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.

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