Promoting national unity by celebrating British success - RSA

Promoting national unity by celebrating British success


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    Richard Ellis
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The 'new normal’ is up for grabs. In a series of blogs Richard Ellis has been arguing that we should actively design as much of it as we can. In this final blog, he explains how we can engage in vigorous debate without sacrificing our sense of national unity.

The next few years will see us asking important questions about Britain’s future post-Brexit, post-pandemic and in a fast-changing world.  However, while we may all be asking the same questions, we will not all come up with the same answers. We will disagree. Indeed, we will disagree a lot and we will disagree passionately. 

That is not altogether a bad thing; passion shows that we care. The reason that we will bother to argue about our country’s future is that we care about it. Britain needs to see itself as a team and understand that the collective success of that team matters to all of us. The solution is not to dodge debate but to engage in that debate while taking positive steps to preserve our sense of national team spirit.  Happily we have a strong starting point.

The strength of Britain’s team spirit was on frequent display during 2020. The British team came together at 8pm every Thursday between 26 March and 28 May 2020 to clap for our carers.  On 8 June 2020 and 15 August 2020, we came together to salute the service of the wartime generation whose efforts brought victory in 1945. During religious festivals and national holidays, most of us willingly put family celebrations on hold to protect the vulnerable amongst us, strangers as well as relatives. 

Clap For Our Carers and the commemorations for VE Day and VJ Day celebrated those members of our British team who have made a special effort on our behalf. We felt collective pride in what they have done and we expressed collective gratitude for their service.  Recognising the ‘Best of British’ brought us together as a nation. We should continue to build our sense of national team spirit by continuing to celebrate the achievements and service of our fellow Britons.

There is no shortage of such achievements and service. Moreover, we already do a good job of identifying them. The Queen’s Birthday Honours List 2021, for instance, recognised British success in all aspects of our national life: the NHS, the armed forces, business, sport, the arts, the sciences, public services, engineering, charity and much more besides. It also recognised the diversity of modern Britain; 15% of the recipients came from an ethnic minority background. At least as important as the diversity of the recipients, however, is the diversity of their successes.​

The range of success covered by the Honours Lists means that everyone can find something that they regard as interesting, impressive and inspirational. These are British successes in which we can rightly take collective national pride. They could and should be the occasion of a Clap For Our Carers type of recognition. 

One suggestion in this regard would be to hold an annual Celebration of British Excellence at which a representative group of twenty or so Honours recipients could receive our national congratulations. This representative sample should include the most impressive soldiers, entrepreneurs, professionals, scientists, public servants, charity workers and volunteers. They should come from across the country and they should be representative of different age and racial groups.  ​

The event itself could take place on the Queen’s Official Birthday and, in order to make this a truly national event, it could take place in a suitable venue in a different part of the country each year. It would be in the style (though probably not on the scale) of the London 2012 Olympics Opening Ceremony. It could include video footage explaining the reasons why the various individuals received their Honours and a good deal of pomp and circumstance. Perhaps, for instance, the Queen could present these 20 or so Honours at this event.  ​Nationwide we would all be encouraged to applaud all of that year’s Honours recipients. Local authorities may wish to hold their own events to congratulate their local award winners.

Not only would an annual Celebration of British Excellence provide a tremendous boost to national morale, it could also be a shot in the arm to our national confidence. In challenging circumstances, it is useful to be reminded that there are still many things that many of us do very well. Events such as the Pride of Britain Awards show that there is an appetite for this type of occasion. The proposed Celebration of British Excellence would complement such events.  The Pride of Britain Awards, for instance, have a focus on courage and fundraising. By drawing from the wide range of success in the Honours Lists, the Celebration of British Excellence would have a more extensive remit and, with Government support, it could be held on a greater scale.

Nor should such an event be an occasion for resting on laurels; we should move quickly to capitalise on an increased sense of national team spirit. The stories in the Honours Lists should be presented as examples to follow. The diverse nature both of the people receiving awards and also of the achievement being recognised, should mean that all of us could find both someone who ‘looks like us’ and has made a contribution that we can realistically aspire to and identify with. There should be copious information about how people can get involved in these instances of British success and there should be lots of encouragement that we should do so. A renewed focus on the Honours List should be presented with a touch of “Your Country Needs You!”​.

The Honours System’s potential role in inspiring people could have particular relevance in our schools. After all, the Honours Lists are packed with positive, and relevant, role models. In the Queen’s Birthday Honours List for 2021 Sarah Gilbert, Saïd Professor of Vaccinology at the Jenner Institute, received a damehood for her pivotal role in developing a COVID-19 vaccine. This could inspire any number of potential scientists. Similarly, the CBE awarded to Mark Proctor, Global Supply Strategy Director at AstraZeneca, could inspire some young people to serve their country via a career in business.  That message would also be underlined by the British Empire Medal given to 25-year-old Rhys Mallows from South Glamorgan who repurposed his whiskey distillery to produce hand sanitiser.  Charitable ambitions might be kindled by the story of the BEMs awarded to brother and sister John Brownhill and Amanda Guest, co-founders of Food4Heroes which delivered food from local chefs to those NHS frontline staff.

We cannot assume that young Britons will automatically develop a sense of British team spirit. Many may but some do not. We need to make sure that we actively seek to recruit young people to the British team. Providing relevant role models and encouraging young people to follow in their footsteps is an essential part of this exercise. Fortunately, we have a range of such role models from which to choose.

If you can judge an individual by their friends, perhaps you can judge a nation by its heroes. Most of us would be fairly pleased for Britain to be judged by our contemporary British heroes. Establishing an annual Celebration of British Excellence would allow us to say a collective “thank you” and “congratulations”. Doing so would bring us closer to our heroes, and to each other. 2022, which will see the Queen’s Platinum Jubilee, would be an ideal year in which to launch such an event.

In previous blogs for the RSA I have described ways in which we can open up our political debate (here) and our economic debate (here). These debates about Britain’s future are important and a certain amount of disagreement is inevitable. Britain must, however, be able to disagree without disintegrating. This will be easier if we foster and promote our sense of national team spirit. 

During some dark times the recent and frequent displays of British team spirit have provided welcome flashes of light. Whatever the new normal looks like, most of us want it to include that sense of unity and camaraderie. If we can channel our shared commitment to the future of our country then we will have every reason for optimism.  And surely, on that point, we agree.

The RSA was instrumental in the development of the Great Exhibition of 1851. Amali de Alwis MBE FRSA is a Board Member of Festival UK* 2022. At a time when we need greater public engagement in our democratic system, as well as positive and inclusive ways to celebrate our successes, perhaps the ideas outlined in my blogs could generate a debate amongst Fellows?

Richard Ellis is a freelance journalist and a former researcher for a Member of Parliament. If you would like to hear more about proposals for promoting British team spirit please see and please e-mail [email protected].


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