Refuses to wear a union jack bowler

September 16, 2005

Poor me. Corrupted by years of liberal intellectualising and shackled by a desiccated, over-analytic mind, how could I possibly understand or enjoy the Last Night of the Proms? Where others see a good-natured celebration of music and patriotism, I see Nuremberg as organised by the Women's Institute. And watching middle-class, middle-aged people dress up in silly clothes, bob up and down and guffaw at their lame little in-jokes is as embarrassing as watching your drunken dad dance at a wedding.

I don't get it because the Last Night is a quintessentially conservative institution, and it is of the nature of conservatism that it resists intellectual analysis, which is one reason why academia tends to the left.

Conservatism respects tradition, and all traditions look silly or pointless to those who neither belong to them nor make the effort to enter into their spirit. No rational person would invent the modern monarchy or the House of Lords. Nor would any comedian script an exchange in which prommers on the balcony shout "ping!" and those in the arena reply "pong!" From the cornerstones of the constitution to the pranks of the Proms, conservative institutions are not rationally designed but evolve and make sense to those who feel they belong to them.

My political autism was never more evident than when I sat there, tight-lipped, during the singing of the evening's most patriotic numbers.

"Wider still and wider shall thy bounds be set," sang the crowd of their country during Land of Hope and Glory , "God, who made thee mighty, Make thee mightier yet."

In the grip of a paralysing literal-mindedness, I could not force myself to utter such a paean to imperialist expansionism. But conservatism, like much religion, is more of an attitude than a set of doctrines, and the conservative patriotism of the prommers is not understood by examining the literal meaning of what they sing but the spirit in which they say it. Do that and you will find not imperialism, arrogance and xenophobia but pride, love and openness.

Paul Daniel, the conductor of this year's Last Night, put his finger on it when he talked of how international the concerts are. Indeed, these days all sorts of flags are found waving in among the Union Jacks, even the German one, which is fitting, given that this is the Royal Albert Hall.

Yet, Daniel concludes by saying: "Whatever nation you love, tonight is a love song to our own."

Love is another thing that looks foolish to those not in it, but if I'm not in love with my country, that's my problem.

There is one more way in which the Proms exhibits an inherent conservatism.

The "posh people", as Daniel put it, pay their money to enjoy the concert from the comfort of the chairs.

The prommers, on the other hand, queue for hours, pay little and stand throughout. Yet they are the salt of this little earth, the heroes of the day.

Is this the false consciousness of people duped into thinking they are better for doing more to have less; or the harmonious division between rich and poor that is sustained by a conservative system that works?

Or is that just another example of the kind of idiotic question that could be asked only by someone whose social sensibilities have been dulled by too many years of thinking too much?

Julian Baggini is editor of The Philosophers' Magazine and author of The Pig That Wants To Be Eaten: And 99 Other Thought Experiments , published by Granta, £14.99.

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