London Letter: Volunteering is key to the British creed of keeping calm and carrying on.
The Big Help Out initiative for King Charles's coronation could rekindle a strong sense of national identity during times of uncertainty.
Edward "Bear" Grylls, a celebrity adventurer, is a perfect example of a British self-identity. The Eton-educated critter-wrangler is equal parts fearless, dashing, eccentric, and most importantly, fair-minded. These are the characteristics that the British love to see in themselves. This is crucial in a time when many British people struggle with recognizing what is happening to their country.
Grylls, in the middle of the national identity crisis which seems to have engulfed the post-Brexit country, is the face of a new, very British campaign that promotes volunteering. The three-day celebrations of King Charles' coronation in May are linked to the "Big Help Out".Volunteering is a British tradition. It is part of the creed to keep calm and carry on, so it is important to get your hands dirty. This is why British and more specifically English people love street parties and fetes, which will be abundant when Charles is coronated.
Grylls, who wore a thin handlebar moustache which made him look like a semi-skimmed Tom Selleck, was constantly on the radar of national media last week, seeking publicity to help get the Big Help Out off its feet. He spoke with solid horse sense, which may have more relevance in modern, wobbling, unhappy Britain.
Grylls said that volunteering, which has been declining since the pandemics, "defines the country." "It changes lives, both for the people it helps, but also for the volunteers themselves," Grylls said. He quoted Camilla, the queen consort, who declared volunteers the "backbone" to Britain." How can we overcome the frightening things? We move forward, not backwards. Volunteering makes us happier, stronger, and more connected. Grylls said that the more we volunteer, the more confident and better our community will be.
So, on May 8th, Monday after the coronation bank holiday, people from across the country will sign up for the Big Help Out to volunteer in their communities. Hundreds of thousands could pick up litter, check on their elderly neighbors, provide assistance to the poor, and do anything else that is necessary for the common good.
It is easy to see why volunteering is so appealing for British citizens. They can grasp onto a fine quality that is closely linked to their national self-identity. This is a comforting quality in a time when many other British national institutions or shibboleths seem fragile.
The National Health Service, a state institution that is beloved by the public and has genuine bipartisan support, is currently in serious crisis. A staggering 93-minute wait for an ambulance to arrive at a victim of a heart attack is the average wait time. Unbeknownst to Irish ears, the government has started to point to the Republic to show how a health system could be funded at delivery.
Another sign of national anger is the strike action in almost all aspects of British public services. Teachers will be joined by nurses, train drivers, ambulance drivers, and a host of civil servants who will strike on Wednesday.
Britain's economy is among the worst performing in the West and is expected to shrink in 2023. Although Britain is known for its aristocracy, its precarious status is more prominent at the moment. More than 2,500 food banks are currently operating in the country.
People close to the British ministry for defence have leaked that US army generals said last week that they no longer consider Britain a "top-level combat force". The story not only increased the budget leverage of defence officials, but also eroded another British value, namely the nation's confidence that it can spread its influence overseas.
Add to this the death last September of Queen Elizabeth. She was a figurehead for stoic British values throughout her 70-year tenure on the throne. In recent months, her absence as a figurehead has contributed to a feeling of a nation that is ever-so slightly unmoored from its senses of self.
The coronation and coronation of Charles may be a chance for Britons, or at least its majority, to regain their sense of national identity that has been so severely eroded in recent years. Grylls' volunteering initiative will allow them to do this in a very personal, tangible way.