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.

Getting Rid of the BTP at All Costs

British Transport Police officers on duty in the London Underground. Image Credit:  Gordon Joly  via  Flickr   CC

British Transport Police officers on duty in the London Underground. Image Credit: Gordon Joly via Flickr CC

     This week in Scotland saw one of the more controversial aspects of the Smith Commission being brought up for discussion: the possible breakup of the British Transport Police, the specialist law enforcement force which is responsible for the policing of Britain’s railways.

     For those not familiar or needing a refresh, the Smith Commission was created in the aftermath of the 2014 Scottish independence referendum which saw the majority of Scots deciding to keep the United Kingdom together. In the closing days of the campaign, the three main pro-Union parties promised in the Daily Record (via the famous/infamous “Vow”) that with a “No” vote to separation, the devolved Scottish Parliament at Holyrood would receive more powers to exercise in Scotland, as opposed to the UK Parliament at Westminster (with Scottish representation as there always has been) exercising those powers in Scotland as part of the overall United Kingdom. With separation rejected, the commission was formed to recommend what should be devolved and among them was the Scottish BTP functions, and this was pushed through as part of the Scotland Act 2016.

    Even before the final passage of the act, the SNP government had made clear its intentions to use this new power to absorb the BTP in Scotland into Police Scotland, the single national police force created by the SNP in 2013 by amalgamating the eight existing regional services. In September, the merger proposal was officially announced as part of the SNP’s program for government, and last Wednesday saw various police representatives in a round-table discussion about the merger plan with MSP’s on the Justice Committee at Holyrood.

    Already, three railway unions and the BTP Federation had stated their opposition to the plan, with the federation expressing anger at the Smith Commission recommendation soon after it was made in 2014, saying that it was “both unjustified and unjustifiable.” Their main concern has been the potential loss of the BTP’s specialism and expertise, which make it unique from a force based in a particular geographic area, as well as the integrity of cross-border travel safety. For this reason, the BTP has offered to continue its services as a separate force in Scotland, but with oversight from Holyrood, rather than Westminster.

     However, the SNP government has continued to press forward with the scheme in the belief that since all other policing in Scotland is under the jurisdiction of Police Scotland, then the Transport Police should be the same way and that integration would “ensure the most efficient and effective delivery of all policing in Scotland.”

     The more generous remarks given on the subject in favor of the SNP’s position came from Police Scotland’s Assistant Chief Constable Bernard Higgins, who said the merger could work and that his force could police all the railways despite this being “massively complicated” and admitting that there would be “massive transition issues.” His statement broadly echoes that of the Scottish Government saying that specialist skills of the BTP would be maintained and could be achieved “from within our national police service.”  He also gave assurances that staffing levels would be maintained and potentially supplemented by Police Scotland officers.

BTP badge from Dave Connor's Scottish Law Enforcement Insignia Collection. Image Credit:  Dave Connor  via  Flickr   CC

BTP badge from Dave Connor's Scottish Law Enforcement Insignia Collection. Image Credit: Dave Connor via Flickr CC

     Such assurances were not enough for Nigel Goodband, chairman of the BTP Federation, who said that some of the experienced specialist transport officers would rather quit their jobs than not be BTP officers and that therefore, neither the SNP government nor Police Scotland could promise that the quality of service and expertise would be maintained. Some of this attitude stems from controversies with regard to the formation of Police Scotland and its handling of policing, and in its submission to the Justice Committee, the BTP Federation regarded the force as “still very much in its infancy” and that “no evidence to date has been able to state clearly what, if any, advantage there would be in dismantling the current BTP model of policing in Scotland and integrating it within a geographical routine form of policing.”

     BTP Deputy Chief Constable Adrian Hanstock emphasized this point by stating that the BTP exists because its “specialism is so valued by the [rail] industry and passengers” and that railways required different policing from that of general law enforcement, which is specifically why it is difficult to merge into a geographic force (and why the federation is concerned about the possibility of transport officers being used to bolster Police Scotland). He was backed up by Nick Fyfe of the Scottish Institute for Policing Research, who pointed to a “distinctive culture and ethos in policing the railways.”

     This culture and ethos is what makes the BST unique and allows it to transcend borders to provide a consistent specialist service, and for that reason, the federation is also concerned about the annual 21 million cross-border passengers and whether there may be interruptions to the “seamless” level of service they have come to expect.

     This leads to something on a more fundamental level, which is that the British Transport Police is a service used and shared by rail travelers throughout Great Britain – a service which is visibly recognizable and the relatively the same wherever anyone goes, whether from Glasgow to London, or Cardiff to Manchester, or Birmingham to Edinburgh, so as to ensure that people get to their destinations safely. It is therefore representative something “British”, not only because of the name, but because of its mandate, jurisdiction, and service it provides throughout the island. The United Kingdom does not have a national police force, so the Transport Police is as close to such a force in the country.

     All of this of course, is anathema for the SNP. Its members, including at senior levels, deny that Britain is a country and seek to characterize it as just a “state” or "invented construct" run from (big, bad) Westminster without a heart or soul, little in connection to people in Scotland, and certainly not doing anything of value or significance for them. It therefore suits the SNP government to fold the Transport Police north of the Border into Police Scotland and to not only extinguish a piece of shared Britishness – the closest thing to a national police force – from the Scottish landscape, but to effectively kill it entirely throughout the whole country and have one less relevant institution linking it together.

     Despite evidence that merging the Scottish BTP into Police Scotland would be very complex (at a time when the national force is still coming to terms with its own formation), may result in the loss of specialist capabilities, and simply is not necessary for effective policing, the SNP seems content with pressing forward for the purpose of simply creating another difference between Scotland and the rest of Britain.

     This is but probably a taste of the “independence at any cost” posture taken by First Minister Nicola Sturgeon when she claimed that separation “transcends the issues of Brexit, of oil, of national wealth and balance sheets and of passing political fads and trends.” However, these are important issues which must be considered and cannot be ignored if there is to be another referendum like the one in 2014, just as the complexities and warning with regard to the dismantling of the BTP and merging it into Police Scotland cannot be dismissed. As far as can be told, the BTP works as a specialist force policing the railways of Britain, but the SNP government is pursuing a strategy of making Scotland feel as though it's not part of Britain at any cost.

     During his remarks at the Justice Committee discussion, BTP Deputy Chief Constable Adrian Hanstock asked: “If it's not broken, what are we trying to fix?”

     That’s just it; there is nothing to fix.

A BTP helmet located at St. Paul's Chapel in New York City in remembrance of 9/11. Image Credit:  C.S. Imming  via  Wikimedia Commons   CC

A BTP helmet located at St. Paul's Chapel in New York City in remembrance of 9/11. Image Credit: C.S. Imming via Wikimedia Commons CC

Tim Peake and Bringing a Country Together

British ESA astronaut Tim Peake on his first spacewalk. Image Credit:  NASA  via  Flickr  (Public Domain) - ISS-46 EVA-1

British ESA astronaut Tim Peake on his first spacewalk. Image Credit: NASA via Flickr (Public Domain) - ISS-46 EVA-1

     One of high points for the United Kingdom this year was Major Tim Peake's mission aboard the International Space Station, which began on December 15, 2015 and ended on June 18, 2016. During those six months, Major Peake fascinated and inspired people back home in Britain and throughout the world by carrying out mission objectives alongside his fellow ISS crew members from other countries, such as repairing a failed voltage regulator which made for Peake becoming the first British astronaut to participate in a spacewalk.

      Along the way, he kept everyone up-to-date with his engaging social media posts on Facebook and Twitter, including his participation in the London Marathon on a treadmill – making him the second person to run a marathon in space, various videos highlighting his life aboard the ISS, his support for British sports teams, and remarks for occasions such as New Year’s Day and the Queen’s 90th birthday.

     Perhaps my favorite aspect of Major Peake's journey was when he shared photographs of various locations in the US, UK, and throughout the world from the ISS, including fabulous views of picturesque auroras. It is indeed true that one cannot fully appreciate the world unless it is viewed from that vantage point.

     For Major Peake, it all must have been an incredible experience – one which he appeared to thoroughly enjoy for every minute. Even before he returned home, he was being celebrated as a hero throughout the UK and there was great interest in his mission from the public via several platforms, particularly social media. As the first British ESA (European Space Agency) astronaut and only the second Briton to wear the Union Flag patch in space, Peake was conferred the Freedom of the City by his hometown of Chichester and the Queen made him a Companion of the Order of St. Michael and St. George for his services to research and scientific education – all while he was still aboard the ISS.

     Having returned from space, Major Peake now intends to embark on a tour of the United Kingdom this month, during which he will visit all four capital cities of the country (London, Edinburgh, Cardiff, and Belfast), as well as Leicester, Manchester, Salford, and Glasgow. According to Principa, Major Peake will be “will be giving presentations at each city, giving his first-hand account about life onboard the ISS and talking about the important science experiments he conducted during his mission.”

     Alongside Major Peake for part of this tour will be our own Colonel Tim Kopra, a NASA astronaut who was a crewmate with Peake aboard the ISS. The two Tim’s (who look quite similar in appearance) will be in Belfast, Edinburgh, and London in what is expected to be an engaging series of events about their time working and living in space, as well as inspiring others to become astronauts, so that they may explore space and make new discoveries for the benefit of mankind. On a wider scale, there is the potential for Britain to develop its own spaceport and having more people interested in space and space travel may well provide additional impetus for such a spaceport to be built. With regard to Tim Peake, there has been an ambitious education and outreach initiative in which the UK Space Agency has invested £3 million to engage over a million young people into his mission and so this tour is also a way for him to thank the British public for their support.

The two Tim's - Britain's Peake and America's Kopra. Major Peake is being given a patch by Colonel Kopra to commemorate his 100th day in space on March 24, 2016. Image Credit:  NASA  via  Flickr  (Public Domain)   - ISS047-E-017191

The two Tim's - Britain's Peake and America's Kopra. Major Peake is being given a patch by Colonel Kopra to commemorate his 100th day in space on March 24, 2016. Image Credit: NASA via Flickr (Public Domain) - ISS047-E-017191

     On that matter, he remarked that he had been “extremely touched” by that support before, during, and after the ISS mission, and made a particular mention about watching the launch parties attended by so many in the four capitals as he ascended into space last December. Having viewed those celebrations, Major Peake now looks forward to the tour allowing him to partake in those celebrations himself and to thank as many people as possible.

     One hopes that he will receive hearty thanks from the people of a United Kingdom - wherever they live and are from - who are grateful for his service to the country. In these uncertain times, Peake shows what people ought to aspire to be, and is therefore an inspiration and an example to follow because of the hard work and dedication that has brought him this far, the grace and humility he has shown along with an uplifting personality, and for his love of country.

     Throughout his mission, Major Peake made it known that he was proud to be British – with his tribute to Her Majesty on her 90th birthday and frequently having the Union Flag nearby in his social media posts – and I do believe that this upcoming tour may be a way to celebrate what is good and decent about being British and sharing in the achievements of a British man which were made possible in part by the UK and its people at large. It may be asking too much for the Peake tour to be anything along the lines of what we have witnessed in the celebrations for Team GB and Paralympics GB following their dynamic performance at Rio 2016, but it ought to at least be something worthy of marking the achievements of Major Peake.

     Between these two – Tim Peake and the British Rio teams – there is a lot to be proud of as a citizen of the United Kingdom and they are examples of what can be achieved when the country comes together to make beautiful and extraordinary things happen and then commemorate them. With the country as divided as it is along several fault lines, it is sometimes a wonder that such things are able to occur, but I believe that this speaks to the enduring strength and resilience of a country that has withstood so much throughout its long existence. When there is a common sense of purpose, differences can be broken down to allow for synergy among different people (for the UK is a union of people as well as a nations) to work together as one, which instills pride in themselves as individuals and as something greater than themselves.

     Going forward, the virtue of working together, achieving together, and celebrating together as a United Kingdom will be invaluable as the country enters into uncharted territory. Perhaps the tour by Major Peake throughout the UK can help serve as a reminder to the British people of who they are and what they can aspire to become, while striving to build a better country, and indeed a better world, along the way.