I am one of those people who love the last night of the Proms, and I make a point of being in to watch it on the television. My personal favourite bit is the sea songs. But the whole event is usually great, and the standard of the music is often spectacular. And the waving of flags, nearly all Union Jacks but with a smattering of other countries’, is a big part of it.
This never used to be a particularly controversial thing. However, Brexit has introduced a sour note to it. And since 2016, people have started adding the European Union flag to the Union Jack. This is obviously a rather political thing to do. In an ideal world I would prefer it if they didn’t do so. But in the real world politics will always be mixed up somehow in music. In fact, my beloved sea songs, the choice of Rule Britannia and the waving of union jack flags were all pretty political choices that were made back in the early twentieth century. Singing about Britannia ruling the waves when we were enthusiastically building Dreadnoughts fast enough for the British Navy to be bigger than the next two biggest navies put together does have a bit of different feel to celebrating a decades old tradition.
So maybe the Brexiters who have been moaning about it are getting back to the events original spirit? If so, they are a mile off from its current spirit. I’ve never done the last night, but I get to at least one prom most years. I always opt for the Arena where the handful of hardcore prommers are to be found. They are a cheerful and eccentric crowd. They are also big, big music fans and often musicians.
The Brexiters rapidly unleashed their fury that people were sullying a quintessential celebration of Britishness with these dreadful European Union flags. The BBC should ban them. In fact, it is probably the BBC’s fault. The BBC in fact had done its best to ignore the whole thing. There was no mention of it during the broadcast at all.
So, what does this political fallout from this year’s prom indicate?
For a start, it doesn’t suggest that the Brexiters are feeling very comfortable in their position. The emperor Vespasian was very lenient on critics. As he explained, you don’t kill a dog for barking. He was a successful leader who unusually for the role was in place for a long time and died in his sleep. If Brexit was going well nobody would bat an eyelid that there were some EU flags around at a concert.
It also shows that there is a very wide authoritarian streak in the Brexit movement. Banning expressions of opinion is pretty much their first resort.
There’s also the fact that they missed a pretty big point. Musicians, especially classical musicians, do a lot of overseas travelling as part of their job. Or at least they’d like to. I imagine that a lot of enthusiasm for the flags came from sympathy for the performers who have been struggling with the restrictions imposed by Brexit. It would have been fairly easy to run with this. “Yes we understand the problems musicians are facing and we plan to do something about it” would have isolated it as a special case and at least got the government through a few news cycles.
My take is that while Brexit is clearly an establishment project, it isn’t the whole establishment. Those guys are just as split on the subject as the rest of us. And as a result, the establishment have their B team on at the moment.
A couple of the more thoughtful Brexiters tried to culture war their way out of it. What did it matter if a few unrepresentative people in a tiny demographic in London of all places were a bit put out? It’s not like people are chanting anti-Brexit slogans at football matches.
That’s a better line, but runs into the obvious problem that the fans on the terraces aren’t singing against the EU either. The Brexit Brutus doesn’t have the populari behind him. To rub it in a few days later Scottish football fans were booing the National Anthem.
I think this campaign of the culture wars is one that the Brexiters ought to have avoided anyway. The Proms might not be as popular as football, but it is still pretty popular. The tickets sell out quickly, and there are around 500,000 sold every year. The Last Night gets viewing figures in the millions. It is a national institution. Being against it is not a good look. It’s also an institution that values its traditions and keeps them going. It may well be that EU flags will take on and become traditional. They might well still be being waved in a hundred years when Brexit has long been forgotten.