Rule Britannia: who was composer Thomas Arne and song meaning as Aberdeen student banned for ‘offensive’ lyrics

The controversial song was written in 1740, and is considered offensive by many due to its links with colonialism and the British Empire

Thursday, 18th March 2021, 2:05 pm
(Photo: CARL COURT/AFP via Getty Images)

A student has been banned from Aberdeen University Students’ Association (AUSA) for citing the song ‘Rule, Britannia’ during a virtual hustings debate about the British Army’s presence on campuses.

19-year-old Elizabeth Heverin was disciplined by officials for using “discriminatory or racist language”, after another student complained.

A “demilitarised campus” policy rules the Armed Forces are barred from recruiting students or visiting AUSA buildings and events, and Heverin was part of a debate on whether to renew the legislation.

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Officials subsequently banned her from all students’ union buildings, debates and services for two weeks.

“It feels like I’ve been prosecuted for the crime of being patriotic,” she told National File. “It’s scary to think where freedom of speech at the university will go from here.”

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The Free Speech Union said the ban “beggars belief” and called on the students’ union to rescind the punishment and apologise.

But why has Heverin’s comments caused such an incident? What is the history of the song, and what are its links to colonialism and the British Empire?

Here's everything you need to know.

When was 'Rule, Britannia!' written?

The words of 'Rule, Britannia!' originate from a poem of the same name by Scotsman James Thomson, and were set to music written by English composer Thomas Arne in 1740.

Thomson applied his interest in helping foster British identity to his work, and was particularly interested in combining English, Irish, Welsh, and Scottish identities while simultaneously fostering an overtly 'British' oneness.

His words were put to the music of Arne by Scottish poet David Mallet for a performance for Frederick, Prince of Wales, to commemorate the accession of his father King George II in August 1940.

Mallet would alter the lyrics over a decade later, omitting three of the original stanzas and adding three new ones written by politician, Lord Bolingbroke.

According to historian David Armitage, 'Rule, Britannia!' is a lasting expression of Britain and the British Empire, "predicated on a mixture of adulterated mercantilism, nationalistic anxiety and libertarian fervour."

The song has often assumed extra significance at times of great national pride, such as in 1945 at the conclusion of World War II when it was played at the ceremonial surrender of the Japanese imperial army.

What about 'Land of Hope and Glory'?

'Land of Hope and Glory' came much later in 1901, with music by Edward Elgar and lyrics by A. C. Benson.

It's another song with definite links to British empirical rule.

Benson's words are thought to have been inspired by the publication of the will of British mining magnate Cecil Rhodes, in which he left considerable wealth for the purpose of promoting "the extension of British rule throughout the world."

The will included a long, detailed list of territories which Rhodes wanted brought under British rule and colonised by British people.

'Land of Hope and Glory' was also written at a time in which Britain's victory in the Boer War was fresh in the memory, a conflict from which the United Kingdom gained territories with considerable financial and strategic gain owing to their mineral wealth.

Why do people dislike the songs?

In August 2020, Chi-chi Nwanoku, founder of majority BAME orchestra Chineke!, told The Guardian that she would be appalled if the BBC failed to remove 'Rule, Britannia!' from the line-up of its annual Proms festival.

“The lyrics are just so offensive, talking about the ‘haughty tyrants’ – people that we are invading on their land and calling them haughty tyrants – and Britons shall never be slaves, which implies that it’s OK for others to be slaves but not us,” she said.

"If the BBC are talking about Black Lives Matter and their support for the movement, how could you possibly have Rule Britannia as the last concert – in any concert?

“It’s so irrelevant to today’s society. It’s been irrelevant for generations, and we seem to keep perpetuating it.”

In the same month, classical music critic Richard Morrison said that to "roar out these hypocritical 18th-century words, with or without irony" would "surely be insensitive, bordering on the incendiary.

"There will never be a better moment to drop that toe-curling, embarrassing, anachronistic farrago of nationalistic songs that concludes the Last Night of the Proms," he added.

The pieces had been dropped from the Last Night of the Proms before; the BBC replaced the songs with more “reflective music” days after the 9/11 attacks, but they were reinstated the following year.

What happened to Elizabeth Heverin?

Heverin’s “Rule, Britannia” comment came after international students raised concerns during an online meeting in December that the presence of military personnel on campus would make them feel uncomfortable.

“If the British military makes them feel uncomfortable why did they come to a British uni?” said Heverin in the debate’s webchat, with the first-year history and politics student posting “Rule, Britannia” several minutes later.

An attendee filed a complaint to union authorities, and a disciplinary investigation was launched.

The investigation found that Heverin’s language “could be construed as potentially discriminatory”, but was unable to determine whether there was “deliberate racist intent” in her utterance.