My grandmother, at the age of ten, saw Queen Victoria’s Diamond Jubilee parade through London in 1897. In reporting this extravagant event the Daily Mail said that it was “testifying to the Greatness of the British Race”. Even the socialist Beatrice Webb said quite approvingly “imperialism is in the air – all classes [were] drunk with the…hysterical loyalty”. And the imperative of the Empire was not to have and to hold but to add more. Patriotism stood for love of more. This was the British Empire of which A.C. Benson wrote (to Elgar’s music) few year’s later:
“Wider still and wider shall thy bounds be set
God, who made thee mighty, make thee mightier yet”
You may see all this as bombast and jingoism and from today’s perspective it certainly is. But at the time it was the commonly believed reality. Cecil Rhodes had put it fairly unequivocally in 1877 “We are the finest race in the world and the more of the world we inhabit the better it is for the human race”
Victorians believed in “…the idea of some hierarchy of races” with, as Rhodes had put it, the English at the top. This racism (there is no more accurate descriptor) was the norm and went largely unchallenged. As Jeremy Paxman put it in his book on Empire it’s purpose “…rested on the conviction not merely that different races had different characteristics, but that the qualities of the British were superior to all others”.
In the same way that statues of slavers offend against decency to sing “Land of Hope and Glory” surely does the same. Not only is the jingoism offensive and the message anachronistic it is also at its heart hypocritical. Look at one of the verses:
Thine equal laws, by Freedom gained,
Have ruled thee well and long;
By Freedom gained, by Truth maintained,
Thine Empire shall be strong.
“Thine equal laws” ? We have seen that the imperative in Britain and it’s Empire was far from “equal”. An ideology that institutionalises racial hierarchy cannot incorporate the premise that we are all “equal before the law” – and it didn’t.
In a year during which the iniquities of slavery have been sharply in focus and during which we have “taken the knee” to attest to the truism that “Black Lives Matter” surely nobody should be singing paeans to the Empire at The Proms or anywhere else. Our past is far from a glorious one – if anything we should be atoning for aspects of our history like the Empire not celebrating them.
I am indebted to Jeremy Paxman’s “Empire” used as background for this blog. Paxman calls “Land of Hope and Glory” a “hymn to empire, still sung at that festival of faded nationalism, the Last Night of the Proms”