The ‘Rule Britannia’ debate was a no debate!


There have been moments during the last six months where conversations have been had which could not have been had before George Floyd was brutally murdered, and before so many Black, Asian and other minority ethnic individuals disproportionately died due to Covid -19.

Those events and the Black lives Matter protests convulsed our nation into addressing the deep seated racial inequalities past, present, and future. Activists such as myself have worked most of our adult lives trying to convince anyone who will listen that these structural inequalities are not only detrimental to us - Black and Brown people, but to the very soul of our nation. For the first time in a very long time, I felt that many more people were listening. Even more so, I felt that they were not only listening, but wanting to do something about it too.

My instinctive optimism (the glass is half full) was sorely challenged this week when someone at the BBC reasonably suggested: 'You know those songs we sing at the end of the Proms, they are pretty racist you know. Don’t you think in this historic moment of Black lives matters we could move on?'

The furore that ensued felt more akin to the BBC suggesting that we ‘not only get rid of the Monarchy, but why don’t we send them all to the gallows whilst we’re at it’.

In the end the BBC gave a masterclass in lying that no one, but no one, believed: ‘we never intended to stop singing this ‘jingoistic’ song ‘masquerading as patriotism’, we just felt it couldn’t be sung without an audience of tens of thousands of flag waving fans’.

What the debate really exposed was the deep denial that some of our history is not worth being celebrated. Worse still, we’re not even at that starting point in which we can have a sensible discussion about it, with very loud voices including the Prime Minister stating this attack on our culture must stop.

This pseudo cultural war will be the biggest weapon used to shut down the debate about laying bare the historical wrongs that still govern our daily realities. The historian David Olusoga confronted a similar pseudo argument when asked 'why are you wanting to tear down our statues and with it our history?' Olusoga responded calmly:

“I have no problem with the statues and with history, that’s my chosen profession. I profoundly have a problem with the pedestal these slave owners are put on and revered. We should know about them, so lets put them in a museum and explain what they did, good and bad”

I sincerely hope that as a nation we can go through these growing pains together. It’s not just about understanding our history, warts-and-all, but also about how it has impacted on our life chances, our quality of life and perhaps above all how we see each other.

For the majority of Britons, ‘Rule Britannia’ is a celebratory song. For the majority of Black, Asian and minority ethnic communities it is a song celebrating white supremacy. Our first step for mutual understanding is to be able to discuss such matters without being shut down.

Simon Woolley


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