Culture wars

So what do populist leaders do when they’re in trouble?

Answer: the same things they did to gain power. You don’t need the Cummings playbook to work out that it’s one of two things (or, better still, both): it’s play the blame game – blame the Jews, blame immigrants, play on people’s fears and prejudices; or else it’s play the patriotic card – recall our past triumphs – our glorious empire, ‘we won the war’ (and the World Cup); it’s ‘America First’ or ‘Great Again’ or Deutschland über Alles or Rule, Britannia. (It helps, too, if you can claim God is on your side.)

These ploys not only distract attention from politicians’ mistakes and mistruths, or from realities like poverty and inequality, but also rouse emotion, and make people feel good and confident that their prejudices are acceptable.

Thus, at times of “victory” or challenge, politicians attempt to boost our national pride, as Boris Johnson did in his triumphalist Brexit speech on 3 February, in which he scoffed at countries locking down because of coronavirus, while painting Britain as a superman taking full advantage of a crisis to build an empire of world trade.

In harder times, following his failures in handling the pandemic and the schools fiasco, Johnson turns to culture wars. In response to the BBC’s decision (now reversed) to have Rule, Britannia and Land of Hope and Glory performed without the words at this year’s Last Night of the Proms, he said:

 “I think it’s time we stopped our cringing embarrassment about our history…”

William Blake’s Jerusalem (not Blake’s title), adopted as one of our national anthems when set by Hubert Parry in 1916, is also part of our patriotic sing-song trio and, apparently, more popular than the other two. But the poem, written in the early 1800s as part of a longer work entitled Milton, is in fact an attack on nationalist nostalgia and the fantasy view of history. It challenges the myth that Christ walked upon England’s mountains green, and subtly debunks the idea of our country’s divine origin and history, questioning whether the Lamb (and City) of God is compatible with our “dark satanic mills”.

If you read the poem stressing the verbs (did  and was, which both appear twice and have built, future perfect) and recognise that the answers to the rhetorical questions Blake poses are No, then you will see the piece in a very different light. What Blake has done is break the chains of an illusory history, in order to free our minds and urge us to build a better world.

Edward Elgar hated his tune being used for A C Benson’s words in Land of Hope and Glory in 1902. The solos and the famous chorus both salute the British Empire and call for its expansion:

                                      Land of Hope and Glory, Mother of the Free,

                                      How shall we extol thee, who are born of thee.

                                                 Wider still and wider shall thy bounds be set;

                                      God, who made thee mighty, make thee mightier yet.

                                      God who made thee mighty, make thee mightier yet.

Rule, Britannia, written by the Scottish poet James Thomson and set to music by Thomas Arne in 1740, extols the British naval power that helped expand the empire. Here is one stanza:

                                      To thee belongs the rural reign;

                                      Thy cities shall with commerce shine:

                                      All thine shall be the subject main [i.e. the ocean]

                                      And every shore it circles thine.

The last line even sees the whole world as belonging to the British Empire! (This would, of course, include the slave ships exporting people from Africa to the Americas.)

But for those who still like to join in the sing-along, I offer alternative versions of the two anthems:

                                      Land of Dupes of Tories, I near despair of Thee:

                                      You think by leaving Europe that Britain will be free?

                                      No, it’s the Far-Righters who will the power get.

                                      God help our poor country – you ain’t seen nothing yet

                                      God help our poor country – you ain’t seen nothing yet.

                                   Land of Dopes and) Tories, I near despair of Thee:

                                      You think by leaving Europe that Britain will be free?

                                      No, it’s the Far-Righters who will the power take.

                                      God help our poor country –with Tories on the make

                                      God help our poor country – with Tories on the make


                                      Cruel Britannia, no refuge from your waves:

                                      Britons built their empire, making others slaves.

                                      No refugees shall reach our shores –

                                      It’s France whom we’ll make take the blame –

                                      To foreigners we close our doors,

                                      No matter why or whence they came.   

                                      Cruel Britannia, etc…                                                

STOP PRESS! The words will be sung! But do you want to sing them?