To Be "Really British"

     Last week, there was some attention paid to a recently-opened store in north London called “Really British.” Its owner Chris Ostwald says that he is in the business of selling “quintessentially British items” made in the United Kingdom, such as traditional British condiments, Union Flag tea towels and pillows, miniature red telephone booths, models of the Queen, and socks made by a Welsh company which produces them for Prince Charles.

     However, he and his store have stood accused by local residents of racism and instilling hatred by having a name – Really British – which suggests an attempt to divide between British goods and foreign ones or provoking prejudice against foreign ones. Some people felt that this had something to do with promoting Brexit and raising a middle finger at those who voted to remain in the European Union and otherwise promoting anti-foreign behavior, along with being culturally insensitive.

     Now, perhaps it may well be that this man is taking advantage of Brexit in some way when he talks about the need to promote Britain in Britain following the EU referendum and show that there are British products that can make up for whatever loss or price hikes there may be in terms of items based in other countries, such as French wine. As he said: “It is to highlight what we can get that is in the UK, because after Brexit people were saying: ‘What are we going to do? Nothing’s made in the UK anymore’. “It’s all out of proportion – we can do very well ourselves. I just think, let's support ourselves a bit.”

     With that in mind, I believe there is nothing wrong with promoting the UK and expressing pride in it, especially within the country itself in or out of the EU. Indeed, through the last couple of years, I have been disconcerted by the apparent reluctance of a substantial number of Britons to show some pride and appreciation in their country and worse, who are very cynical, dismissive, and ashamed of its heritage, institutions, and symbols which have contributed to its character, way of life, and how it is seen at home and abroad.

     As a foreigner looking in from across the Pond, I have spent much of life being heavily interested in the UK from a variety of angles: historical, societal and cultural, political and constitutional, the Special Relationship with the United States, and among other things. It started with the great British ocean liners and Harry Potter, and has come a long way from there. Nowadays, I have become so deeply immersed from afar that I have “adopted” the UK as my second country for which there is an appreciation, respect, and love rivaled only by that which have I for my own country.

     It is therefore dispiriting to see the lack of such feeling in Britons themselves. At best this has resulted in somber indifference and at worst, a corrosive cynicism which actively mocks and looks down upon the country and everything about it to the point where people are ashamed of the country and come very close to feeling that it has no worth, value, or redeeming qualities. Without these attributes to pave the way for a healthy patriotism, there is a lack of emotional attachment to the country and hostility toward things such as the Union Flag, and at that point, how long before people come to the conclusion that perhaps the country should simply be cast into the dustbin of history? Indeed, I believe that this is one reason why the SNP has been able to take hold the way they have in Scotland and came close to breaking up the UK in the 2014 referendum.

     Having been closely involved in UK matters for the better part of the last 4-5 years in part because of the referendum and its aftermath, I can understand that the reluctance and even hostility to embrace Britishness – and for that matter feeling ashamed to be British – has to do in part with the rise of the far-right and its use of the Union Flag and other British symbols in their iconography, paraphernalia, and propaganda. It is also understandable that some people may be uncomfortable with Britishness because of the outcome of the EU referendum and the more unfortunate and deplorable events that have happened since and even during the referendum, such as the murder of Batley and Spen MP Jo Cox by a mentally disturbed white nationalist who is claimed to have shouted “Britain first” or “Put Britain first” as he carried out the attack.

     This and other actions directing hatred and malice toward others is unacceptable;  it does not represent the Britain I have come to know and is not a mark of showing pride in the country. Such individuals and groups may wave the Union Flag, sing the great national songs, and speak in the name of Queen and Country, but all they have done is help to give the Union Flag and other symbols of Britishness a bad name, even at home, which has lead to the reactions against the Really British shop.

     Now, it is my belief that Union Flag waving is not bad in and of itself, and I like it when watching special events such as the Last Night of the Proms, royal occasions, and Trooping the Colour. It is not necessary to do (and nobody ought to be forced to do so), but can be a healthy expression of patriotism so long as it is not used in an aggressive manner with the purpose of intimidating certain groups of people and attempting to divisively exclude them from society. For my part at home, I hardly wave a US flag during the year, not even on special days such as Memorial Day and Independence Day, and we don’t (as of now) have a flag pole at home. However, I do appreciate those who do decide to have a flag flying at their home or business, or wave it on certain occasions, and whenever I get in on the act, I do it – as so many others do – as an expression of love and appreciation for the land we call home and not hatred for anyone.

     Going along with this theme in the UK, there is also nothing wrong with singing the national anthem, God Save the Queen, or for that matter, Land of Hope and Glory, Rule Britannia, and I Vow to Thee My Country. All of them have their place in various events throughout the year, such as the first three at the Last Night of the Proms and the fourth one on Remembrance Sunday, and their own way, are positive expressions of British pride. I especially like I Vow to Thee for its touching, peaceful, and very thoughtful expression of love for country in much the same way as God Bless America.

     The point is that there is a difference between good-hearted patriotism and ugly nationalism, and a balance must be struck in showing ones appreciation and respect for the country that is the United Kingdom without devolving into that nationalism which divides and discriminates. If anything, I believe that it is past time for the vast majority of sensible Britons to reclaim their flag, monarchy, national songs, and other symbols from the far-right and they need to do so in a way which emphasizes that such things are for everyone who calls Britain home.

     Racists and white nationalists use our flag as well, but we as Americans – the vast majority of us – do not allow them to define who we are as a people and as a country; under no circumstances do they own them and nor do they have ownership of what it means to be American. This applies just as well to the UK with regard to how the country as a whole ought to deal with its symbols being hijacked by extremists.

     The British patriotism that I speak of and believe in is one which places faith in the country, and therefore acknowledges that the country is bigger and more consequential than any extremists claiming to speak for it. This patriotism is also bigger than the government of the day, so that there’s much more to the UK than Theresa May, just as there is more to the US than Barack Obama or Donald Trump.

     This leads to the ideal that patriotism is about the power of the individual and what he or she does to positively contribute to society, however big or small and regardless of where they come from, and therefore gets to the heart of the British patriotism I have in mind – one which combines the best of the UK’s traditions and heritage with the best of the modern culture in the country today, which has come by means of immigration and an increasingly interconnected world. After all, my deep and abiding interest in the United Kingdom and to connect with some of its citizens rests on the global nature of our world today.

     Make no mistake that when I think of the UK, I do indeed think of – in part, at least – things such as the monarchy and the Union Flag, Big Ben and Edinburgh Castle, hackney cabs and red telephone booths, bulldogs and tea, Burns and Shakespeare, and the Beatles. And I have to say that in my opinion, the ITV reporter was making too much of a big deal about the lack of diversity in the Really British shop by repeatedly commenting on it not reflective of modern Britain, and claiming that it was representing something of a stereotypical Britishness.

     However, the reality is that the things I’ve mentioned above are among the things many people look forward to when visiting the UK because that is partly what attracts them to the country in the first place. In fact, there was a black Briton who commented under the ITV video on Facebook with regard to the owner of the Really British shop: “Good for you!! It’s a lovely place with genuine ethical purpose and showcasing true British culture. No need to be ashamed of British culture after all, we are in Britain!!”

     Ostwald himself explained quite simply that: “There’s no race that isn’t British…whoever you, wherever you came from, you live in Britain, you’re British.”

     Those were very encouraging and positive statements about what it means to be “Really British” and proud of it in a way that is inclusive of all backgrounds and showing no malice toward others. Indeed, being British should be about bringing the people of the country together to find what they have in common and understand that they have much more that unites than divides them. In the course of time, I believe this means that the owner should include others things in his shop that are expressive of the United Kingdom in the 21st Century. Reading the Harry Potter books and watching the subsequent films during the last decade provided a glimpse into the reality that modern Britain is diverse place and his store should reflect that. However, there’s nothing particularly wrong with the shop as it is and at the end of the day, all the Otswald is doing is selling towels, tea, marmalade, and flags representing the country in which his store is located.

     At the end of the day, there is nothing wrong with a healthy display of patriotism and this man appears to have achieved that with a shop peacefully promoting Britain to Britain, as well as to visitors (hopefully such as myself one day). He and everyone in the country can and should work together to help shape and define what being British means and take some pride and appreciation in that for themselves, the country, and future generations.

Tunnock's Getting the Last Laugh

Image Credit:  Derek E-Jay  via  Flickr   cc

Image Credit: Derek E-Jay via Flickr cc

     At the beginning of this year, I admittedly knew little about Thomas Tunnock Limited – popularly known as Tunnock’s – the family-owned confectionary bakery company based in Uddingston, Scotland. My faintest memory of it up to that time were its famous tea cakes being featured as “dancers” in the opening ceremony for the 2014 Commonwealth Games in Glasgow.

     This changed dramatically as those tea cakes and the Tunnock’s company became embroiled in a Nationalist-induced firestorm not long after the new year had begun. Chiefly, there were Nationalists who became incensed that the best-known product of this Scottish company was now being branded as “Tunnock’s Great British Tea Cake’s” - inspired by the BBC's wildly popular and award-winning Great British Bake-Off - and photos of ads featuring this on the London Underground were widely shared on social media. In addition, it was believed (falsely) that the company had removed its iconic Lion Rampant – one of Scotland’s national symbols, featured on the Royal Standard – from the packaging of its products.

     For outraged Nationalists, this amounted to the 126 year old company rejecting its Scottish heritage and the visceral angst was on display to see via the good ole’ cybernats, many of whom voiced their vehement disapproval by calling the company “traitors” and saying that they would never purchase Tunnock’s products again, and indeed some went out of their way to throw out Tunnock’s products they already had and also plastered Nationalist slogans on such products on supermarket shelves.

     All of this would have been amusing enough to witness, but then came Scotland’s blessed freedom fighters, the Scottish Resistance! Led by their fearless leader James Scott, the so-called Resistance called for a national boycott of Tunnock’s and all of their products, and then they marched to Uddingston to take on the mighty company by staging a protest outside their factory and headquarters. The protest was attended by only a small band of the true believers, but that didn’t stop them employing over-the-top theatrics, such as man smashing a box of the marshmellow biscuits with a sledgehammer and speeches over a bull-horn condemning Tunnock’s for its “treachery” toward Scotland.

     Adding to the controversy was the fact that the current managing director Boyd Tunnock CBE – grandson of the founder and the creator of the tea cake – was a prominent supporter of keeping the United Kingdom together during the referendum campaign in 2014 and said in response to the criticism of his company: “The vote said we’re British. We’re Scottish; however, we’re still in Britain.”

     Three months following this stramash, it would seem that Tunnock’s is having the last laugh. The boycott campaign has backfired spectacularly as the Lanarkshire-based company reported that its sales have soared by 10% in the first quarter of this year. First quarters, according to operations director Fergus Loudon, are typically a “quieter time” for the firm, but in contrast, the beginning of 2016 showed a tremendous increase – a “real boost” – and Loudon attributes it to the publicity generated by the furious Nationalists and their failed boycott, further stating:

“It meant the Tunnock's name was being talked about all over the world and people are still talking about it. It prompted a lot of people to go out and buy tea cakes and has been fantastic for us in terms of sales. There was a definite spike.”

     Not only this, but Loudon also said that in fact, the company is struggling to keep up with demand as it sells hundreds of thousands more of its snacks in the UK and throughout the world, with the firms order book “full to overflowing.”

Tunnock's HQ in Lanarkshire. Image Credit:  Geograph  © Copyright  Lairich Rig  and licensed for reuse under this  Creative Commons Licence

Tunnock's HQ in Lanarkshire. Image Credit: Geograph © Copyright Lairich Rig and licensed for reuse under this Creative Commons Licence

     This has turned out to be quite well for company that is proud to promote its Scottish and British heritage, and a spokesperson went out of his way to say that the company was not ashamed of its roots in Scotland and further, that the change in branding was not meant to cause offense. He reiterated that the Lion Rampant remained on their packaging, and would always remain there, but also stated that in the end, the fuss raised by the Nationalists “has been good for us.”

     Indeed, it is very good for the family-owned firm, its 500 employees, as well as the local economy, and since January according to the Scotsman, they have:

“released a range of merchandise in the wake of the success of the marketing strategy, including teddy bears, mugs, clothing and key rings, which they hope people will purchase to show solidarity with the company.”

     My personal solidarity with the company began within days of the controversy coming to the fore and while the reaction on social media continued to play out for several days. As I was shopping at one of the supermarkets here in Savannah, I decided to take a look at the British section of the International products aisle to see if I could find the tea cakes at the root of the brouhaha across the Pond. They were not there for sale, but I did find the Tunnock’s Caramel Wafer Biscuits and purchased them.

     I must admit that I have a low appetite for sweets and candies, but I felt a need to lend my support for this company which had come under fire for its branding choice and for its owner – nicknamed the Willy Wonka of Tannochside by the Times – supporting the pro-Union campaign. So at home, I tried one out, and it was quite good; it was not too sweet and had refreshing taste.

     On Twitter early the next morning (early for me, anyway), I tweeted out this message:

“Couldn’t find #TunnockTeaCakes, but did find these tasty wafer biscuits from this great British company in Scotland.”

     The tweet contained pictures featuring the front and back of the wrapping. Sure enough, there was the famous Tunnock’s logo proudly featuring the Lion Rampant and the Tunnock’s Boy on the front, while the back prominently featured this for the home location:

PRODUCT OF THE UNITED KINGDOM. MADE BY THOMAS TUNNOCK LTD.

34 OLD MILL ROAD, UDDINGSTON, GLASGOW G71 7HH, SCOTLAND

     This support for Tunnock’s was much-appreciated, and received positive attention from many people, and among them was a Twitter follower who offered to send some tea cakes my way.

     It took a while for them to get here as my friend was busy with things going on at home in Scotland, but they did finally get here in late February in a beautiful box which made me think it was my birthday. Indeed, the it really felt that way because the package contained a panoply of Tunnock’s products: Snowballs, Caramel Logs, Caramel Wafers, and of course, the “Great British Tea Cakes” – all of them with the Lion Rampant prominently featured on the packaging.  There was also a nice card with a tartan cloth and wooden thistle ornament. Inside card was a heart-felt and meaningful message which read:

Hi Wesley,

Sorry for the delay, life is quite hectic these days. Added a few more to help you get over the wait.

Enjoy

The special Tunnock's Treat I received from a friend in Scotland. Image Credit: Wesley Hutchins

The special Tunnock's Treat I received from a friend in Scotland. Image Credit: Wesley Hutchins

     This was totally unexpected but greatly appreciated for the way that he went out of his way to do all this, for he did not have do, and I shall remember this token of friendship from across the Pond at an individual level, as well as part of the greater relationship between the US and the UK.

     As for the sweet treats themselves, I was very pleased to try out the tea cakes at last, and they did not fail to impress. The milk chocolate combined with the mallow on the inside and the biscuit base made for a delectable taste which cannot be compared to anything I recall having in the States, but which is popular and well-known in the Kingdom. Meanwhile, the Snowballs – which are much like the tea cakes, but with marshmallows covered in frosted coconuts – were pleasant despite my lukewarm taste for coconut. The same was true for the Caramel Logs, which are like Caramel Wafers with the addition of the coconut bits coating the outside, though still a nice treat.

     So thanks to the howl of the Nationalists, Tunnock’s is doing better, it has greater international exposure, and I have become a loyal patron of this great British company from Scotland, of which every Briton throughout the United Kingdom can be proud.

A Round Pound of Unity

     A few days ago, I was scrolling through my Twitter feed when I came upon a posting which featured a pound coin, and not just any pound coin, but the last of the “Round Pounds.” They have been produced since 1983, and were introduced to replace the £1 bank notes issued by the Bank of England, and are widely used throughout the United Kingdom and the Crown Dependencies of Jersey, Guernsey, and the Isle of Man (though pound notes are still issued in the Dependencies and by the Royal Bank of Scotland).

     While the obverse of the round pound has constantly featured a portrait of Her Majesty the Queen – four to be exact, introduced in 1983, 1985, 1998, and 2015 respectively – the reverse has gone through several designs on an annual basis. Sometimes, there have been two reverse designs in a single year, and result over 32 years has been a collection which displays the diversity of the United Kingdom.

     Reverse sides have featured some variation of the Royal Coat of Arms of the UK – sometimes the full coat of arms with a crown atop it, an ornamental version, or just the shield from it – to represent the country as a whole, while other designs have given prominence to one of the constituent parts of the UK.

     England has been represented throughout the years by its three gold lions passant guardant, oak tree, and Tudor rose; Scotland by its thistle, bluebell, and red lion rampant within a double tressure flory counter-flory; Wales by its leek, daffodil, and red dragon passant; and Northern Ireland by its Celtic cross, Broighter collar, pimpernel, flax plant, and shamrock.

     From 2004 through 2007, reverse designs displayed four of Britain’s architectural and engineering landmarks – Scotland’s Firth of Forth Rail Bridge, the Menai Suspension Bridge in Wales, MacNeill’s Egyptian Arch in Northern Ireland, and England’s Gateshead Millennium Bridge. In 2010 and 2011, the coat of arms of the UK’s four capital cities – the City of London, Belfast, Cardiff, and Edinburgh – were used for the reverse of the coins issued in those years (in conjunction with coins bearing the shield of the Royal Coat of Arms), with the former two in 2010 and the latter two in 2011.

     So this popular British coin has had an illustrious run representing the UK and its different parts, and for its last incarnation in 2016, it will display what I call a design of national unity. The farewell reverse rendering for the round pound was designed by Gregory Cameron and contains the four animal symbols of the United Kingdom: the lion of England, the unicorn of Scotland, the dragon of Wales, and the stag representing Northern Ireland. At the center of the coin will be the Crown symbolizing them being united together into one sovereign entity, and along the edge, there is the Latin inscription DECUS ET TUTAMEN (meaning "an ornament and a safeguard").

The new and last "Round Pound". Image Credit:  Royal Mint

The new and last "Round Pound". Image Credit: Royal Mint

     More than just an ornament, the new coin shows that these four critical parts each make what the UK is – a multinational nation-state which celebrates the cultures of its constituent nations, which in turn contributes to the overall culture and society of the United Kingdom has a whole and the concept of being British.

     We saw this last weekend with Scotsman Andy Murray leading the Great Britain Davis Cup tennis team to victory in that tournament by scoring the decisive point against Belgium. That team was composed of three Scots – Murray, his brother Jamie, and the captain, Leon Smith, as well an Englishman – James Ward, and Kyle Edmund – a South African-born Brit who lives in London. Together, they made Britain triumph for the first time in 79 years, and this comes on the heels of Murray’s achievements at the 2012 Summer Olympics, a grand slam victory, and being the first British man to win at Wimbledon since 1936.

     All of this is a real-life display of the symbolism contained within the new round pound – that while the UK is made up of different parts and its people have multiple identities, they also come together as Britons to fuse their individual talents into a national synergy which paves the way for the achievement of great things like the Davis Cup victory. It certainly shows that Britain is hardly a clapped-out and washed-up former imperial power; her old Empire has been successfully transformed into the Commonwealth, and the country itself had carried on in modern times. It still has much going for it when the people believe in themselves and are willing to join together in common efforts to advance the country and themselves.

     Prime Minister David Cameron said as much in his St. Andrews Day message last Monday, when he remarked that Scotland helps to “put the great into Great Britain” – with its contributions to “the arts, sport, business, philanthropy or cutting-edge technology” – and punching above its weight to make a difference in the world. Scotland, he said, is a “constant source of pride and passion” as part of the United Kingdom, and the people of the rest of the UK support it when it is representing itself in venues such as rugby and football.

     For that matter, people across the UK were joining with their fellow British citizens in Scotland as they marked the day which honors their patron saint, with Saltire’s flying throughout the country, including from 10 Downing Street and the Foreign & Commonwealth Office. British embassies throughout world played their part in recognizing St. Andrew and promoting Scotland – its culture, food, heritage, and commerce – on this most important of days, as they should because of Scotland being an important part of the UK, and when Scotland succeeds and does well, so does the UK.

     Indeed, without Scotland, there can be no Britain, and the symbolism of the farewell round pound shows the UK is not just about England, or London, or [big, bad] Westminster, or the [evil] Tories. There is a social, cultural, and perhaps even, a spiritual element to the UK that I believe gets lost in the debates about the constitution, more powers, oil, the Barnett Formula, and etc. It was that element of the UK that was truly in danger last year, and continues to be at risk – that element which helps to bind the people together into one as they fuse into a common culture with shared values and beliefs, and participate in many of the same things, while also maintaining the elements that make them distinct from each other.

     But even then, the distinctions all contribute to the social and cultural fabric of the United Kingdom, for Scottish culture contributes as much to British culture as English culture, and when you break it down further, there a varying cultures within England and Scotland, as well as Northern Ireland and Wales which enrich their respective home nation and the UK as a whole. The Glaswegian accent is as British as the Cockney and Scouser accents; Ynys Môn (Anglesey) is as British as Orkney; Yorkshire pudding is as British as haggis. When one thinks of Britain, they must – without fail – think of the country in its entirety from Shetland to Land’s End.

     There are many people, both at home and abroad (including yours truly) who value and appreciate the UK because of its diversity and because of the overlapping identities shared amongst its people. We believe that there is something special about the English, Scottish, Welsh, and Northern Irish being part of the same country – with all those languages and dialects, foods, landmarks, landscapes, and towns and cities – a modern country that values its storied past and heritage, but also embraces modernity and the future.

     The round pound – with its many representations of the different parts of the UK, much like the state quarters in the US – has done this very well over the years as it gets set to be replaced by a new 12-sided coin beginning in 2017. Unfortunately, it will be more or a collectors item because it will not be available for general circulation, and will therefore only be available was more of the 2016 Annual Coin Set. However, its final incarnation using the animal representations of the home nations under the Crown does this brilliantly as a powerful symbol of unity and togetherness.

     E Pluribus Unum.