Credit: Tiegan Neary via Flickr

Not So Cool Britannia

By Jordan Hunter

Is Rule Britannia inappropriate for today’s day and age? Should we say goodbye to the controversial patriotic song?

Rule Britannia has for generations been the song associated with Britain. Growing up in America, I instantly associated the tune with Squidward and his Big Ben watch; the Queen; and posh White people with ridiculous accents drinking tea. That was all before I had even really understood what the lyrics were or what they meant, but this tune was still associated with these stereotypes of Britain being a country across the sea that seemingly “rose above the azure main”. 

When I was older and first came here, I still associated the song with the country. My learning of the lyrics furthered my stereotypical belief in this country of posh English people through this part-historical and part-classical myth. The problem with this is not only is it not true, but it actively creates a harmful narrative and perception of Britain.

This stereotypical idea of Britain that I had in my head is exactly what the song intends to portray. The song was written by a Scot, James Thomson, who was part of a broader movement of the Scottish Enlightenment trying to build a united “British” identity. One key tenet of this movement was the idea of Scotland joining England and building an unstoppable empire. The lyrics did this perfectly as they talk about “ruling the waves”, having a divine mandate over all, and how “Britons never will be slaves”. However, today it still reinforces these ideas. The vision I had in my head is the Britain of Boris Johnson; a vision of an empire not lost and relatively unchanged. An idea of British supremacy and nationalist expansionism. Ignorant of the many divisions, classes, and histories of the real Brittania. 

This is important as we go through this time of re-evaluating symbols and our historical narratives. The way Britain is portrayed to the world matters, as it is how many people understand Britain from the outside. The idea I had growing up could not be further from what is true and this vision is ignorant of what Britain is today. It ignores the various cultures and nations in Britain, it ignores those whom Britain-the-empire hurt, and is tone-deaf to the fact that many Britons were held as slaves by other Britons, based on race, for decades.

This leads to the controversy of today. The Proms have been a staple of summer months, showcasing the best Britain and the world has in the form of a series of concerts. The final night is a patriotic concert with a passionate British arrangement. “Rule Britannia” has traditionally been the staple of the night, as geriatric classical music fans wave Union Jacks, handkerchiefs, and umbrellas whilst belting out the anthem. This year, there was a noticeable absence of the song on the programme when it first came out. Many assumed the BBC was recognising the piece as imperialistic, and thought the decision was based upon pressure from the Black Lives Matter movement. The organisers apparently denied this and said it was due to the fact that people would not be in the building to give the pomp and circumstance the piece deserved. This drew the ire of Boris Johnson and Jacob Rees-Mogg, who celebrated the BBC U-turn by playing a snippet of the piece in the House of Commons.

Now, I don’t believe it is wrong to play the song and appreciate it as a work of art. I think most music historians would say it has a special place in history. Nor is it wrong to enjoy the song if it gives you a sense of pride, or if you just find it catchy. I do think it has to be observed in context and we should have a conversation about what modern Britain is today, and what the empire did to people. But its use at the Proms should be examined. We should find ways to make it inclusive. We should reshape the tradition of celebrating the Britain of the past, to better reflect what Britain looks like today and who it includes. There are ways of doing this, and in the future one can only hope the BBC looks at its programme and redesigns it to celebrate Britain as a diverse country full of different nations, from different backgrounds, who call this island home. 


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