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.

GERS and the Long-Term Survival of the UK

     The common sense economic case for keeping the United Kingdom together was bolstered by yesterday's release of the latest Government Expenses and Revenues Scotland (GERS) report for 2014-2015.

     In summary, it showed that Scotland has a total budget deficit of £14.9 billion – the difference between public expenditure in Scotland (£68.4 billion) and revenues raised in Scotland (£53.4 billion). This amounts to 9.7% of Scotland’s GDP, as opposed to the overall UK deficit being only 4.9% of its total GDP, which means that Scotland runs a deficit two times higher than that of the UK as a whole.

     On a per capita basis, that deficit is £2800 compared to the £1400 per capita deficit of the UK overall, and this deficit gap amounts to £7.4 billion. If Scotland were to be independent, this would be the amount by which the Scottish deficit would get bigger in that scenario, and these figures get worse when North Sea oil is stripped away, so that the onshore deficit gap hits an eye-watering £9.2 billion.

     With the collapse of oil prices since the summer of 2014, Scotland’s geographic share of North Sea oil and gas revenues was £1.8 billion – a far cry from what the SNP said would be £7.9 billion with prices a 110+per barrelaccording to the white paper it released leading up to a vote.

     Indeed, that white paper, Scotand’s Future, has often been described has overly-optimistic in its prospectus for an independent Scotland – which touted the strength of Scotland’s finances and promised the maintenance and expansion of public services and the public sector in Scotland because there was untold wealth around the corner of separation became a reality. Now with the release of the latest GERS figures, STV’s Stephen Daisley has written that it looks “more like a piece of creative accounting, a 649-page confidence trick” because the SNP failed to come up with a credible economic plan which most voters could reasonably support, and that those who continue holding up the white paper’s contents engage in “downright dishonesty.”

     In response, some nationalists say that the numbers – produced by the Scottish Government – cannot be trusted because they don’t reflect the true wealth of Scotland and assume that with all “economic levers” at its disposal, it will follow the same economic course of the UK. The SNP itself does not dismiss the numbers in such a way, but does offer much of the same spin about the lack of powers and how an independent Scotland would do things differently (to overcome the financial challenges):

“GERS tells us about the status quo and very little about the opportunities of independence. Scotland is rich in human talent and natural resources. But what we lack are the economic levers to maximise growth in our economy, and invest according to our own priorities.”

     Again however, these are the numbers from their own government, and if they were good enough to argue the (nonexistent) case for separation (as indeed, was the case), then they are good enough to make the case against separation.

     Nationalists also interject that because UK and everyone else runs a budget deficit, why should Scotland be expected to balance its books? Here, this is a matter of scale and context. The United Kingdom as a whole runs a budget deficit that is larger than Scotland’s in terms of raw numbers, but the UK – being a larger and stronger country with a more diverse economy – is able to absorb and handle large deficits from year to year, and the same is true of the United States, France, and Germany. Scale matters, though it would be unreasonable for an independent Scotland to balance its books from Day One, it is reasonable for it to start life as an independent country with a smaller budget deficit that is in line with the size of its economy, which means cuts to services, tax increases, or both.

     Another response to these numbers is saying that “oil is just a bonus”, but this flies in the face reality when one notices that without oil, the deficit would be far worse and the scale of the financial challenge more daunting.

     In his column on GERS yesterday, Alex Massie makes it clear that the SNP government's own figures have destroyed its economic case for separation and that keeping the UK together was the good option back in September 2014. After all, each man, woman, and child in Scotland is better off by £1400 because Scotland is part of the United Kingdom and benefits from fiscal transfers via the pooling and sharing of resources, which is how the Union is supposed to work (and I recommend reading Kevin Hague’s thoughtful and thorough analysis on GERS).

     However, Massie also made it clear that sheer economics alone will not be enough to ensure the survival of Britain, not least because a day may come when the economic case could favor separation. “Numbers matter”, he said, “but they are not the only fruit. But this, again, must apply to both sides of the constitutional divide. Britain, and the UK, must be worth something other than £1,400 a year.”

     He further added:

“People are not, in any case, bloodless calculating machines. They appreciate that [the economic] arguments are, in the end and at root, about something more than that. They are about who we are, how we see ourselves, and what we intend to achieve together. They are arguments about where we have been and where we may yet go.”

     In this light, more of an effort must be made to communicate the social, cultural, and sentimental value of the Union - including the very idea of Britishness and living comfortably with more than one identity. It should not be about competing identities or pitting identities against each other, because for example, to be Scottish is also to be British, and you cannot have Britishness without Scottishness.

     Emphasis must be made on shared history, culture, heritage, society, and values. There needs to be an inclusive approach which recognizes and respects the distinctiveness among the peoples the United Kingdom while also encouraging commonality and cohesiveness.

     In effect, this effort must answer the following questions:

“Who is British?”

“What’s good about Britain and why should it exist?”

“What’s the UK’s purpose at home and abroad?”, and

“What does it mean to be British in the 21st Century?”

     This will not be easy, but with a little work from the ground up – starting with individual, and eventually national, efforts – a stronger, positive, and confident British patriotic identity combined with a competent economic case can be forged to withstand the forces of nationalism in the long-term.

Promming for the Last Night

     Great music, cheering crowds, singing along, and good-natured patriotic feeling.

     Yes, it’s that time again – the day which features that annual staple of late summer in Britain: the Last Night of the Proms.

     As its name states, this event marks the end of what is known as “the Proms” – a series of daily concerts and other activities over an eight week period from mid-July to early September which showcase the best of orchestral and classical music from around the world.

     It was started in 1895 under the direction Sir Henry Wood and launched by impresario Robert Newman, who had an idea for creating a series of indoor concerts to attract an audience to concert hall music amongst people who did not usually partake in classical music. The concept was based on outdoor promenade concerts where the audience could walk around – or promenade – while the orchestra was playing. With low ticket prices and a more informal atmosphere which included activities such as drinking, smoking, and eating, Newman hoped to “train the public” with popular music at first, and then “gradually raising the standard” until he had “created a public for classical and modern music.”

     Henry Wood, aged only 26, was established as the conductor of the promenade series at the behest of Newman’s financial backer, the otolaryngologist Dr. George Cathcart, and though Newman was responsible for the organizing and planning, it has been Wood whose name is most associated with the Proms. For the next half century, he conducted the orchestra for all of the concert seasons, and in the process as the first conductor, he built up a repertoire (including the presentation of new works by contemporary composers – both British and international) which set the standard for the subsequent series and conductors following his death in 1944. Such was his influence on the Proms, that they are still known as the “Henry Wood Promenade Concerts” on the tickets, though since the BBC took over the running of the concerts in 1927, they have been officially termed as the BBC Proms.

The Royal Albert Hall - current home of the Proms. Image Credit:  Drow Male  via  Wikimedia Commons   cc

The Royal Albert Hall - current home of the Proms. Image Credit: Drow Male via Wikimedia Commons cc

     Since World War II, the main venue for the Proms has been the Royal Albert Hall in London, and it is there that a bronze bust of Sir Henry Wood is placed on the hall’s organ throughout each season – the bust itself having been saved from ruins of the original home of the Proms, Queens Hall, and now owned by the Royal Academy of Music.

     In the course of its existence through over a century, the Proms have become one of the biggest and most popular musical festivals in the world. In addition to the main concerts, there are also associated educational and children’s events, as well as lunchtime chamber concerts and matinee’s featured at Cadogan Hall. No longer simply about music, it has since become a major British cultural event and national institution that has become renowned the world over, as well as a prestigious platform for the various conductors and musicians who have participated in it.

     It is also a much sought-after event by the people of the United Kingdom, as well as foreign tourists and others residing in the country. Such people are known as “Promenaders”, or more commonly, “Prommers” – especially those who use the standing areas of the Royal Albert Hall, for which ticket prices are lower than for reserved seats. But regardless of seating arraignments, the Proms make for an enjoyable and memorable experience with something for everybody to enjoy.

Arena of the Royal Albert Hall from above. Image Credit:  yisris  via  Flickr   cc

Arena of the Royal Albert Hall from above. Image Credit: yisris via Flickr cc

     However, the most memorable and well-known part of the Proms is undeniably the Last Night. Usually held on the second Saturday in September, it is unlike the previous concerts in that it is lighter, looser, and more informal, with the program broken into two parts consisting of popular classics followed by patriotic British songs toward the end of the second part. Traditionally, the evening also features a speech by the conductor in which he or she thanks the audience for their participation, as well as the musicians, soloists, support staff, and others who make the entire Proms possible – including those who gave the conductor the honored privilege of presiding over the festivities. Also acknowledged is the amount of money raised through ticket sales and donations which go to support musical charities. The conductors also tend to discuss the themes of the music that was performed throughout the concert season, and how they connect to people’s lives. At times, the speech can be quite humorous – with the conductor being self-depreciating, and taking good-natured digs at the audience.

     But the real event which gives the Last Night its true significance is the sequence of favorite patriotic selections, usually starting off with Edward Elgar’s elegant Pomp and Circumstance March No. 1 (Land of Hope and Glory), which receives a traditional encore dating back to its premier at the 1901 concert. This is followed by Sir Henry Woods’s Fantasia on British Sea Songs, which leads into and culminates with Thomas Arne’s rousing Rule Britannia!, which is also performed in its own right with a soloist. Then there is the sweet and soft sound of Hubert Parry’s Jerusalem followed by the UK National Anthem, God Save the Queen – with Benjamin Britten’s stirring rendition being frequently chosen – to conclude the program. Following this, the Prommers traditionally break out spontaneously into Auld Lang Syne with hands linked together in a final spirit of Promming fellowship to end the spectacular evening.

     Indeed, it is the spectacular and participative nature of the Last Night which has made it a fixture of British culture. It is in many ways, a celebration of the United Kingdom and its people, and for this reason, there is always high demand for tickets – some from people who’ve never been to the Last Night, and others who make it their business to attend it every year. While the standing tickets stay the same price as during the rest of the series, the seated tickets are more expensive, but for some people it is worth the cost for what may be a once in a lifetime opportunity.

     Because demand for the Last Night has tended to be exceedingly high with scores of people not being able to make it into the Royal Albert Hall, Proms in the Park was introduced in 1996 in nearby Hyde Park to accommodate a larger outdoor crowd. Later on, to bring the Proms experience to those not in or near London, other locations have been added in throughout the United Kingdom. The Proms in the Park events in Belfast (Titanic Slipways), Glasgow (Glasgow Green), Swansea (Singleton Park), and Hyde Park each have their own concerts before linking up via large screens to the Royal Albert Hall to join in for the grand finale.

Proms in the Park at Hyde Park, London. Image Credit:  Neil Rickards  via  Flickr   cc

Proms in the Park at Hyde Park, London. Image Credit: Neil Rickards via Flickr cc

     At all of these locations, there is a fun and festive atmosphere, as well as a sense of camaraderie amongst the audience. Balloons and party poppers are common for the Last Night, as well as fancy dresses – from dinner jackets to t-shirts to funny hats. People also bring flags with them, usually the Union Flag, but also the flags of each of the Home Nations of the UK – the Saltire of St. Andrew (Scotland), the Cross of St. George (England), the Saltire of St. Patrick or Ulster Banner (Northern Ireland), and the Red Dragon or St. David’s Cross (Wales). Also seen are the flags of counties/local government authoroties within the UK, immigrants in the UK, and visitors and tourists, all of which make for a tremendous display of color and the vibrant fabric that is Britain, which is probably one reason why Jiří Bělohlávek (Proms conductor in 2007, 2010, and 2012) has described the Proms as “the world's largest and most democratic musical festival.”

     All of this is broadcast throughout the UK and also overseas via radio, which allow for millions more to partake in this celebration of Britishness, including yours truly. I certainly enjoy it, for the Last Night not only features great music, but also shows Britons who are proud of themselves and of their country, and who have their heads held high for the potential of making their country better tomorrow than it was yesterday.

     This event speaks to the need for the British people – wherever they live – to look at one another as one and to come together for the good of country as it faces several issue (including the economy, immigration, the role of government, and constitutional change). The music alone does not solve these complex issues in a complex country of course, and I realize the Last Night isn't for everyone. But beyond the flag waving and booming music are precious moments which are shared with fellow citizens and residents throughout the United Kingdom, whether they live in Aberystwyth or Aberdeen, or in Edinburgh or Exeter, or in Belfast or Brighton. I certainly hope that as the selections help to project a confident Britain around the world, that they also instill some confidence in the people and help to inspire them to build bridges with others to improve the country and make it better together.

     So if you are in the UK, get out your party poppers and please try to attend tonight’s concert at the Royal Albert Hall, in the parks, or just tune in to the BBC. It’s going to be a Great British time!