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Fans should keep singing ‘Swing Low, Sweet Chariot’ at rugby games despite slavery link, says Boris Johnson

Boris Johnson was at England's match with Wales earlier this year (PA)

3 min read

Boris Johnson has defended the right of rugby fans to sing “Swing Low, Sweet Chariot” at matches despite its links to slavery.

He said his only objection was that most supporters didn’t know all the words to the anthem, which dates back to the 19th century.

And the Prime Minister also told anti-racism campaigners to focus less on symbols and more on “the substance of the issue”.

He was asked about it after the RFU, English rugby’s governing body, said it was holding a review into the use of the song by spectators in the wake of the Black Lives Matters protests.

It was first sung by fans in 1987 as a play on the nickname of player Martin ‘Chariots’ Offiah, and has become hugely popular with supporters at Twickenham in the decades since.

But it was originally written in the 1860s by Wallace Willis, a freed Oklahoma slave, and has since been popularised as a spiritual song in the early 20th century and then again as a protest anthem during the civil rights movement of the 1960s.

The RFU said it wants to educate fans about its origins, something backed by prominent black former players such as women’s World Cup winner and council member Maggie Alphonsi, broadcaster Ugo Monye and Offiah himself.

Mr Johnson, a self-confessed rugby fan who was seen with partner Carrie Symonds at England’s home Six Nations match with Wales back in February, spoke to Sky News about it.

"My only thought about this whole issue frankly, I think what people need to do is focus less on the symbols of discrimination - or whatever all these issues that people are now raising to do with statues and songs and so on,” he said.

“I can see why they’re very emotive, I can understand that, but what I want to focus on is the substance of the issue.

“And yes, of course, I see that Black Lives Matter and we’re going to address all the issues that we can in society, I want to make sure this is a society where people can advance on their merits, achieve fantastic things and don’t face prejudice or discrimination.

“And so we will be doing things to make sure that people don’t face unfairness in health, in education, in the criminal justice system.

“We should be talking about success, and about what the fact that young black kids are now doing far, far better in some of the toughest subjects in schools, you’ve got more black and minority ethnic people going to the best universities than ever before.

“Let’s talk about the successes.”

On the issue of the song, he said: “As for ‘Swing Low, Sweet Chariot’ nobody, as far as I understand it, seems to know the words… before we start complaining about ‘Swing Low, Sweet Chariot’ I’d like to know what the rest of the words are. 

“You go ‘'swing low, sweet chariot, coming forth to carry me home’ and then it all dies out. That’s my objection.”

The PM added: “Anyway I certainly don’t think there should be any sort of prohibition on singing that song.

“My curiosity is why don’t people seem to know the rest of it, I’d love to hear the rest of it.”

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