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A Row Erupts In Britain Over 'Rule, Britannia!' At The Proms

AILSA CHANG, HOST:

Tomorrow night, people will sing this patriotic anthem, as they have for years, at the final evening of the Proms, a classical music festival in London.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "RULE, BRITANNIA!")

UNIDENTIFIED MUSICAL GROUP: (Singing) Rule, Britannia. Britannia, rule the waves. Britons never, never, never will be slaves.

CHANG: But in the wake of anti-racism protests this summer, the lyrics to that anthem were almost cut from the show.

Frank Langfitt, NPR's London correspondent, explains why.

FRANK LANGFITT, BYLINE: If you didn't quite catch it, the offending line from "Rule, Britannia!" is this. Britons never, never, never will be slaves.

JOSEPH HARKER: It was written in an era when Britain was a proud slave-trading nation.

LANGFITT: This is Joseph Harker. Harker, who's Black, is deputy opinion editor at Britain's Guardian newspaper.

HARKER: We have many descendants of slaves who live with us in this country and also people who've been subjugated through the British Empire. I think that now is an appropriate time to be discussing the singing of "Rule, Britannia!" given the conversations we've been having this year in which it's felt that we're a lot more enlightened about the effects of racism than we have ever been.

LANGFITT: The BBC, which broadcasts the Proms, seemed to have concerns as well. Last month it said the lyrics would not be sung, ostensibly to prevent the spread of the coronavirus. Some were skeptical of the reasoning given commentary in the BBC's own music magazine that had called the lyrics, quote, "insensitive, bordering on incendiary in the era of Black Lives Matter."

The move upset Proms fans like Stephen Bell, a musical director. Bell, who's white, responded by organizing hundreds of people into an impromptu choir to sing "Rule, Britannia!" Saturday on social media.

STEPHEN BELL: I've never set up a Facebook group so fast because that was driven by emotion. No, don't take our words away from us.

LANGFITT: Some on the political right, including Prime Minister Boris Johnson, attacked the move to cut the lyrics.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

PRIME MINISTER BORIS JOHNSON: I think it's time we stopped our cringing embarrassment about our history, about our traditions and about our culture.

LANGFITT: Last week, the BBC reversed its decision. This is the latest skirmish in a battle over British history and tradition in an increasingly multicultural country. It also generated a second debate relevant to American politics right now - when to pick your battles. Sunder Katwala runs British Future, a think tank focused on identity and race. He believes Britain's Black community was not the driving force behind the debate over "Rule, Britannia!"

SUNDER KATWALA: It's mostly a debate between white liberals and white conservatives. And the white liberals are imagining what they think ethnic minority opinion must want.

LANGFITT: Katwala thinks it's politically wiser to create new things to reflect Britain's diverse history than target traditions. He cites the expansion of statues.

KATWALA: We've got a statue of Gandhi in Parliament Square now along with Nelson Mandela. There's an opportunity to include and recognize diversity. But if it's always, we will only feel included if you stop enjoying something you enjoy, that is always going to be more polarizing.

LANGFITT: Harker of The Guardian knows this argument but disagrees. He's not calling to ban "Rule, Britannia!" But given public consciousness now, he doesn't want to waste the chance to talk about racism in history.

HARKER: We have to seize the moment. This is a year when these issues are being discussed with an open mind, where people are accepting that the things they thought before need to be rethought.

LANGFITT: Given the U.K.'s many challenges - the coronavirus, Brexit, a recession - Harker says waiting until next year might be too late.

Frank Langfitt, NPR News, London.

(SOUNDBITE OF CHARLESTHEFIRST SONG, "THE DESCENT") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.