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Examining the Values We Perform: Rule, Britannia!

Linton Stephens, Chair of the MU Equality, Diversity & Inclusion Committee,  discusses “Rule, Britannia”, how traditions must be examined, and what it means to align with British values.

Published: 01 September 2020 | 12:00 AM Updated: 28 April 2021 | 4:31 PM
Linton Stephens
"The last night [of the Proms] is still going ahead. It will still be broadcast. As long as it’s happening, it’s still on the table for discussion." - Linton Stephens. Photo by Chris Stenner

In light of what’s been happening in national press I have found my conviction over one particular subject rekindled. I don’t need to say as it’s all over the news but we are right in the midst of what would have been prom season. Without doubt the largest most globally publicised classical music festival in the world.

As we approach the close of the festival, debate has been brought to the fore over the lyrics to ‘Rule, Britannia!’. Over ten thousand people signed a petition for the lyrics to be remain both in the piece, and unchanged. (I’m wondering how many of those ten thousand actually know the lyrics!). 

For anybody who is just hearing about this I assure you it’s not a new debate. This time around even the likes of our Prime Minister and Piers Morgan (both synonymous for their work in, attendance to, and advocacy for classical music) felt the need to weigh in. And for those who think we have bigger fish to fry with the state that our industry is in, I empathise. But the last night is still going ahead. It will still be broadcast. As long as it’s happening, it’s still on the table for discussion.

Not to mention that raising (or should I say re-raising) this issue will not deflect or hinder a return to work for musicians. In fact we are still doing the work to make our industry better for everyone despite the fact that we’re in no mans land, on all issues to do with equality. That never stops. 

I saw a Twitter outrage that, “they have the audacity to dictate what we can and can’t sing.” Which I found surprising because I’m pretty sure the average member of the public rarely takes a vested interest, never mind active involvement in programming any of the proms schedule.

I’m also disappointed to say there has been some rather needless and abhorrent mudslinging, in particular toward this years conductor of the last night, Stasevska, for expressing her opinion. I was triggered when I read a response to a post on Facebook about the subject, saying words to the effect of, “she would have done well to keep her mouth shut. She has no business interfering”. The first part of that statement felt like a call for a patriarchal silencing. And the second, well if the conductor of the concert has no business in the concert she is conducting.... you get where I’m going. 

The perpetuation of tradition for tradition’s sake

For the past four years or so, if I’ve ever been employed to play at any last night of the proms style gigs I’ve taken it upon myself as my own personal protest not to partake in the traditional rendition of Rule, Britannia! I’ve had a few minor slaps on the wrist, but in amongst the jovial flag waving chaos it generally goes unnoticed in my section. 

For those that know me and my advocacy work in classical music, they know that I’m quite vocally sceptical of ‘tradition’, or rather the perpetuation of tradition for traditions’ sake. Where things are done just because that’s the way they always have been. I think we always have to scrutinise our behaviours on every level of our lives, because complacency to do what’s always been done or to go with what’s put in front of you leads to the omission of critical thinking and the stifling of generating new ideas. 

Now don’t get me wrong, I can see the merits of some traditions. Speaking in its favour, it’s like a beautiful piece of jewellery, passed down through generations. Harmless in its essence, alluring in its appearance and holding treasured nostalgia for its keeper. Adorned occasionally and for momentous occasions.  

Speaking against it, it can be like a old rotting musty animal fur coat that sits in the attic, only to see daylight once a year. At one time it may have been the height of fashion to own, being warm and trendy attire for its wearer. Even perhaps signifying status and class. However over the years it’s style has now become outdated, its material frowned upon, its appearance and smell uninviting. Whilst it might hold personal regard for some, it’s not really acceptable, appropriate or comfortable to wear in public anymore. 

So at this point I took it upon myself to look up the word tradition. This is what the wise old sage Wikipedia tells me:

“The concept includes a number of interrelated ideas; the unifying one is that tradition refers to beliefs, objects or customs performed or believed in the past, originating in it, transmitted through time by being taught by one generation to the next, and are performed or believed in the present.’

The most important part of that for me – “are performed or believed in the present”. 

 And that’s where Rule, Britannia! becomes problematic. The very core of what ‘Rule, Britannia!’ has become a reflection of our national values and the pride in our British identity, hence it being synonymous with the waving of the Union Jack. 

Embodying a national feeling toward creating a conquering empire

So I hopped on google again to look up these national values. I’ve seen them posted on many a display board in countless primary schools during my stint as a peri. But I wanted to be sure. Here’s what I found quite consistently –

  • Democracy
  • Respect and Tolerance (mutual respect for and tolerance of those with different faiths and beliefs, and for those without faith.)
  • Liberty
  • Responsibility
  • Law

Delving into the history of the song, the lyrics were originally written by James Thompson, set to music by Thomas Arne and first performed in 1740. Over 250 years ago. They talk mainly of nautical domination and national conquering pride. According to David Armitage, ‘‘Rule, Britannia! was the most lasting expression of the conception of Britain and the British Empire that emerged in the 1730s.”

So essentially at the core, the original lyrics were conceived as a way of embodying a national feeling toward creating a conquering empire (and by the by, let’s not forget one of our most profitable ‘trade commodities’ at that time...).

By adding lyrics to music, the message becomes exclusive to those who understand the language. Which is ok. Language in some form or another is the most frequent way we communicate with each other. But art is meant to transcend language. Art becomes about the individuals experience, perception and interpretation. Except when you add language. You do so to music because you want to convey quite a specific message or idea through that art. 

So whilst the world watches every year, we continue to broadcast and perpetuate this idea that we still believe ourselves superior seafaring conquerors with a penchant for exterminating foreign culture, claiming territories, exploitation of locals, stealing riches and the trading of and profiting from human lives sold into slavery. 

We tell the world that. 

We consciously (and proudly) send that message. 


For me this in no way aligns with my values as a British man. And I refuse to perpetuate this idea. To be clear. I’m not telling every British person to constantly wear our empirical history as some sort of scarlet letter (though in my opinion, whilst it was extraordinary in its reach, the empires legacy is certainly nothing to be proud of) rather that I’m not going to publicise that the values we held as an aspiring, oppressive colonial nation are part of what I consider part of my ‘Britishness’ today. 

We must scrutinise our actions and check that they align with our values

So that’s why I’m a real believer that broadcasting this globally isn’t just a harmless tradition that should continue cos it’s a bit of a fun sing along. I’m a real believer in scrutinising our actions and checking that they align with our values. I’m a real believer that democracy is sometimes accepting change so that it’s better for everyone (no matter how trivial the subject may be). I’m a real believer that freedom of speech (like freedom of will) is a right we exercise only with respect for those around us. 

I’m a real believer that we should be more than just tolerant of those whose opinion differs from our own, we should be ready to listen and learn, even if we still disagree because that can help to strengthen our understanding of our own beliefs and convictions. I’m a real believer that liberty and freedom are for all, not just our nation or those born within our nation. And I’m a real believer that it’s our responsibility to cater for everyone in our national community if we are to present these as our values on the global stage. 

Let’s make the reason the tradition began in the first place, the tradition that we continue. 

Author of this blog, Linton Stephens, is Chair of the MU Equality, Diversity & Inclusion Committee. Find out more about how the committee works, the MU’s commitment to achieving equality for all musicians, and how you can get involved.

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