Breaking: Panic-stricken BBC allows Rule Britannia to be sung at Last Night

Breaking: Panic-stricken BBC allows Rule Britannia to be sung at Last Night


norman lebrecht

September 02, 2020

The public broadcaster has capitaluated to public opinion and political pressure, allowing several BBC Singers into the Last Night to deliver the allegedly objectionable words of Britain’s second-favourite anthem. The words had been denounced by ‘woke’ campaigners and upheld by traditionalists.

Here’s what today’s statement says:
The pandemic means a different Proms this year and one of the consequences, under COVID-19 restrictions, is we are not able to bring together massed voices. For that reason we took the artistic decision not to sing Rule, Britannia! and Land of Hope and Glory in the Hall.

We have been looking hard at what else might be possible and we have a solution. Both pieces will now include a select group of BBC Singers. This means the words will be sung in the Hall, and as we have always made clear, audiences will be free to sing along at home. While it can’t be a full choir, and we are unable to have audiences in the Hall, we are doing everything possible to make it special and want a Last Night truly to remember.

We hope everyone will welcome this solution.

This may be the most weaselly piece of equivocation ever to emerge from the BBC. If it was ‘an artistic decision’ not to sing the anthem, why betray an artistic principle in the face of public protest? And if it was a mistaken decision, why not come clean? And what of the conductor who objected to the words: will she conduct them through gritted teeth?

What a mess.

I suspect the turnaround was ordered by the new D-G Tim Davie, but I don’t yet have the proof. At any event, even the job-clinging bureaucrats in charge of BBC Music must realise that not ‘everyone will welcome this solution’.

It’s shameless.



  • Paul Dawson says:

    I am so grateful to the BBC for giving me permission to sing along at home.

    • Player says:

      Sooooo good of them. I assume they will only allow a few singers so that it is not too loud or triumphalist. And transpose it down to deaden it further!

      Still, very pleasing to see the suits in retreat. Will the woke conductor suck it up or flee?

      • Una says:

        They only had 18 BBC Singers the other night as far away from each other as possible in the Stalls away from the orchestra. Bring back Andrew Davies!!

    • The View from America says:

      How charitable of them.

    • RW2013 says:

      I will not have singing relations with that woman, Miss Stasevska.

  • V. Lind says:

    Yeah: the “”woke’ campaigners” won’t welcome it. But were not the original posts on the subject part of the “public protest”?

    I get the feeling the BBC can never win with you. I personally think backing down in light of public protest shows a responsiveness to the majority of those who pay its licence fee, and an admission that the decision was a mistake. By deeming it an artistic choice, they are not throwing blame on the protesters.

    The man has been in the job a day. This is a clear signal that there is some new thinking at the top. To me, all this is a win-win. But the BBC haters can’t admit the BBC ever does anything right, so I do not expect logic to follow below.

    • engineers_unite says:

      It’s all about singing a silly song.
      The BBC is such a bunch of cretins next to be banned will be the “”Face the Press”.
      (silly walks).

      It was the same bunch of cretins who banned marvellous Bellamy because he told those crappers censoring all debate that “climate change” was rubbish.

      “Climate change BBC” = the ultimate scam storm troops.
      When they remove the idiots pushing the climate scam (global piffle), and return balance to the BBC, they will deserve credibility.

      Until then CLOSE THEM DOWN, and get shot of the entire administration that allowed Savile and other dirty pigs free range to get fat, with no worries at all for decades.

  • Since I was heavily criticized for saying that “Rule Britannia” seemed a bit militaristic when I did my first “Last Night,” my feelings have changed. Back then it was right during 9/11 and the sentiment of the words just did not seem appropriate at the time. Now it feels like a good tune. Most of the world watching and listening do not know the text, just as they do not know the words for “Land of Hope and Glory.” A good melody is, for the most part, worth a thousand words.

    Play the music and let those who wish, sing-along, wherever they are. It also should be noted that “Jerusalem” has texts by a notorious anti-semite, William Blake. There are even theories that Jerusalem in England cannot occur until the Jewish population has been driven out. This never stopped me from enjoying the beautiful Parry rendition.

    • rugbyfiddler says:

      Good to read your up to date thoughts on this issue. On having recently read your (reported) reasons for not including the songs at the time of 9/11, I understood your reasons. I also appreciate you coming into the public domain to tell us your current thinking.

    • The Ghost of Karlos Cleiber says:

      Leonard, with the greatest respect I don’t think your description of Blake as a ‘notorious anti-Semite’ is either fair or accurate.

      It’s true that Blake took occasional swipes at Judaism – but he did that to pretty much every religion other than his own (very particular) approach to Christianity. He also praised Jews on occasion – see, for example, his poem ‘To the Jews’.

      In short, his position was inconsistent save that he was never a great fan of Judaism any more than he was of any other religion; so it’s not really Jews qua Jews that he had a problem with.

      It’s thus neither reasonable nor accurate to describe him as ‘notorious’ for his anti-Semitism; he’s hardly Nancy Astor or T. S. Eliot (an equally great poet who was *appallingly* anti-Semitic). If you Google ‘William Blake anti-Semitic’ you will find precisely one relevant match, an intelligent piece from 1996 by Karen Shabetai published by Johns Hopkins university and which remains (so far as I am aware) the only detailed treatment of the subject.

      Lest this seem like special pleading, I should perhaps say that I read English at Oxford and studied Blake for my final year special paper. The question of his anti-Semitism came up then (2002) and the only fair conclusion was that, while he was none too complimentary about Jews, he was no less so than about proponents of any religion that disagreed with his own.

      The rest of your post I think is spot on.

      • You are probably right, as Blake was always critical of other faiths. But when I performed Bolcom’s Songs of Innocence and of Experience for the first time, I was called before a council of rabbis in Saint Louis. They were incensed that we would allow phrases such as the forgiveness of “Heathens, Turks and Jews” to be sung in our hall. But, as with “Jerusalem”, I contended that the musical worth made this piece valuable and certainly worthy of performance. Ultimately, we put in a sort of warning in the program book, just in case anyone was offended. Thank you for your well chosen words.

        • The Ghost of Karlos Cleiber says:

          Thank you, Leonard.

          The line you quote there rather proves my point – “Heathens, Turks [for which a modern equivalent would be ‘Muslims’] and Jews” is Blake-speak for “you’re ALL wrong”. Curious that the local rabbis would take such offence in the circumstances but I can understand your caution.

          If I may say so “the first time” you did Bolcom’s amazing work sounds like a world-beating humblebrag 🙂 It’s a great and astonishing piece, and I’ve enjoyed listening to your Michigan recording of it. I can only shudder at the thought of the costs involved…

    • violin accordion says:

      And indeed the vainglorious words of Land of Hope and Glory were forced onto the modest melody of Elgar’s March by edict of King Edward VII .
      Elgar immediately disowned and rejected these odious lyrics.

    • Maria says:

      They do know the words! And they come up on the telly.

  • Sue Sonata Form says:

    “Public and political opinion”….yes, what a terrible nuisance democracy is these days.

    • Herbie G says:

      For ‘public opinion’ read Twitterati, Facebook, WhatsApp, ‘Influencers’, other facile anti-social media and ‘celebs’. That has now taken the place of reasoned debate, analysis and thought. Most of those who launch this illiterate rubbish into the public domain wouldn’t even be able to read this blog, let alone understand it.

  • Inchiquin says:

    As an Irishman I object. I shall be singing Mo Ghile Mear or the White Cockade, a lament composed for the exiled Prince Charles Edward Stuart by Seán Clárach Mac Donaill (1691-1754) to the air An Cnota Bán. In MacDonaill’s time all the bards and rhymers were ‘without the law’, but in spite of this the Gaelic poets assembled at his farm in Cill Tuathaigh, county Cork, under his leadership.

    The parallel between MacDonaill’s work for Gaelic poetry and his own work for Gaelic music must have been very clear to the late Seán Ó Riada. Before he died, he asked that this should be played at his funeral.

    Bímse buan ar buairt gach ló
    Ag caoi go crua’s ag tuar na ndeor
    Mar scaoileadh uainn an buachaill, no bhron!
    ‘Sé mo laoch, mo ghile mear,
    ‘Sé mo shaesar, gile mear!
    Ni fhuaras féin aon tsuan ar séan
    O chuaigh i gcéin mo ghile mear

    • Mark says:

      Why not start your own Irish last night in Dublin ? You won’t be interested in any objections in the same way that nobody is really interested in yours.

    • Wesley says:

      You do know, I assume, that if you don’t like Rule Britannia you needn’t either listen to it or sing along? Just like how I, as a proud descendant of Ulster Protestants, choose not to listen or sing along to Irish Republican songs. It’s not difficult, really – you just don’t engage with things that irritate you. But then I can deal with the fact that some people have different political views to me, and I don’t insist on making a massive deal out of whatever they choose to do.

  • Jim says:

    Perhaps the only thing the bbc has done this week is show that Norman is the journalistic equivalent of a dog that barks at blacks people…

  • Michael B. says:

    It is shameful that they are caving in to a bunch of retrograde Little England chauvinists. In general, they are the same sort of people who denied Wimbledon winner Angela Buxton membership in the All-England Club, normally accorded to all English Wimbledon winners, merely because she was Jewish (she was never admitted to the club).

    • Mike Aldren says:

      I really don’t see the relevance of the comparison and I certainly think England has changed out of all recognition since 1956.

  • Kenneth Griffin says:

    Let us hope that the 18 chosen BBC Singers have the decency to be indisposed by health or travel restrictions on the Last Night.

  • annnon says:

    Shameful. I will be there with my Black Lives Matter banner. I hope the singers come dressed in chains and shackles as slaves.

    • M McAlpine says:

      As ‘Rule Britannia’ has absolutely nothing to do with the slave trade it will be somewhat of a waste of time!

    • Paul Brownsey says:

      Do learn that the song is a protest against absolute monarchy such as the Stuarts and the French monarchy were supposed to embody. According to John Locke, whose political theory was pretty much British national ideology in the 18th century, to be the subject of an absolute monarch is to be his property and therefore his slave. Britain got rid of the absolutist James 2 & 7 in 1689 and was not minded to let his son and grandson in.

      • Marfisa says:

        Thank you for your voice of reason, and for this historical perspective (which adds to the song’s context within the masque Alfred, celebrating naval victory over Danish invaders). Sadly, I suspect it would mean nothing to most of the flag-waving prommers enthusiastically singing (this year at home) the chorus, nor to any of the ideologically fired-up protesters against that chorus.

  • Rob says:

    The BBC only changed because clown Boris said something. Are the BBC frightened of this government? Everyone else is.

    • V. Lind says:

      I wish this government was doing a bit more frightening, especially at the British Library.The smell of burning books is in the wind.

  • Donne says:

    I hope the new DG Tim Davie sacks the lot of these ‘entre nous’ spineless BBC execs. Not just because of this shameful Last Night fiasco but for the deeper issue of the continuing harm they do to the quality of music and to the organisation itself by pursuing these agendas.

    Even that latest statement shows a horrible patronising disdain for the intelligence of the public paying their salaries.

  • Gustavo says:

    Perhaps the “United” Kingdom needs another referendum?

  • Steve w t says:

    I love the song. But this debate has near ruined it for me.

    Have those who stabbed critically into our traditions do some real work, instead of letting them shower our traditions with bad vibes.

  • M McAlpine says:

    Silly storm in a teacup created by the woke BBC, proving how out of touch they are with public opinion.

  • Inversio Cancrizans says:

    “The Rule, Britannia! row is too important for anti-racists to ignore” –

  • Richard Slack says:

    I think the composers who were asked to provide the new arrangements should withdraw them and the Conductor should step down as well on the grounds of intolerable interference and lack of support. The BBC should, in future, privatise the last night and have nothing further to do with it.

    • Andrew says:

      No. We should just privatise the BBC and stop people being forced to pay for it even if they only watch other non-BBC live channels. If the BBC execs believe it is as good as they say it is, then let them move to voluntary subscription rather than clogging up the courts with (often poor) non-payers.

  • Andy says:

    Not me. Shameful capitulation to jingoism and, from some, racism. And I’m a huge fan and former employee of the BBC. Hopefully the BBC Singers will day no.

  • David Payn says:

    Dammed if they do, damned if they don’t. In any case, the childish opprobrium about the right to sing the words to an old song is utterly hilarious. I’ve seen more adult behaviour in a crêche.

  • View from America says:

    Y’all can’t sing your way back into an empire.
    Y’all slaves already, to the EU, to the US, to China, to Russia.

    I mean Russia killed Britons (who shall never be slaves) on British soil (rule Britannia!) and what did the UK do? Expel a bunch of low level embassy employees.

    • The View from America says:


    • citicrab says:

      With all the Russian money in London, I’m surprised they even did this. Not your Thatcher, they (she expelled like the whole embassy).

    • anon says:

      The wife of an American diplomat kills a Brit and flies back to the US to escape justice, and Boris can’t even get his bosom buddy Trump to extradite her, who said in her defense:

      “The woman was driving on the wrong side of the road ― and that can happen! Those are the opposite roads, it happens.”

      And Boris thinks he can wrangle a sweet trade deal out of Trump.

      • V. Lind says:

        For Trump, the only sweet trade deals are those in which America gets everything it wants. Please God, fight against chlorinated chicken and everything else Trump wants out of the UK, which he regards as an American air base with some good golf courses and nothing else.

  • Michael B. says:

    Have things really changed all that much in Great Britain since 1956? Look at the incredibly racist treatment Megan Markle received from the British press! That was not 1956, that was this year!

    • V. Lind says:

      Meghan Markle did not receive “incredibly racist treatment.” She was welcomed into the Royal Family as no-one else ever has been — invited to Christmas at Sandringham before her marriage, which even Kate Middleton, who had been with Prince William for almost a decade, was not; taken along on a junket with the Queen before the wedding; Prince Charles escorting her partway down the aisle, and very tender and solicitous toward her mother.

      Sure, a few rags made some cheap comments early on, but on the whole she had a pretty positive ride until she began to act plus royaliste que le roi, preaching one thing and doing another (carbon footprints vs. four private jets in a short period of time, and those on frivolities).

      Of the masses of coverage I encountered, the vast majority was wildly enthusiastic about all the boundaries Prince Harry was breaking through — an American, a divorcée, an actress, an activist, older than him, mixed race. The consensus was that she would be a “breath of fresh air.” (That gave me pause, as I recalled the same being said of Sarah Ferguson). She was a huge success on her first public outings and the wedding was a triumph of Royal pageantry and a celebration of the couple’s interests.

      She entered royal life voluntarily, but couldn’t hack it for even two years because she never got that she was playing by their rules now. It was a huge culture shock to her, given her well-developed sense of her own importance, that those rules were not going to be bent to her will. That’s why her initially rave reviews went south — race was not a factor.

  • Inchiquin says:

    The good thing about Cov-19 is that it might encourage folk to make their own entertainment at home. In Ireland we have centuries of folk tradition. Why not learn an instrument or sing the second lockdown is coming.

    Here is Ciara Taaffe playing Farewell to Music by Turlough O’Carolan, (c1670-1738).

  • observer says:

    An interesting aspect of the British attitude toward slavery: Between 1793 and 1812, the British impressed more than 15,000 U.S. sailors to supplement their fleet during their Napoleonic Wars with France. This was accomplished by raiding ships at sea essentially. Taken against their will, it was essentially piracy and slavery. By 1812 the United States Government had had enough. On 18 June, the United States declared war on Great Britain, citing, in part, impressment. The British responded by burning Washington.

  • Karl says:

    I have done some research and see that in 2018 UK drill group 1011 were prohibited by court order from mentioning injury or death in their music. If that can be done why not ban the mention of slavery in Rule Britannia? Censorship like that is a slippery slope. Best not to get on it. Maybe just announce a trigger warning?

  • Tony Sanderson says:

    Maybe the Proms could be given to Sky Arts/Scala Radio for a year, just like the BBC are allowed to host one T20 cricket match this year. ClassicFM already support a number of UK orchestras. The BBC Symphony Orchestra could be renamed the SkyArts/Scala/Unwoke Symphony Orchestra.

  • Leporello says:

    Britannia waives the rules!

  • observer says:

    Another aspect of the British slaver mindset was the indentured servitude of the Irish. They were not slaves, but often so exploited and so abused that it had at times similarities. Many were led to the desperate decision to enter servitude due to the English conquest and colonisation of Ireland, resultant religious persecution, and crop failures (some as a deliberate result of the Tudor conquest. ) Many were treated so badly they did not survive their period of indenturment. Interesting how these considerations are seen so rarely during the discussion on this site. And interesting how the nationalistic protestations put on display reveal a crude kind of British nationalism I didn’t know existed. Helps one understand the Brexit disaster.

    • Marfisa says:

      I don’t think I will enrol for your partial and syncopated History 101 course on “The British Slaver Mindset”. Unless you can explain how the nineteenth-century famine was deliberately caused by the Tudors. Oh, I’ve got it! The potato was introduced under Elizabeth I, devilishly bio-engineered with a delayed-mechanism disease so as to starve Irishmen over three hundred years later. I grant you the religious persecution.
      Your other comment on naval impressment also calls for a great deal of informed context.

      • observer says:

        The potato famine was another event and I did not correlate them so forget your strawman argument. And of course, it’s no surprise to see people like you attempt to rationalize this history, the same mindset that blusters about Rule Britannia.

        • Marfisa says:

          Fair enough, I should not have made the easy assumption that ‘crop failure’ meant the potato famine. But writing “people like you” is also making an unwarranted assumption. I don’t deny the oppression of the Irish by the English. I do dislike the current tendency to make slavery the answer to everything. It is the misfortune of the English that the Norman oppression took place too long ago to count. As for ‘Rule Britannia’, all I would want (hopelessly) is that people on *both sides* of the argument take the trouble to know its actual words and to research its literary and historical context before sounding off (and not have a Pavlovian reaction to the mere word slave.)

  • Devil Éire says:

    I think I would rather have The Dubliner’s singing Nelson’s Farewell, prefaced by a poem by Louis MacNeice.

    Grey brick upon brick,
    Declamatory bronze
    On sombre pedestals –
    O’Connell, Grattan, Moore –
    And the brewery tugs and the swans
    On the balustraded stream
    And the bare bones of a fanlight
    Over a hungry door
    And the air soft on the cheek
    And porter running from the taps
    With a head of yellow cream
    And Nelson on his pillar
    Watching his world collapse.

  • Mvarc says:

    I think the most weaselly part of the BBC statement is “ While it can’t be a full choir,…” – why on earth not!

    What does “ a select group of BBC Singers” mean? 6? 16? 60? How will they be selected? If you are going to do it, do it properly.

    I suggest the BBC invite any member of London’s professional choirs who’s happy to sing the words – and who’d like to come along – to turn up! Even with the strictest social distancing measures there would be room for hundreds!

    I also share the gratefulness of other posters that the BBC has granted permission and confirmed that we “will be free to sing along at home”. Who writes this nauseating rubbish?

    Your comments, NL, are spot on.

  • Alex says:

    Laurence Fox did a great job – he pushed Vera Lynn to number 1!

  • Bone says:

    If only America could summon balls for one more night and vote in Trump like the Brits voted for “Rule Brittania”…

  • Pianofortissimo says:

    How generous. How understanding. How…

  • John humphreys says:

    Here is an (dis)organisation that doesn’t know its tit from its arse…