      Flag waving is politically sensitive in some parts of UK eg NI.

      • Maria says:

        We’re not talking about the UK as four separate countries. We are talking about England and quintesentially English if not London! Very different. A bit like Americans always saying they are going to Europe when they mean France or Italy!! That professor doesn’t do himself any favours. With all his ‘expertise’, research and education, comes across as quite ignorant.

        • V. Lind says:

          I’ve got quite tired of Professor Kehinde Andrews. He wrote a paper called The Psychosis of Whiteness. He narrated the film based on it, and concludes by saying people have to watch out for “how whiteness is produced and maintained,” whatever that means. (Mine was produced by the conjoining of my parents, and is maintained because I do not apply blackface).

          So I find it hard to buy much of what he says when he seems to consign an entire race to psychotic status.

        • Marfisa says:

          It is Rule, Britannia! Not Rule, England!
          Absolutely about the four separate countries.

    • Jay says:

      It gives the likes of Prof. Andrews his few minutes
      of public recognition as he picks out the popular cause of the day to express his views which are tailored to the knee jerk reaction of the ignorant
      mob.He seems intelligent but he ain’t.

    • MDR says:

      You’re racist.

  • buxtehude says:

    How has This turned into That? How stoopid beyond words . . .

    “This country is just a dim eight-year-old, constantly in a tantrum… we deserve a manufactured Proms controversy every year until the sun explodes out of the sky.” (Joel Golby)

    Meanwhile let the Lohds and Commanders of the British Empire climb into their nutshell and rule the waves, it might make a spectacle.

  • Lauren says:

    I am an American, but enjoy hearing Rule Brittania, Land of Hope and Glory, Jerusalem, God Save the Queen, I Vow To Thee My Country, and the Welsh National Anthem! So sue me.

  • Mrs Doyle says:

    The last night of the Proms has nothing to do with classical music. I always avoid it like the plague. All those flags remind me of the 12th in Belfast!

    Could I suggest this celebrated song, ” My Lovely Horse” composed by T. Crilly and D. Maguire is sung instead, especially as it contains a marvellous psychodelic Sax solo.

    • Novagerio says:

      Mrs.Doyle, nobody has ever forced you to watch it. End of problem.
      There’s something called “By popular demand”, so let’s see what happens next year. Personally, I think the year 2020 should not have a Last Night where there has not been any Proms. Yes, we have had serious problems this year, a major one being Covid-19. Meanwhile, the looney left can go back to the duck pond, or help Live Music come back soon, just stop creating problems out of Non-problems!

      • Les says:

        “Mrs.Doyle, nobody has ever forced you to watch it. End of problem.”

        But Novagerio, you don’t understand. She enjoys being offended; it makes her feel terribly superior.

    • Jason Lewis says:

      Ah, the wonderful Divine Comedy! Neil Hannon is a brilliant tunesmith. The embattled and bonkers Beeb should scrap RB etc for ever and commission him to write something for the dreaded last night. He’d do a great job. People could just make up their own words or hum along….

  • Day Radebaugh says:

    The reference to Stalin is very appropriate. The effort to eliminate these songs is intellectual thuggery. Well done, Norman.

  • UK violinist says:

    Dalia Stasevska’s opinion holds just as much weight as your own, Mr Lebrecht. I find your reference to her as naive, entirely unnecessary. Do you know her personally? As a musician and empathetic human, she is listening and understands far more than many others you might describe as “experienced”.

    As a professional violinist who you would see up on that stage, playing these stuck in the past songs, I couldn’t support the argument strongly enough to remove them. It is in acknowledging how closely linked they are to such shameful events in our history, that we can move on from this. The origin might be linked to Scotland as you say, but the song has historically been sung in situations where our slave trade was being abhorrently celebrated. In no way do I speak for everyone, but I know first hand that a huge number of my colleagues no longer feel comfortable playing these songs on stage, so musically it feels deeply conflicting to play something we are ashamed of.

    As a privileged white woman, I don’t see that any of us have the right to feel offended by the removal of a song, which has perpetrated suffering in ANY way.

  • Mark (London) says:

    So these are the sort of so called academics teaching in universities’ ‘professor of black studies ‘ who doesn’t know his history ! RIP education

  • Von Schneider says:

    Good work NL.

    One increasingly gets the feeling that large portions of UK residents are (1) dim-witted enough not to understand that everything must be placed in its historical context in order to be understood and (2) marked by a deep-seated dislike/hatred for anything British. One genuinely believes many of these people would be more content in their native lands.

    • M McAlpine says:

      It is not large proportions of UK residents who are dim-witted it is the so-called academics like Prof Andrews who are so woke that they cannot see anything within a historical context. Hearing this guy makes me glad I didn’t waste my money sending my kids to university. With people like this on the teaching staff, what chance to our young people have of getting a decent education?

  • Fiddlist says:

    Good one Norman. Completely agree about the dangers of attempting to erase inconvenient history.

  • Nijinsky says:

    I love Arne (the composer of the tune):

    Norman, don’t give yourself a heart attack by people fussing so much they destroy art itself, or perspective on history that could bring… perspective….

    It goes to one’s heart if one lets it, don’t take it to heart….

    I do think Arne was a great composer how he wrote for voice, and Wikipedia says that his output is small because being Catholic he was at odds with the Church of England.

    I don’t know that much about him yet, Only really know him from a CD I bought that has Thomas Linley’s “O Bid Your Faithful Ariel Fly” on it, bought it because I think Linley is a genius, but also really loved Arne, because of the softness of his melodic line. And he doesn’t have the sort of instrumental restless one hears with other composer of the time, which could be seen as out of sync with the times, but for me in sync with music itself.

  • George says:

    The words say “And Guardian Angels sang this strain: Rule, Britannia…” .

    I am not British but the way I read it the song is about the founding of a nation and the well-wishes that were given to it by its “Guardian Angels” at the moment if its birth. So it goes back even way further before the Empire started.

  • annnon says:

    A rather lopsided debate, with NL’s odd revisionist history, reducing the whole period of British empire building just in order to make a silly little ditty (yes, I’m talking about the commercial jingo Rule Britannia) more acceptable.

    And WHAT tradition? It started 70 years ago, decided by some BBC executive to get more TV ratings, and now it stands with the Magna Carta?

    • V. Lind says:

      1. Traditions have to start sometime, and 70-odd years is enough to claim tradition.

      2. They’re just songs, and people love them – they are rousing — more because of the tunes than the words, I’d venture.

  • Back desk says:

    Bravo Norman! Why haven’t the other channels interviewed on your excellent argument? Brilliant.

  • Novagerio says:

    Oh boy, what comments from “well-intended moralists”!
    Where were you people the last 60 years? Did you have your radios and tvs switched off? Then keep them switched off (!)
    A simple observation: if a conductor doesn’t like the gig, then just say “No thanks” and move on. End of this non-problem (!)

  • Éirinn go Brách says:

    Ah, the power of an aul’ song! Here in Ireland, our rousing “Fields of Athenry” reminds every rugby crowd of British colonial atrocities (“They [the starved Irish] stole Trevellyan’s corn so the young may see the morn. Now the prison ship lies waiting in the bay”). So I love hearing the British singing these Proms songs, with such buffoonery and pomp! Especially post-Brexit. The irony within them just grows with each passing political fiasco. These songs hold a huge, ironic mirror to a society in self-afflicted decay, one which used to run the world, but now finds itself isolated off the European coast with nothing but a nostalgic, meaningless concept of “sovereignty” to hang onto. If there is any reason to tuck these songs away onto the library shelf, it is to spare yourselves the blushes (little reference there to another beautiful Irish song). You no longer rule the waves. Hope and glory have long since evaporated. Forget censorship. Maybe it is just time for something a little more humble and less self-delusional?

    • Wesley says:

      “The Sash My Father Wore” is another powerful, rousing Irish song. Maybe we should sing that instead of “Rule Britannia”.

    • Bea says:

      Thanks for this comment. This may not be Irish but “Would to God the gift tae gie us, to see ourselves as others see us.”

    • karajanman says:

      I agree with your comments about the Unionists but I have a different view from Éirinn go Brách on the singing of Rule Britannia and Land of Hope and Glory. It is because I have a good chuckle over some of the words of these anachronistic songs that I am not offended by them as an Irishman. As ÉgB points out, Britain “no longer rules the waves. Hope and glory have long since evaporated” so why not enjoy the irony and embarrassment at seeing people making eejits of themselves? In Ireland we have the bar room patriots who sing rebel songs but would run a mile from doing anything to back up their brave words. I see the the Last Night in the same light. The remote control is the ultimate weapon if you just can’t stomach it! Btw I think that the BBC should be commended for organizing this great festival of music that doesn’t cost a fraction to attend compared with the extortionate prices of the European festivals. I don’t think that Britons appreciate their Auntie as much as some of us foreigners do.

    • Allen says:

      Sorry to disappoint you with your sour little tirade, but trade talks seem to be going quite well.

      And the song never did claim that we ruled the waves.

    • Matias says:

      It must be galling to be overshadowed in every respect, and over a considerable period of time, by your nearest neighbour, and at the same time continue to be financially dependent.

      • karajanman says:

        I don’t know what nationality you are Mathias but you clearly know nothing about Anglo-Irish history. Ireland has been “overshadowed” by Britain in the same way that the Soviet Union “overshadowed” the Baltic States, that Imperial Russia “overshadowed” Finland and that the Ottoman Empire “overshadowed” Armenia. I won’t make any comparisons with Nazi Germany because that was unique in its terror, but I hope you get the idea. I can tolerate the Last Night but I can’t tolerate people talking through inappropriate orifices about stuff of which they know nothing.

  • Devil Eire says:

    This annual Butcher’s apron waving jamboree has nothing to do with real music. I can see it only relevant to little Englander Brexshiteers. Flags are controversial in certain places eg NI Remember the Empire is long gone and they no longer rule the waves. They have a border down the Irish sea instead.

  • Morgan says:

    Liberté, égalité, fraternité. Equality is the hardest of the three and our world is struggling but the struggle is righteous. Quibbles over statues or goose bump songs seem so trivial and the arguments sophistic.

  • karajanman says:

    Congratulations to Norman Lebrecht for this amusing Divertimento at a time when we all need a little diversion from the cares of the world.

  • Allen says:

    “sensitive about the fact that the colonies kicked you out”

    We’re not. And many of them subsequently chose to join the British Commonwealth, as it used to be known.

    So far as the various “Empire” honours are concerned, I don’t see many being returned.

  • J Morris Jones says:

    Great to see the legend Simon McCoy as the anchor for this – surely increasingly a British institution himself. I hope he continues to remain vocal for a long time!

    And as the autumn and winter season approach, his track record in repartee – with weather presenters for example – will most assuredly lift the spirits. (I might add that the dry humour in his reporting of an International Dog Surfing championship is a little gem).

  • Gillian Spragg says:

    Looking at the words:
    Rule, Britannia! Britannia, rule the waves!
    Britons never, never, never shall be slaves.

    When Britain first, at heaven’s command,
    Arose from out the azure main,
    This was the charter of the land,
    And Guardian Angels sang this strain:

    Line 1
    The Romans gave the name Britannia to Britain, when they, the Romans, came as conquerors. However Britannia does have a ring to it so I suppose it caught on and it has become an expression to describe collectively the four component nations of what we might otherwise call the UK – which doesn’t have much of a ring to it.
    (any objection so far? BTW the image of a military-style Britannia, with spear and shield, was also a Roman invention and actually the Romans never succeeded in conquering the whole island.)

    “rule the waves!” : see Line 2 below

    Line 2
    Britons: I suppose we probably think of woad-covered Celts, if we think of anything. However it can be construed as being descriptive of everybody who lives in Britannia, the British Isles or the UK and therefore be a synonym for British.
    “Britons [British] never, never, never, shall be slaves.”
    This is to say that no British person will ever be a slave.
    (is everyone happy so far? No British person will ever be a slave)

    Now the context of “rule the waves!” becomes clear: ruling the waves around the islands is a protection that will prevent the Britons [British] from becoming slaves.

    Line 5
    “The charter” is embodied in the first two lines: that the Britons [British] will be protected from becoming slaves by keeping control of the seas around Britannia, the British Isles or the UK.

    Line 6
    Well, it is quite nice to have a Guardian Angel or two around.

    So I would like to invite all the Britons [British] who comprise Muslims, Sikhs, Christians, Hindus, Buddhists, people who of every ethnic background (too many of these to name them all) and anyone else whom I may have been so impolite not to have mentioned, to join together to rejoice in this fine aspiration that we will be protected from harm and prevented from becoming slaves.
    (i know things are never perfect, but this an aspiration and maybe we should be heard singing it – as a reminder of what we want)

    Please, everyone who is British be part of this!

    It is all a matter of the context you choose.

  • David Richardson says:

    Do any offended commentators on this issue really think the audience takes the words of Rule Britannia and Land of Hope and Glory seriously ? They don’t.The second half of the Last Night of the Proms is a very British party and an irony-fest, an opportunity to take part in a well-loved musical tradition and send ourselves up, something we do very well. It’s an innocent celebration, and if you want to see how a conductor’s closing speech can brilliantly encapsulate its spirit, watch Andrew Davies in 1992,

    I suggest it’s time to lighten up! And by the way, well said, Norman.

    • J Morris Jones says:

      Apparently Sir Andrew Davis has fairly recently created and recorded his own realization of Handel’s Messiah, with added novelties in the orchestration, such as sleigh bells in ‘Hallelujah’. The posters for the premiere of it apparently said something like ‘Toronto’s Mega Messiah. Now with Marimba’.

  • David Richardson says:

    Sorry Norman, wrong link in my post on Rule Britannia thread. Andrew Davis’ 1992 speech/song is at
    And I misspelt Davis. Can you make corrections when moderating please?