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All together now: ‘We’re the best country in the world’

The Last Night of the Proms is about more than Little Englanders having a sing-song. It’s a celebration of nationalism itself.

Patrick West

Patrick West
Columnist

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When it comes to international politics, it is subconsciously understood that music can be used as a means of celebrating nationalist sentiment, or for trying to overcome it. While national anthems and folk music are employed to foment patriotism, songs such as the ‘Internationale’ and ‘The Red Flag’ represent an effort to transcend it. It’s a neat dichotomy – and it is also wrong, as last Saturday’s Last Night at the Proms demonstrated.

For those not in the know, the concert, held at London’s Royal Albert Hall, is the culmination of an annual eight-week festival of orchestral classical music, and the Last Night is its rapturous crescendo, traditionally featuring tunes that celebrate Britain/England – Edward Elgar’s ‘Pomp and Circumstance March No.1’ (which includes ‘Land of Hope and Glory’), Thomas Arne’s ‘Rule, Britannia!’, Hubert Parry’s ‘Jerusalem’ and the national anthem itself, ‘God Save The Queen’. The only place you will see Union flags on show in such vast numbers, and with such unashamed vainglory, will be on Belfast’s Shankhill Road or at a British National Party rally.

And there lies the problem for some on the liberal-left, who have traditionally sneered at this event. Many feel uneasy seeing the Union flag displayed so copiously in this musical, ersatz political rally, the ostensible message of which is that Britain is the best country in the world and all other countries are rubbish. Writing in the Guardian this week, Guy Dammann noted that the Last Night of the Proms provided ‘the opportunity to celebrate great little Britishness with no apparent irony’, as if to celebrate it with sincerity was a baffling and risible idea. The fact that the audience seems composed mostly of inebriated toffs compounds a sense of odium among the liberal-left.

Those who regurgitate the dreary cliché that the Last Night of the Proms is an obscene and anachronistic demonstration of Little Englandism have long been missing the point. It appears to me that as much as it is a celebration of the British nation, it is – for good or ill – a celebration of nationalism itself.

The event draws in people from around the world as could be seen (as usual) by the multitude of flags waved by those in attendance. The flags of Norway, Albania, Switzerland, Germany, Cornwall and many others were in evidence. (The Proms even managed to attract the usual anti-Israeli dickheads, when on 2 September the ‘Palestine Solidarity Campaign’ disrupted a performance by the Israel Philharmonic Orchestra – thus proving what a truly international event this has become). I suspect that the show of the Stars and Stripes in the audience at a time when America is feeling especially patriotic on the eve of the 9/11 commemoration was no coincidence. The Irish tricolour, hardly a totem of Britishness, has featured regularly, as has the red dragon of Wales and Scottish saltire, suggesting that even those who are given either to valorising their own corner of the Union or would prefer to leave the Union altogether, see no contradiction in belting out ‘Rule, Britannia!’

How can we explain such incongruity? I suspect the answer has something to do with there not being a single European Union flag on show. Its absence can be explained by the fact that the EU has no compelling metanarrative, no romance to it, no appeal to an imagined community. There are those who like to boast that they are ‘proud Europeans’, but they tend to be socialist utopians, dreary technocrats, or the kind of greedy capitalist Financial Times– and Economist-reading types who salivate at the notion of a free market without frontiers. In other words, boring people who you try to avoid on trains.

The EU holds no emotional appeal. We have yet to hear a symphony saluting oil and coal treaties, unelected bureaucrats or financial bailouts. Contrarily, people from outside Britain instinctively comprehend the bombastic jingoism which the music of Elgar and Thomas Arne conveys. ‘Our people are the best’ is the leitmotif of nearly every national anthem in the world.

I have many cassette tapes of The Dubliners, a CD of Scottish Highland Bagpipe tunes, and an LP by Sam Wilson and The Loyalists called No Surrender (1963), and I still enjoy them all. This doesn’t make me an Irish Republican, a Scottish Nationalist or an Ulster Unionist, it’s just that I enjoy nationalist music on a lachrymose level. There is an appeal to nationalist anti-internationalism.

Of course, nationalism is a fabricated nonsense. So is religion, socialism, communism, fascism, or any other sacred or profane ideology that promises paradise in this world or the next. This is why we anarchists and nihilists should stand proud and call ourselves thus. Not all of us are teenage hoodies nicking shoes and widescreen televisions from electrical stores in Tottenham, you know. The word ‘nihilism’ shouldn’t mean lacking moral values; it should mean questioning, and not being a slave to, all ideologies.

Of course, one should recognise the power of ideologies, and particularly ethnocentrism, in all its manifestations. The Last Night of The Proms demonstrates the resilience of the human impulse to revere the tribe, yet it is also a celebration of tribalism itself. Critics of the event insinuate that it suggests an Us and Them mentality. In truth, it’s all about Us and Us.

Ideologues are incapable of recognising that the human condition is one of ambiguity and, as the Proms suggest, one of ambivalence. Little Englanders may appear ridiculous in their sincerity, but the avowedly clever British liberal-left looks even more stupid in failing to recognise the semiotic significance of flags. So when it comes to the Proms, it’d rather be on the side of the lesser idiots.

Patrick West is a freelance writer based in the UK and Ireland. Read his blog here.

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