UKLondon Letter

Volunteering key to British creed of keeping calm and carrying on

Big Help Out initiative for King Charles’s coronation may rekindle solid aspect of national identity in time of uncertainty

Celebrity adventurer Edward “Bear” Grylls personifies a particular type of British self-identity. The Eton-educated critter wrangler is equal parts dashing, fearless, eccentric but, most importantly, fair-minded. These are characteristics the British like to recognise in themselves. That is important at a time when some British people struggle to recognise what is happening with their own country.

It seems apt that in the midst of the national identity crisis that appears to have crept up on the post-Brexit nation, Grylls is the figurehead of a new, very British campaign to promote volunteering. The “Big Help Out” is linked to the three-day celebrations for the coronation of King Charles in May.

Volunteering is a great British tradition. Rolling up your sleeves to muck in is a cornerstone of the creed of keeping calm and carrying on. It helps to explain why British and, more specifically, English people are so enthusiastic about collective events such as fetes and street parties, which will abound when Charles is coronated.

Grylls, sporting a thin handlebar moustache that made him look like a semi-skimmed Tom Selleck, was all over national media last week seeking publicity to get the Big Help Out off the ground. He spoke solid horse sense that may also have wider relevance in modern, wobbling, unhappy Britain.


Volunteering, which is in decline since the pandemic, “defines the nation”, said Grylls. “It changes lives, not only of the people it helps but also of the volunteers themselves.” He quoted the queen consort, Camilla, who proclaims volunteers as the “backbone” of Britain.

Grylls acknowledged that volunteering often isn’t easy, but people sometimes need to take a gulp and push themselves. In a nation with as much strife as Britain, this kind of pep talk resonates.

“How do we overcome the scary things? We move forwards, not backwards. Volunteering makes us stronger, happier, more connected. The more we do it, the more confident we become and the better our community is as well,” said Grylls.

And so on May 8th, the Bank Holiday Monday following the coronation, people across this increasingly unsettled country will sign on for the Big Help Out and volunteer in their communities. Possibly hundreds of thousands will pick litter, check on elderly neighbours, deliver assistance to the vulnerable and do whatever else needs to be done for the common good.

It is easy to see the attraction of the volunteering initiative for British people. It is an opportunity for them to grasp tightly onto a fine quality that is closely associated with their national sense of self. This must be reassuring at a time when so many other British national institutions and shibboleths seem fragile.

The National Health Service, a state institution for which there is genuine bipartisan and public affection, is in a bona fide crisis. The average wait time for an ambulance for a suspected heart attack victim is a staggering 93 minutes. Bewilderingly to Irish ears, government voices have started to point to the Republic as a model for how a health service could be funded at point of delivery.

Another clear sign of the national angst is that almost every aspect of British public services faces strike action. Teachers go out on Wednesday, following nurses, train drivers, ambulance drivers and a raft of other civil servants.

Britain’s economy is one of the worst-performing in the western world and is forecast to be the only one among G7 nations that will shrink in 2023. Britain may be known for its aristocracy but its precariat is currently more prominent. There are now more than 2,500 food banks operating across the country.

Meanwhile, people close to the British ministry of defence last week leaked that US army generals say they no longer see Britain as a “top-level fighting force”. As well as boosting defence officials’ budget leverage, the story chipped away at another British value – the nation’s confidence in its ability to spread its influence abroad.

Add to all of this the loss last September of Queen Elizabeth, who for many personified stoic British values over her 70 years on the throne. Her absence as a figurehead has added in recent months to the feeling of a nation that has become ever-so-slightly unmoored from its sense of self.

The coronation of Charles is an event that may allow Britons – or, at least, its majority who support the monarchy – to reconnect with their sense of national identity, which has been so eroded in recent times. The volunteering initiative championed by Grylls will allow them to do it in a very tangible, personal way.