The last night of the Proms and Britishness

By Richard C Roberts

I vividly recall the 2001 last night of the Proms. I remember the tears rolling down my 12-year-old cheeks as Leonard Slatkin conducted a devotional rendition of Samuel Barber’s Adagio for Strings in memory of all those who had died a few days earlier in the terrorist attacks of 9/11 – it was almost certainly the first time I cried at a piece of music (though by no means the last).

When set alongside the manifold other Western responses to that epoch-defining tragedy – the humiliation of ignoramus-in-chief George W Bush sitting in a classroom not knowing what to do, the ugliness of Guantanamo, the ill-advised and poorly planned invasion of Iraq, the slightly crass bravado of Freedom Tower – the dignity and integrity of that heart-rending Proms performance towers over all else. It is still one of the moments that make me most proud to be an Anglo-American.

Of course, the 2001 last night of the Proms was rather abnormal due to the circumstances. Normally the last night consists of a bonanza of flag-waving patriotic silliness, culminating in mass sing-along performances of various would-be national anthems – Jerusalem, Rule, Britannia!, Land of Hope and Glory – before the ultimate anticlimax of the dirge that is our actual nation anthem.

Slatkin, who went on to preside over three more ‘last nights’, was famously somewhat uncomfortable with this over-the-top nationalism (in particular the perceived jingoism of Rule, Britannia!) and tried to tone it down a bit, but with little success. In this context at least, the weight of tradition won out against the post-nationalist sensibilities of the liberal establishment.

This year’s last night comes at rather a pivotal moment for Britishness. Five days after Finnish conductor Sakari Oramo takes the podium at the Royal Albert Hall, Scotland will go to the polls to decide whether or not to stay part of the United Kingdom. In the unlikely event (fingers crossed) that Scotland votes “yes” to independence, Britishness will undergo an existential crisis, arguably more significant than any it has experienced since Suez.

For decades, the debate over Britishness (to the extent that there has been one) has revolved around the question of whether it is strong and inclusive enough to absorb waves of new joiners. Immigration and multiculturalism have been the touchstone issues in the national identity debate at least since Enoch Powell lit a fuse with his infamous “rivers of blood” speech in 1968.

But now, Britishness is faced with an entirely different and arguably much more potent challenge: can it survive the secession of a significant minority that has formed an integral part of the British family for over three centuries?

As David Goodhart concludes at the end of his book on post-war immigration and multiculturalism, the very fact that so many people have wanted to come to Britain over the last 70 years is testament to the fact that there is such a thing as a “British dream” – a way of life, however loosely defined, that appeals to millions. But what if 5.3 million people opt out of being British (even if they do want to keep the Queen, the BBC and the pound)? Can we cope with the ignominy?

The invention of a tradition

The ‘traditional’ second half of the last night of the Proms, as described above, dates back to the 1950s, when Malcolm Sargent was directing proceedings from the podium. It was the combination of his showman persona and the advent of television coverage that turned the last night into a festival of backward-looking patriotic exhibitionism – just at the moment when, on the face of things, national self-confidence should have been at its lowest ebb, following years of rationing and austerity at home and the unravelling of empire abroad. But, then, as now, the prevailing view seems to have been that there was no need to let boring realities get in the way of a jolly good knees-up and a chance to let out our eccentric side.

Apart from the odd occasion, like 2001, when circumstances have dictated a last-minute change to the programme, the second half of the last night has looked broadly the same for 60 years. There have only been two significant innovations since then: in the late 1970s, just as Britain once again was going through a bit of a low moment (what with having to go to the IMF cap in hand like some “third world” country, and the whole ‘winter of discontent’ thing), the last night acquired a bit of a Caledonian tinge – a spontaneous end-of-evening rendition of Auld Lang Syne led by the prommers quickly became another annual tradition. And in the mid-1990s, in a more deliberate nod to the ever louder calls for devolution within Britain, the BBC established the tradition of holding simultaneous ‘Proms in the Park’ events in Wales, Scotland and Northern Ireland, connected to the Royal Albert Hall by a live video feed.

For the sake of auld lang syne

There’s little doubt that Britishness, in one form or another, is resilient enough to endure the departure of the Scots, if that’s what happens. Not least because a distinct liking for the absurd and an ability to deal with grief in a dignified manner are two of the strongest traits in our national character – as exemplified by the last night of the Proms.

Compared to the number of British subjects who ceased to be British subjects during the era of de-colonisation from the 1940s to the 1960s, the current population of Scotland is piddling. Then again, the truth of the matter is that it was relatively easy for domestic Britons to convince themselves that imperial subjects of the crown – especially non-white ones – were never truly British in the first place. It will be rather trickier to pretend the Scots were never really British if it comes to it.

And Britishness, in its last night of the Proms form, will have to adapt. If Alex Salmond gets his way, it could be that he manages to achieve what Slatkin, and countless others, have tried and failed to bring about over the last few decades: a change to the traditional last night of the Proms line-up. Surely we won’t be able to go on singing words by Robert Burns after Scotland’s hypothetical independence!

So, a plea to anyone with a vote in the forthcoming referendum: stay with us. If for no other reason, then for the sake of auld lang syne.

Read more from this writer at Musings of a Young Londoner

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