Friday, 20 June 2014

British values: hasn't the government forgotten the one that matters most?

The talk here in England has recently been all about “British values”.

This follows an alleged attempt 
 by fundamentalist Muslims to take over some schools in Birmingham. Nicknamed “Trojan Horse”, this plot may or may not have been happening. It’s quite hard to tell. All I know is that Ofsted, the body charged with inspecting schools, went in and found nothing, even handing out a couple of “outstanding” ratings; got told there were some nasty Islamists at work; went back in – and found just that.

Park View: officially "outstanding" last time,
"inadequate" now
Meanwhile, Michael Gove, Secretary of State for Education, responsible for schools, fell out with Theresa May, Home Secretary, responsible for security and combating terrorism. They took to bickering with each other in public about which of them had failed to expose the evildoing or to act against it adequately. They only stopped when David Cameron, Prime Minister which makes him their boss and the man whose job each of them covets, knocked their heads together and told them to behave.

If nothing else, the whole story confirms that there’s nothing like supreme professionalism and competence. And what this sorry crew displayed was nothing like either of them.

Now this A-team has come up with the appropriate response to the unsavoury individuals behind the plot. They’ve decreed that henceforth all English schools should promote British values. 

Inevitably, those cynics who run the press asked the party-pooper question: just what are British values? And equally inevitably we were quickly into a discussion in which fish and chips loomed large (a virtual amendment to the unwritten British constitution prescribes that the right of citizens to consume any desired quantity of fish and chips shall not be infringed).

Helpfully, Gove has now spelled out British values for us today. They are respect for the law, democracy, equality and tolerance of different faiths and religious and other beliefs.

It’s wonderful to be run by people who think these values are specifically British. Respect for the law? It occurs to me that one or two other nations may have thought of that one.

It’s also good to know the government believes such high standards are ingrained in the British psyche. Take democracy, for instance. Universal manhood suffrage, coupled with votes for women at 35, is still less than a century old; equal voting rights between the sexes came only ten years later.

Then there
’s equality. This government has been slashing benefits and tax credits for the poor – and taxes for the wealthiest. The top 1% of the population from the point of view of takings, between them collect 15% of national income – in other words, 15 times the national average. That shows a commitment to equality in much the same way as Vladimir Putin shows enthusiasm for open political debate.

And finally we have tolerance of other faiths and beliefs. Non-Anglican Protestants could run for Parliament in Britain only from 1828, Catholics from 1829, Jews from 1858. Homosexuality has been legal in Britain since 1967, gay marriage has been possible for just a couple of months.

Meanwhile, 2.7% of the British population is black; 14.6% of police stop and searches are on black people; 8% of arrests; and 13.7% of the prison population.

Anyone who thinks that these figures reflect the greater inclination of black people to commit crime is simply part of the problem.

Equality and tolerance? We’re a long way from them yet.

And that’s the point about most of these values. They’re not specifically British, and Britain doesn’t practice them all that well. Many of us would like to see the country aspire towards them, but given the huge increase in poverty under the present government, it’s hard to believe that Ministers share that view.

In any case, Michael Gove’s demand that schools teach British values is self-defeating. Because there’s one value that he’s forgotten about completely and, though it’s not exclusively British, it’s certainly deeply rooted in our culture.

We don’t want government telling us what we should believe.

Now there’s a value Gove would do well to re-learn. Funnily enough, it
’s something Conservatives always claim to believe in deeply. But perhaps they don’t mind so much if it’s them doing the telling. 

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