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ruling the airwaves

'The words will be sung': BBC backs down in row over Rule Britannia slavery lyrics

The song features the lyrics: “Britons never, never, never shall be slaves.”

BBC Music / YouTube

THE BBC HAS performed a u-turn on plans not to sing the lyrics to Rule, Britannia! and Land Of Hope And Glory at the Last Night of the Proms.

The BBC Proms are an annual series of classical music concerts usually held at the Royal Albert Hall in London. They are going ahead this year but without audiences due to Covid-19 restrictions. 

The finalé of the festival is known as the Last Night of the Proms and is focused on popular and British-focused pieces.

Among the songs traditionally sung are Rule, Britannia! and Land Of Hope And Glory, but their appropriateness has been questioned due to references to slavery and imperialism.

The opening lines to Rule, Britannia! feature the lyrics:

Rule, Britannia! Britannia, rule the waves! Britons never, never, never shall be slaves.

Land Of Hope And Glory, which was composed by Edward Elgar, also has colonialist lyrics, including: “By freedom gained, by truth maintained. Thine Empire shall be strong”. 

When the programme for the proms was released a number of weeks ago, the BBC had said that these songs would be performed but that their lyrics would not be sung due to the lack of an audience in the hall. 

The decision had sparked anger among some MPs and elements of the UK media with the accusation that the decision was taken as a result of sensitivities around slavery.

The BBC’s former director-general Lord Tony Hall previously insisted the decision to remove the lyrics was a “creative” one but that the issue of dropping the songs because of their association with Britain’s imperial past had also been discussed.

UK Prime Minister Boris Johnson had even commented on the controversy, telling a group of schoolchildren that it was “politically acceptable” to sing the lyrics to Rule, Britannia!

This after, however, BBC Proms has released a statement to say the “songs will be sung” on the Last Night. 

“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,” BBC Proms said in a statement. 

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.” 

The BBC’s U-turn comes after Tony Hall was succeeded in the role by Tim Davie, the former chief executive of commercial arm BBC Studios, who took over the role as director-general yesterday. 

Davie is a former member of the Conservative Party who stood for election for the party in the mid 1990s. Davie has said the BBC needs reform “with urgency” and stressed it must be “a universal public service”.

Responding to the news of the u-turn, a 10 Downing Street spokesman said Johnson “welcomes the decision”. 

- With reporting by Press Association

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