I promised, or perhaps threatened, in my last entry to return to the cultural war that continues to rage around the Last Night of the Proms – mainly, I suspect, because free-market Tories (is there another kind?) have seized on it as another stick with which to beat the BBC in their campaign to do away with the license fee.
The particular occasion for this latest spewing of right-wing bile was the BBC’s decision that, given that choral music is a known disseminator of the Covid-19 virus, ‘Land of Hope and Glory’ and ‘Rule Britannia!’ should be played, but not sung, at the Last Night of the Proms this year. The words of both songs, as culturally appropriated in the 21st century, unashamedly glorify Empire, which many people find embarrassing. As one might have expected, the BBC’s decision has revitalised the conservative ‘erasure of history’ argument, and, even more predictably, provoked an intemperate rant from Johnson who asserted that it is ‘time we stopped our cringing embarrassment about our history’, an embarrassment which he described in cringe-worthy Public Schoolese as ‘wetness’.
The words of ‘Rule Britannia!’ were written in 1740 and interesting, for me at least, mainly for the punctuation of the first line. (‘You can take the English Professor out of the Department but you can’t take the Department out of the Professor,’ they say.) The first line was an exhortation: ‘Rule Britannia! Britannia rule the waves’. When we used to bawl it out as loudly as we could at a very ‘English’ preparatory school in the wilds of the Southern Highlands of what was then Tanganyika in the 1950s, we added a tell-tale ‘s’ and sang ‘Britannia rules the waves’, changing it from an injunction into a statement, which, even in the 1950s, was an exaggeration. If Britain’s claim to rule the waves was tenuous in 1740, in a way it wasn’t in the 19th century, it is entirely untrue now, but my guess is that 95% of the singing flag-wavers at the Proms will, probably inadvertently, have been adding that undeniably jingoistic ‘s’.
The triumphalist words of ‘Land of Hope and Glory’ are more revealing in the context of Johnson’s declaration that we should ‘get over’ what he called ‘our bout of self-recrimination’ about our past. The words were written by A.C. Benson in 1901 in the immediate aftermath of the Anglo-Boer – usually referred to in UK as the ‘Boer’ war by way of distracting attention from the fact that Britain was the aggressor, in much the same way as ‘NHS Test and Trace’ is an attempt to deflect attention from the fact that the associated chaos and incompetence is entirely attributable to the government and not the NHS. The words were written soon after the death of Cecil Rhodes, and the line in the chorus, ‘Wider still and wider shall thy bounds be set’, clearly echoes Rhodes’ vision of an ever expanding British Empire on which the sun never sets. So when it comes to there being no need for national self-recrimination, the Anglo-Boer war is as good a place to start as, say, the massacres committed by British troops at Amritsar or on Bloody Sunday.
Concentration camps were not invented by the Nazis, they were first used in Cuba in the 1890s and shortly after that they were used more extensively by the British to intern Afrikaner women and children, and an unknown number of black South Africans, during the Anglo-Boer war, before being used by the British to the same deadly effect in Kenya and Malaya. They ‘concentrated’ the civilian population in prison camps to prevent them from offering assistance to the Boer guerrilla fighters, while they ‘scorched’ the earth by burning all crops and homesteads to the same end. It is estimated that somewhere around 28,000 Afrikaner women and children died of disease or starvation in the concentration camps in South Africa in 1901-2, of whom around 22,000 were children. A further 20,000 black South Africans are estimated to have died in racially segregated camps over the same two years. Twenty-two thousand dead children would not normally be associated with either ‘Hope’ or Glory’, nor were they much cause for triumphalist celebration then, let alone now. And Boris clearly thinks that we shouldn’t be bothered with self-recrimination about them – I suppose they were just another bunch of foreigners.
The Right Honourable the Viscount Alfred Milner, who was the High Commissioner to South Africa and Governor of the Cape Colony at the time, would have been a shoe-in for Boris Johnson’s cabinet had he only been with us now. Recognising belatedly that all those women and children dying on his watch might result in some regrettably bad press down the line, he wrote, refreshingly frankly (Dominic Cummings would have sorted that out): ‘It is impossible not to see that, however blameless we may be in the matter, we shall not be able to make anybody think so, and I cannot avoid an uncomfortable feeling that there must be some way to make the thing a little less awfully bad if one could only think of it.’ Cummings and Johnson would have been able to think of it. Part of Milner’s problem, of course, was that the NHS wasn’t around at that time so he couldn’t label them ‘NHS Concentration Camps’. In the meantime our Culture representative in the government of all the talentless, Oliver Dowden, says: ‘Confident forward-looking nations don’t erase their history [however ‘awfully bad’], they add to it.’ To which one can only respond by saying that nobody is trying to ‘erase history’: the BBC merely thinks it is not a good idea to celebrate some aspects of that history. But the telling last word, and the strand of culture it represents, should perhaps be left to Piers Morgan as a representative spokesman for the jingoists who have responded to the BBC with such frothing outrage: “The BBC needs to grow a pair & stop grovelling to such insane ‘woke’ cancel culture nonsense that most Britons find utterly absurd.” The ‘pair’ he is referring to are, all too obviously, not breasts.