“Here’s what I think”: ‘Dear Britain…’

Tom Cleaver

Television adverts can be a funny thing. Of course they often have a single goal, that being to win customers and therefore money for the company in question. As we all know, however, there are occasional adverts that make us feel more than that. They may make us think deeper about a certain aspect of life, one way or another, and open up enough of that deep thought that could fill a column for a week.

The most recent of those adverts which provoked something within myself at least, was that of British Airways. This is in no way an endorsement of the company as a whole; I last flew with them eighteen months ago and I didn’t enjoy it very much to be honest, but if you want trip reviews you’ll have to ask for them. This is just about the advert, and what it made me think about.

The advert in question was BA’s “Dear Britain” advert, released to celebrate their 100th anniversary. It features a who’s who of the United Kingdom, from Winnie the Pooh to Anthony Joshua among sundry other famous and ordinary British people of all ages and backgrounds. The script is written as a love letter to the country and to its people; a declaration of adoration for it and us.

The act of writing a love letter to Britain has the potential to go one of two ways. It appears nowadays that there are two “Britains” in people’s minds; two competing ideals of the country, and of its character. On the one hand a “love” for one’s country can entail xenophobia, racism and other types of bigotry. An attitude of “I love this country because it’s better than all the others” has prevailed at times across the globe, and the United Kingdom is no exception.

Thankfully for myself, for good taste, and most probably for British Airways’ share price, this advert went in the other direction. The advert promotes a diverse country, an accepting country, and a welcoming country. One that, as was said in the advert, has a “big heart”, that “tells it like it is, politely, of course”, and “will quietly make history”. I don’t claim to be a patriot, nor am I a great believer in national pride, but those are characteristics that I would like to be able to associate with the country I was born in.

“The soil on which the country is built is meaningless without the country on top of it”

Watching this minute and a half video, as I have done countless times since discovering it a few days ago, has caused me to reflect on the country; and to reflect on what it means to me. Over the last few years, there have been a number of moments which have caused me to feel shame at being from this country. There were the “Go Home Vans”, the “Breaking Point” poster, the murder of Member of Parliament Jo Cox, some of the clownish people who represent the country at a political level, and the lowered tone and raised voices that have become our national discourse over politics, and the lies, oh, the lies.

Maybe I’m putting too much weight on politics in my sentiment towards the country, but a nation state is a political entity. The soil on which the country is built is meaningless without the country on top of it, even more so given that I wasn’t raised in a particularly beautiful part of the country or the world, just outside of Milton Keynes.

Why did the advert make me feel something, then? The advert is probably the first thing I’ve seen in a good few years, most probably since 2012 which is now seven years ago, that reminds me of those qualities of the country which I most like, maybe even love.

“I firmly believe that we are stronger for our differences”

The first is its diversity. Despite what some people wearing purple ties or blue rosettes may wish to have you believe, the United Kingdom is not an ethnostate. It has diversity in its nature, being a country of four distinct nations, and immigration has enhanced that. British people are every colour, every creed, every race and every religion. I firmly believe that we are stronger for our differences, but that the Britishness that we share unites us as people, or at least that we can, that whether you’re from Aberdeen, Lisburn, Enfield, or Tristan da Cunha, whether you’re Jewish, Christian, Muslim, or Sikh or anything else, we belong equally in this country.

In addition, there are the traits of understatedness and politeness. Naturally, I haven’t too much to say about this, but I always admired the British’s composure in success and failure, and humility. That, in addition to an ability to not take oneself too seriously, and a religious adherence to good manners, is something I feel we should encourage and be proud of. Of course, notable exceptions exist, but those are observable and commendable traits.

“The Britain described in the advert is one I fear we are losing”

There is a slightly deeper reason the advert touched a nerve, however. That reason is that the Britain described in the advert is one that I fear we are losing, or may already have lost. Sure, it exists in some of our hearts and minds, but in reality what can we see? The thuggish and overstated politics of elsewhere seems to be invading our national discourse. Politicians are being sent threats and being harrassed on the streets. People find themselves at loggerheads with one another both on those same streets and here on the internet.

Being British isn’t enough any more for many. You’ve got to be a “Brexite(e)r” or a “Remainer”, on our side or theirs. Our sense of “us” is getting smaller, we’re nationalists and we want our independence from one thing or another, we want it to be how it was back in the good old days, or we’re chasing the sunlit uplands while missing the rain-soaked island that we’re all attached to, whether that be physically, legally, culturally, or any other “-ally” you can think of.

“This country will easily be torn limb from limb by tribalism”

You never hear the word “British” any more. I’m a thousand words in right now and I realise that I could be writing utter, utter tosh but hear me out. In all of the squabbling between ourselves over those issues which have divided us, we have lost sight of the bigger picture. Whatever our opinions and feelings may be, whatever our differences may be, what we have in common is greater and in my opinion more fundamental.

The United Kingdom is under threat, and it’s under threat from us. Those things which we may cherish the most about ourselves and it; our good manners, humility, and reservedness, will only survive if we keep them alive. A country which is in its very fundamental nature an amalgamation of four unique people groups will be easily torn limb from limb by tribalism, and that very thing you believe you’re fighting tooth and nail for can dissolve like a sand castle under a wave.

“This is a country built on pragmatism and consideration”

For that reason now I’m going to ask you to take part in something physical. As I’ve already written, you never hear the word “British” any more. If you’re British and you’re reading this I want you to change that right now. Breathe in and say “British”. Sound the “t”, too, it sounds better like that. It’s a weird thing to put in a column but I’m making a point in a roundabout way. The word means something, not in the nationalistic sense, but in an understated British sense.

This is not a country built on tribalism and fire and fury, this is one built on pragmatism and consideration. It’s not a triumph of one race, but rather a forum of every creed known to man. When we are all so different, togetherness is even more important to our survival. We must open our eyes to the fact that tribalism can do nothing but harm to our country, and build walls between us when we should be building bridges.

The advert shows me that the things I value in this country are the things we all value, because they wouldn’t have made one just for me. It depicts a United Kingdom that I might be a little bit proud to be a citizen of; that we could all feel good about. That United Kingdom, I firmly believe, is well within our grasp, if only we start being a bit more British.