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.