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The double edge of British values

Woman with covered head and child with union jack I think there is evidence sufficient to justify an inquiry into the alleged infiltration of several Birmingham schools. It might be The Telegraph, but Andrew Gilligan makes a compelling case. All that matters now is that investigations proceed in due course. It is entirely unhelpful and downright opportunist for various papers and the Tories to scrabble for lurid headlines and knee jerk policy announcements, none of which has anything to do with the rise of UKIP and the need to shore up one’s core vote.

While I’m not going to write about the Trojan Horse allegations as such (if only more people kept schtum about things which they know little), our beloved Prime Minister has said something interesting for once. As our Secretary of State for Education has demanded schools teach something called ‘British values’, Dave has had a stab at defining this most vexatious and slippery of terms.

I would say freedom, tolerance, respect for the rule of law, belief in personal and social responsibility and respect for British institutions – those are the sorts of things that I would hope would be inculcated into the curriculum in any school in Britain whether it was a private school, state school, faith-based school, free school, academy or anything else.

All very common denominator stuff. All that’s missing is fair play, afternoon tea and cricket. No, to give Dave his dues, this is pretty much what anyone would come up with. You might easily suppose a Pole might say the same about Polishness, a Frenchwoman about Frenchness, and so on. But such is the conceit of each and every national identity.

The one bit I’m going to latch on to is this “respect for British institutions“. What does this mean? Knowing Dave and how desperate the Conservatives are, this is a clause allowing them to label certain things as un-British. So, someone like me, a life-long republican, is by default ‘un-British’ because I do not “respect” the absurd pomp and anti-democratic reserve powers of the monarchy. You can say the same for anyone favouring progressive and socialist policies.

Respect, however, is super slippery. It wouldn’t take much to describe everyone who doesn’t vote, or has criticised Parliament as a sack of shit as un-British. Or those many millions of motorists who didn’t “show respect” to the British car industry and went for something sleek and foreign instead. Or even those Londoners who’ve downloaded Uber, do they not “respect” the “institution” of the cockney cabbie and their hallowed knowledge?

Everyday folk are un-British, by Dave’s definition. Yet even more damning than that is the Conservative Party itself, an organisation that has time and again set itself against the institutions Britain has built up over generations. Let’s just keep to the last four years. Say what you like, but I don’t think flogging off Royal Mail to the government’s city mates on the cheap is the best of British values, let alone respecting a well-loved facet of national life. Speaking of which, there’s the NHS too. Since 2010, the NHS has effectively ceased to exist as an entity. What we have instead is a market of state-owned and private health providers competing for the tax payer dollar to provide free (mostly) at the point of need healthcare. This has driven bureaucracy up along with waiting times. Is that “respect for a British institution”?

National identity is a slippery subject, and in this instance it can be turned as a political weapon against near absolutely everyone. If we want to turn this potent brew of ideas, nostrums and sentiments against the Tories, we have to actively fight for it.

This article first appeared at All that is Solid


  1. Dave Roberts says:

    Does this also apply to Seamus Milne in the Guardian.

  2. Robert says:

    Listen to one governor at the school we must segregate children boys from girls because our faith says so. What about teachers dress women must wear the right clothes because our faith says so.

    The faith is telling the children that you cannot sit with each other well I went to an RC school that was split boys and girls, but we could mix in the ha;ll but then went to separate lesson it ended in 1964 .

    But to tell teachers you must wear the Burka is way beyond being correct no matter what the faith says because we do not live in a society like that. men and women are equal and men saying it’s our faith sorry

  3. Gerry says:

    OK article, but the “British values” idea has come way too late..the fundamentalist genie is well and truly out of the bottle not just in UK schools but across the world: turn on the news and see its shameless display in Iraq, Nigeria, Syria, Uganda, Egypt, Libya, India, Brunei: in fact every country on the planet hosts a massive and ever more powerful (and violent) fundamentalist movement, usually Islamic but also Hindu, Buddhist or Christian!

    Unlike in France, with its great republican and secular heritage, in the UK fundamentalist parents, teachers and governors see nothing wrong in turning nominally secular schools into the equivalent of madrassas, with gender segregation, calls to prayer in the playground, and “faith” (usually of the ultra-conservative Islamic variety) centre stage in every aspect of school life. They have largely won this ideological battle, certainly within Muslim communities in the UK.

    The only way to prevent all this would have been to follow the French model of civil society but it is just not possible in the UK to ever reverse this resurgence: back to the future it is….

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