Beware the politician who thinks a debate about ‘British values’ is the way to voters’ hearts

They don’t want to encourage such dissent, this fundamental enacting of Britishness


Here we go round the mulberry bush repeating the same old verses – fine when you are a three-year-old, but really not for a PM. Margaret Thatcher, Tony Blair and Gordon Brown crusaded for “British values”, and now David Cameron does the same, prompted, I suspect, by the looming Scottish referendum and the disquieting “Trojan Horse” confrontation.

The crisis at some Birmingham schools must be dealt with fairly and robustly. Academies and free schools give parents and governors too much power, and this is the result. The fanatically ideological and thoroughly incompetent Michael Gove created this mess. But, as ever, when in trouble of their own making, British politicians either blame immigrants or evoke Britishness, as if it is a magic spell that will get voters to love them again. It always turns out to be a hex.

Last week, once again, Britishness was talked up by some, knocked about by others and mocked by many. Watch Huffington Post’s Mehdi Hasan speaking for one minute on this – droll, wry and very British. Some nations push patriotism so relentlessly that it becomes oppressive and enforces conformism. I was on Sky News with the Telegraph journalist Andrew Gilligan, who believes we should emulate America’s brand of flag-waving, unexamined patriotism. I really can’t see that happening.

Contrariness is what I most admire about my fellow Brits, plus their instinctive scepticism and questioning of authority, which comes out of a particular history. Of course, the state and establishment know that everyday nonconformity diverts actual revolutionary movements or resistance. At a time of purposely engineered poverty and inequality, even the poor worship the royals and blame fellow citizens rather than their rulers. Yet, still, having lived under the controlling, undemocratic British Empire, one of my biggest and best surprises was to come and settle in this mischievous, quirky and open motherland.

The critical mind and voice should indeed be promoted among the young of all backgrounds. And personal autonomy, too. I was on the advisory group led by Sir Bernard Crick that, after much deliberation, introduced the citizenship curriculum in schools. Children were taught binding values, rights and responsibilities, and it proved a good way to create a sense of common purpose and emphasise commonalities between various peoples of the UK. Taught properly, pupils are enabled to question governmental obsessions, the economic system, ruling elites, each other’s faiths or cultures, and spun histories. Although Gove declared his support for this education in 2013, teachers tell me it is withering on the vine, pushed out by other core subjects.

Politicians don’t want to encourage such dissent, this fundamental enacting of Britishness. Remember the draconian policing of student marches against university fee rises, and UK Uncut and trade union demos. And now Boris Johnson wants water cannon to be part of the arsenal against legitimate protests. Nothing about this is simple.

We should take proper pride in our arts and writers and the beautiful, most amazing language that everyone in the world wants to learn. However, many of the qualities that Cameron listed as British are global. We didn’t invent democracy and, when barely 35 per cent of people turn out to vote here, South Africa can be counted more democratic than us. The rule of law? It’s a universal desire. So, too, a craving for personal and political liberty. Tolerance cannot be owned by any one country, and this latest attempt by British politicians to claim it sounds terribly like propaganda when racism is, once more, stalking us people of colour and migrants.

Whose Britishness shall be deemed exemplary? Those proud brutes Rod Liddle and Richard Littlejohn? Shall we put on to the curriculum their nasty new books, lamenting the white, superior, sexist nation they grew up in? Or do we go for Danny Boyle and Suzanne Moore’s inclusive and ever-transforming, kaleidoscopic Britishness? Then there is Alan Bennett’s lovely, kind, left version. And Shami Chakrabarti’s, based on principles and powerful historical moments when liberty was enshrined in law. You could lock Simon Jenkins, Nigel Farage, Helena Kennedy and Lenny Henry in a castle for a month and still they would not agree on the defining characteristics of our nationhood.

If getting drunk is a typically British thing to do, I want no part of it. Hating incomers seems to be a British pastime. Sorry, can’t join in. And don’t expect me to despise those on benefits either. The Empire was not glorious for the ruled, and you can’t make us celebrate such a complex history. Britain holds itself up as a beacon of human rights and freedoms, but duplicitously undercuts all our basic rights and freedoms. We surely cannot exult Magna Carta when we now have secret courts, the state spying on us all and withholding information from us.

In 2007, when we went through another episode of evangelical, revivalist Britishness, an establishment newspaper asked its readers for a single sentence that defined it. The winning entry was this: “No motto, please, we’re British”. And no enforced patriotism either. Do we want to be like the French?

Time may still be on Jagger’s side, but has it taught him nothing?

Many of us after the age of 50 like dressing and behaving younger than we are. We have, in the past two decades, been freed from those lifeless beige cardies, enforced retirement, and a life of waiting for the children to show up and, eventually, death. I buy clothes from Zara, work all hours, love to dance and sing pop songs as I cook, and feel more alive than I did when I was in my forties. But there are limits to how young we can pretend to be without making asses of ourselves.

Mick Jagger, a man of huge talent and energy, needs to learn that lesson. L’Wren Scott, his partner of many years, killed herself in March. Much too soon, even for a pop star, he has apparently thrown himself into the arms of Melanie Hamrick, a 27-year-old ballerina. At an after-film party last year, he gave me a peck on my cheek, which burned for a long time after. But we now can see that he is shallow, and has no emotional intelligence at all. He should have respected his dead lover and waited a little longer. And thought about how his children would feel to see him with a woman young enough to be his granddaughter. Age has not made him wise and a youthful paramour will not make him younger. Pathetic really.

React Now

  • Get to the point
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Recruitment Genius: Sales Manager

£35000 - £45000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This is a unique opportunity to...

Recruitment Genius: Trainee Manager - Production

Negotiable: Recruitment Genius: Trainee Managers are required to join the UK's...

Recruitment Genius: Telesales Manager

£25000 - £35000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: You will maximise the effective...

SThree: Trainee Recruitment Consultant

£20000 - £25000 per annum + uncapped commission : SThree: Hello! I know most ...

Day In a Page

Read Next
A picture posted by Lubitz to Facebook in February 2013  

Andreas Lubitz: Knee-jerk reaction to 9/11 enabled mass murder

Simon Calder
The Archbishop of Canterbury, the Most Rev Justin Welby, presides at the reinterment of Richard III yesterday  

Richard III: We Leicester folk have one question: how much did it all cost?

Sean O’Grady
The saffron censorship that governs India: Why national pride and religious sentiment trump freedom of expression

The saffron censorship that governs India

Zareer Masani reveals why national pride and religious sentiment trump freedom of expression
Prince Charles' 'black spider' letters to be published 'within weeks'

Prince Charles' 'black spider' letters to be published 'within weeks'

Supreme Court rules Dominic Grieve's ministerial veto was invalid
Distressed Zayn Malik fans are cutting themselves - how did fandom get so dark?

How did fandom get so dark?

Grief over Zayn Malik's exit from One Direction seemed amusing until stories of mass 'cutting' emerged. Experts tell Gillian Orr the distress is real, and the girls need support
The galaxy collisions that shed light on unseen parallel Universe

The cosmic collisions that have shed light on unseen parallel Universe

Dark matter study gives scientists insight into mystery of space
The Swedes are adding a gender-neutral pronoun to their dictionary

Swedes introduce gender-neutral pronoun

Why, asks Simon Usborne, must English still struggle awkwardly with the likes of 's/he' and 'they'?
Disney's mega money-making formula: 'Human' remakes of cartoon classics are part of a lucrative, long-term creative plan

Disney's mega money-making formula

'Human' remakes of cartoon classics are part of a lucrative, long-term creative plan
Lobster has gone mainstream with supermarket bargains for £10 or less - but is it any good?

Lobster has gone mainstream

Anthea Gerrie, raised on meaty specimens from the waters around Maine, reveals how to cook up an affordable feast
Easter 2015: 14 best decorations

14 best Easter decorations

Get into the Easter spirit with our pick of accessories, ornaments and tableware
Paul Scholes column: Gareth Bale would be a perfect fit at Manchester United and could turn them into serious title contenders next season

Paul Scholes column

Gareth Bale would be a perfect fit at Manchester United and could turn them into serious title contenders next season
Inside the Kansas greenhouses where Monsanto is 'playing God' with the future of the planet

The future of GM

The greenhouses where Monsanto 'plays God' with the future of the planet
Britain's mild winters could be numbered: why global warming is leaving UK chillier

Britain's mild winters could be numbered

Gulf Stream is slowing down faster than ever, scientists say
Government gives £250,000 to Independent appeal

Government gives £250,000 to Independent appeal

Donation brings total raised by Homeless Veterans campaign to at least £1.25m
Oh dear, the most borrowed book at Bank of England library doesn't inspire confidence

The most borrowed book at Bank of England library? Oh dear

The book's fifth edition is used for Edexcel exams
Cowslips vs honeysuckle: The hunt for the UK’s favourite wildflower

Cowslips vs honeysuckle

It's the hunt for UK’s favourite wildflower
Child abuse scandal: Did a botched blackmail attempt by South African intelligence help Cyril Smith escape justice?

Did a botched blackmail attempt help Cyril Smith escape justice?

A fresh twist reveals the Liberal MP was targeted by the notorious South African intelligence agency Boss