Can anyone sing this song whilst recognising the history of the British Empire?
The row over the jingoistic anthem ‘Rule, Britannia!’ appears wholly to be a construction of the British right-wing press, but one that the Prime Minister saw to fit to ‘personally intervene’ — when he didn’t think that the A-level scandal (the biggest government education failure in decades) warranted the same level of attention. It serves as a convenient distraction from the latest government failures, and appeals to the Tories right-wing base. It’s another opportunity to divide — rather than unite — along lines of class, race and nationality. Surely then, even by writing this piece I’m falling into the government trap myself? And what possible relevance could a nearly 300 year-old song have today?
Briefly, ‘Rule, Britannia!’ was originally part of a performance on the theme of King Alfred, written by James Thomson and Thomas Ame in 1740. It was commissioned by the Prince of Wales to ingratiate himself with his father, George II. This was also the year that the War of the Austrian Succession kicked off. Europe was still in turmoil without the established borders familiar to us today, fighting over territory and power within the European continent as well as colonial territory and naval dominance of trade routes. The slave trade across the Atlantic was up and running, supplying labour to the cotton and sugar plantations of the colonies, but it is more likely given the context that the slavery and ‘tyrants’ of the original lyric were that of the Viking raiders of Alfred’s time and there was no comparison being employed. It wasn’t until the end of the 18th Century that we see the British very much developed and popularised racism in order to justify the practice of slavery.
Far from being, yet again, the ‘cancel culture’ ‘rewriting of history’ it is very important to recognise and contextualise the historical origin of these songs (or statues) and they should be used to educate the public about the history and legacy of empire in the way that our school system regrettably doesn’t do. We should also recognise that when the straw-boated Union Flag bedecked mob sings this song, they very much aren’t celebrating that history or epoch — they are celebrating the myth of empire, a nationalistic concept entirely removed from the full truth and horror of those times.