On British Values

There is so much to think about at the moment that it can be difficult to focus the train of thought enough to actually gain something meaningful from it. I was grateful, therefore, when SoS Education Lite – Nicky Morgan; once again pushed the agenda on teaching “British Values”.

As a researcher and teacher my first response to this is – define ‘British’ and ‘whose values, exactly’? This is no easy task because, like the issue of standards, we are objectifying something which is actually a Discourse, and a hugely contested one at that. As with most discourses, those who hold power and the ability to censor debate, such as politicians and the media, can give a view that certain ‘values’ (usually their own ones) are seen as common sense. This can lead to a hegemony of ideals which are apparent in the policies and behaviours of these institutions but which deny and hide or even suppress the oppositional voice. Discourses which oppose this hegemony are so important on social media to ensure that there is debate and not just blind acceptance of policy and presently, at least, the establishment can’t suppress this style of debate – but give it time…..

So define Britishness, then. Our current society is founded on a genetic, linguistic and cultural blend of Celtic, Roman, Germanic, Dutch, Scandinavian, Gaelic, French and, more recently, African, Caribbean, antipodean and Indo-Asian immigrants – alongside the ‘native’ Briton stock – if there is any left. Many of the societal ‘Elite’ who expound the discourse of anti-immigration and cultural pollution, owe their own heritage and position to these immigrants. Look at the impact the Normans ( no relation…well, possibly) had on distribution of land and power. The current Royal family and their myriad offshoots are rooted on a truly European heritage with a very Germanic base. This is not a bad thing, it provides our mongrel race with qualities that are envied around the world. Intelligence, humour and a toughness of character not clearly evident in our day to day dealings with the world, but which is clearly apparent when faced with adversity.

So if ‘Britishness’ is not simple to define, surely British values are? These will be the values we hold dear and strive as a nation to represent and live by. Many such values are entrenched in our Christianity-based legal frameworks and institutions – must be a doddle!

Not killing people is generally a shared ideal. Not stealing stuff fairly common outside some of our financial institutions ( many of which are about as British as Mrs Farage). A belief that justice should be available to all….err, hold on. Institutions of Justice are dominated by the social elite and appear to be far more accessible to those with money and power. More so since the coalition wrecked the legal aid framework. Not many normal Brits would believe access to justice is equal, even though they may agree with the ideal. Many may even argue the system is hugely discriminatory to those with less socioeconomic capital.

OK, well at least in our society we share the values of democracy with everyone being free to represent the views of their community. Certainly the opportunity is there. Anyone who can raise the deposit to be listed on the ballot can be elected. Of course, if you can’t afford it, well…. The Chances of election are massively improved by representing a political party. These are effectively lobby groups for opposing ideals and representative of different vested interests. They exist to ensure they continue to exist. So the passionate community minded hero who wants to stand for election is possible, but the majority of “representatives” are anything but. Professional politicians who are sponsored through PPE courses at Oxbridge and then shepherded into safe seats certainly don’t reflect my ideal of British democracy.

Let’s move on – how about our internationally recognised role as a leader in the rights and treatment of the working class, through the development of Unions and a political party founded on the principles of socialism, offering a counterweight to the forces of conservatism in our class ridden society? Good historical point – hard to promote when current parties of Government are working very hard to curtail those hard won rights, when more people are earning poverty wages or are on zero hour contracts and the supposed representative voice of the working class has moved so far to the right, the see saw of social values is swinging further and further into the territory of old style Conservatism. The Third Way was supposed to see a recognition on the left of the importance of The Market and marry it to socially democratic values. What it did was gentrify the Labour Party so far into neoliberal, middle class values, none of the party’s founders would recognise it. In reality our House Of Commons is a 3D, physical illustration of the opposing values that are tugging and pulling against each other every day – less so than before Blair, perhaps, but still proof that there are very few British Values that are universally Shared.

Surely we still share the value that freedom of speech and human rights are intrinsic to our “tolerant” society? Again, current parties of government are challenging these rights and demanding more power to work against privacy and freedom of speech in the interests of “National Security”. If we have learned one thing in recent years it is that new laws open to abuse will be abused by the establishment. As for Human rights more generally? This is the nation that invented the concentration camp and that more recently has been implicated in extraordinary rendition and possibly even torture. I’m not sure we can claim a moral high ground here and even if we disagree with the actions of our governments, we are accountable for electing them and are culpable for their actions.

Actually, I think as hugely multicultural societies go, ours does well compared to others, not perfect – but moving the right way. Despite this, tolerance isn’t a universally shared value. One copy of the Daily Mail proves that, if you can stomach reading it. Homophobia, xenophobia, a discourse of derision and suppression of those who are different or who fail to conform to Murdoch’s values, is more than evident. The growing support for UKIP shows how these ideals have been cultured and spread like value based bacteria. I suspect the critical mass still lies with the more tolerant, but if a large proportion of the moderate masses feel completely disenfranchised from politics and fail to exercise their right to vote (as they see no one who represents them or who they perceive as worthy of their vote), as a Nation we could sleepwalk into a more right wing and less tolerant future by default.

What about the value that education is an important right which should be open to all? Perhaps the core principle is shared by many, but equality of access regardless of socioeconomic background?! Grammar schools don’t do what they were supposed to. Free schools are doing the same. Selection automatically says you are not equal. Goodness, we don’t even agree on why education should be a shared value! For many it is a way for the individual to rise above the restrictions of upbringing to become socially mobile and access a better future. For others, it is to provide a steady, cheap source of labour to help reduce costs and investment in training, thus maximising profit and returns to investors. The two aren’t necessarily mutually exclusive, but neither are they harmoniously resonant.

I could keep going on entrepreneurialism, etc. Or, particularly, our strength as a nation in supporting the more needy and vulnerable? Is it a strength? How do I celebrate the fact we are willing to give generously to charity, even in hard times? That we are willing to help the poor with food donations and so on when elements of our society are getting richer at the expense of others? How do we promote the Big Society when those in power believe that poverty and failure in society are necessities in a neoliberal, market economy. That they care so little for the pain they cause and the growing gulf between the superrich and most vulnerable?

So, how do we teach “British values”? All I can do in my role is ask those in my charge to be understanding, compassionate, forgiving and caring. To think about their actions and be willing to accept the consequences for their choices. To know they can change the world even with one voice. To know they can make a difference to all our futures. To believe that they can be different, they can move beyond whatever holds them back in their lives – to be positive, despite all of the above.

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