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The Real Problem with 'Rule Britannia'

Unlike what Prime Minister Boris Johnson said recently, I don't think Britain needs to stop being embarrassed its culture or history. The reality is, it's never had to be.

Vergangenheitsbewältigung (roughly translated as 'overcoming the past') arose in post-WWII Germany and describes the national Germany guilt felt after the Holocaust and the psychological process of denazification. Vergangenheitsbewältigung has had an impact on how Germans treat and teach history, and some have argued that their approach to remember lost Jewish life with Stolpersteine and embed the 'Never Forget' message into national culture, could be ideas to help Britain examine its own chequered history. The problems with this are twofold. Firstly, Vergangenheitsbewältigung is defined as 'public debate within a country on a problematic period of its recent history' – the emphasis being on recent. Secondly, and most importantly, Vergangenheitsbewältigung wasn't a voluntary process - it arose as a consequence of losing WWII.

Herein lies the problem; accepting responsibility only often comes about as a reaction to negative stimuli. If a country has rarely suffered a major defeat in war or been invaded, regardless of loss of life and property, the general way of life continues. That isn't to say that war doesn't affect society, but when you haven't been invaded or had a foreign power take over, life continues. The Battle of the Fishguard in 1797, marks the last time that Britain was invaded.

What has this all got to do with Rule Britannia?

Rule Britannia was written in 1740, at a time when Britain was almost a century away from passing the Slavery Abolition Act. By 1740, Britain had already been transporting slaves for over 170 years, selling millions of African slaves to settlers in the Americas, and extracting valuable natural resources such as sugar from many other countries in its colonies. We cannot get away from the fact that Rule Britannia was written as a celebration of British might and power in the middle of its colonial exploits. Technically, I agree with Nigel Farage. Britain has always been about liberty.

But who's liberty?

Let's not forget, only 37 years after Rule Britannia was written, the American Declaration of Independence (1776) states that,

'He [King George III] has plundered our seas, ravaged our coasts, burned our towns, and destroyed the lives of our people... He has constrained our fellow citizens, taken captive on the high seas to bear arms against their country, to become the executioners of their friends and brethren, or to fall themselves by their hands.'

Sound like liberty.

The Slavery Abolition Act took effect in 1834, so many would have us believe, that the British Empire has ceased its nefarious activities, set the captives free and could take its place atop the mount of moral superiority as the first country to abolish the slave trade (not true). Britain had successfully drawn a line under a few hundred years of history, which has seen its Empire grow to control approximately 25% of the planet.


Fast forward to 1899. This children's book, written by Ernst Ames, doesn't seem to reflect the idea that the past was the past. In fact, 159 years later, it doubles down.

Rule Britannia was first performed at the Proms in 1905, only 6 years after this book was published. Unless something dramatic happened in those years, performing the then 165-year-old song to close a celebration of British musical culture only perpetuates these same ideas. No matter what Britain has done, we should always celebrate our position as the international arbiters of moral justice since we abolished slavery. Even though that was good enough, 40 years later, we stopped Hitler and saved Europe from Nazi rule. After all, Britain hadn't lost a war or been invaded. Britain still ruled the waves.

But wait. Wasn't Britain invaded in 1797?

Yes. By the French.

The invasion began on February 22.

It ended on February 24.

A total of 2 days.

I do not wish for Britain to lose a war, or to be invaded. Neither do I wish that Britain be turned into an island of slaves. I don't even see the need to ban, cancel or censor the song. I don't think British people need to be embarrassed. I don't think British people in 2020 need to be ashamed of Britains colonial past.

What's missing is a British version of Vergangenheitsbewältigung - the self-reflection and transparent understanding of Empire. Not brought on by losing a war and resulting in national guilt, but by a yearning to understand our collective histories, and empathise with those peoples across the world who have been affected by British colonialism. To understand and to teach the socio-historical contexts of songs like 'Rule Britannia' and 'Land of Hope and Glory', the colonial influences on our lives, professions and intercultural relationships. To help children understand why the world around them looks like it does.

It's not the songs or the statues themselves that are the problem. It's attitudes towards history, the people, contexts and traditions which have never seriously been challenged for hundreds of years.

p.s. Handel's Messiah was written in 1741. Just putting that out there.

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