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A National Treasure

Sapphira McBride responds to the newest member to join the ranks of Britain's national treasures, Captain Tom

Unless you have been living under a rock, you will be familiar with Captain Tom Moore, a 100-year-old who has raised over £30m for NHS Charities Together by completing 200 laps of his back garden. Almost more remarkable than the sum Captain Tom has managed to raise is the warm sentiments that he has generated.

Among the many declarations of admiration for the WWII veteran there have been enough birthday cards to fill a school hall, a Spitfire flypast, and now a knighthood. With all that recognition, it is safe to dub him a national treasure. You would be hard pressed to find anyone with a negative thing to say about him, which is surprising in a nation that tends to be divided on pretty much every issue. Captain Tom certainly is not the only one to fundraise amidst the Covid-19 crisis, so how, and why, did he win over the nation’s heart? 

The image of the elderly Captain Tom using a zimmer frame to complete his fundraising goal is an inspiring and endearing one. It restores our faith in the good nature of humanity and invokes a sense of resilience in the face of adversity. But Captain Tom does more than just symbolise hope in a time of sorrow, and this is where the power of his undisputed support lies. With his military background, and his fundraising specifically for the NHS, he has become an emblem of so-called British greatness.

Tajfel’s (1979) social identity theory suggests that our individual self esteem is affected by the status of our group memberships, and for many, national identity forms a huge part of this. We take pride in Captain Tom because at a time when Britain is undergoing huge societal changes and is being scrutinised for its handling of the pandemic, his efforts remind us what is supposedly great about Great Britain.

Captain Tom is more than a national treasure: his veteran status makes him a hero, and people need a hero to pin their hopes on now more than ever. Indeed, the discourse surrounding coronavirus is rife with war rhetoric, drawing a parallel between today’s NHS workers and the soldiers of WWII. But there is a danger in drawing these comparisons and pinning our hopes on these so-called heroes.

The NHS workers risking their lives just by doing their jobs are not heroes, but victims. To treat them as heroes imbues them with super-human status, ultimately dehumanising them and absolving us of guilt over their suffering. After all, potential death isn’t part of your typical NHS job description, but it is for a hero’s. This rhetoric creates a scapegoat for the government, as when we look to individuals to provide national security and health, we ignore the government-run institutions that they embody and the issues within them that need addressing. It is no wonder Downing Street has fed into the hero trope by commending Captain Tom, as this makes his fundraising seem like a brave attempt at defeating the enemy and distracts us from it really is: a damning testament to the disrepair of the NHS.

Captain Tom has helped to boost morale across the nation, and for that he should be commended. The public should be encouraged to hold onto sources of optimism in times like these, but we shouldn’t let them distract us from reality and blind us to our nation’s failings. ‘Heroes’ like Captain Tom or NHS workers alone will not get us through this pandemic. We need a collective effort to hold the government to account and to push for structural changes that continue long after this crisis is over and the pot of money from Captain Tom’s JustGiving page has run out.

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