Human existence is plagued with questions of such opacity that no amount of time and effort can penetrate them. Some are cosmological (what came before the Big Bang?) and some theological (who made God?), while other shrivelled old chestnuts lie at the weightier end of the inquisitive spectrum. What was Alf Ramsey thinking, in the 1970 World Cup quarter final, when he took Bobby Charlton off against West Germany? And if it truly is all about nature rather than nurture, as I have asked Profs Steve Jones and Richard Dawkins time and again without reply, how in the name of sanity did we go from Sigmund, via Clement, to Matthew Freud in only three generations?
Of all the myriad unanswerables that torment the curious mind, however, few feel as far out of reach as this. What, beyond possession of a passport, does it mean to be British? Or put another way, what precisely are “British values”? The question has been debated for decades in a variety of contexts, but if anyone ever offered a convincing reply it evaded me.
So it is with an uncontainable sense of excitement that we may at last anticipate the resolution of the riddle. The Education Secretary, Michael Gove, is presumably about to educate us. In a typically peremptory response to Ofsted’s report about the alleged “Trojan Horse” infiltration of Birmingham schools by Islamists, Govey has mandated the proselytising of “British values” in every primary and secondary school. Where until now it was a requirement that “British values” be respected, they will henceforth be actively promoted.
Well, it sounds splendid enough on first hearing, this notion of curtailing the spread of rigid religious orthodoxy with a little nattering about tolerance and decency and fair play, and whatever other shards of 1950s Boy’s Own idealism constitute “Britishness” in the minds of Mr Gove and his cabinet colleagues. Yet rigorous commitment to the truth will compel him to balance all the amorphous blethering with specific reference to what modern British values actually appear, on the hard evidence, to be.
As one of our most influential surviving neo-conservatives - a fervent supporter of the neo-colonial wars embarked on by his idol Mr Tony Blair - Govey regards the invasion of sovereign Muslim states, the destruction of their infrastructures and the slaughter of their civilians as a moral imperative – under the sanitising banner of collateral damage. Seldom bashful when it comes to conflating his personal beliefs with a curriculum, will he want post-imperial aggression in Muslim lands to be taught to Muslim students as a British value?
Mr Gove has spent these last four years eloquently defending the government drive to restrict welfare spending in response to the economic catastrophe. If this belief that it is the severely disabled who should pay the price for the sins of reckless, overprotected bankers is a British value, will a celebration of this reverse Robin Hoodery be chalked up on Birmingham blackboards? Will a picture of those spikes erected in the doorway of a plush London apartment block, to keep the homeless from resting there, feature in the British Values Primer, alongside photographs of vans driving through London suburbs bearing placards inviting immigrants to go home?
If one core British value has typified the last decade above all others, it is of course blanket faith in blanket surveillance. Rather than try to enthuse students about state-sponsored snooping on digital communications, the way to express this value and prepare children for adult life would be to put CCTV cameras and microphones in every classroom and playground.
Ultimately, in so far as the phrase means anything, the story of “British values” over the last 35 years is of how immaculately they have coalesced, politically and culturally, with American values. The primacy of individualism over collectivism, the supremacy of the barely tempered free market over responsible capitalism, the erosion of workers’ rights and exponential increase in the wealth of the wealthiest, greedy and corrupt politicians, and the torture or collusion in torture of those presumed to be innocent. Britain has gazed longingly across the Atlantic and been bedazzled by the very worst of the United States.
The very best of it, which inevitably has been blithely ignored, lies in the Constitution. The First Amendment not only guarantees freedom of speech and religion. By formally ring-fencing the state from religion, it effectively forbids prayer or any other form of religious partisanship in state schools. Even though none of the ‘Trojan Horse’ schools were faith-based, it is clear that importing the First Amendment is the simplest solution to this problem. If Mr Gove legislated to outlaw religious affiliation, whatever the religion, from state education, he would take a useful first step towards resolving the mystery by giving us one tangible British value to be proud of.
A Clinton and A Miliband, starring in…
With the studied politesse of a former Secretary of State, Hillary Clinton showers praise on every Brit she dealt with in Hard Choices, her memoir of her time as the planet’s most powerful diplomat.
Gordon Brown was “an intelligent and dogged Scotsman … When he hosted the G-20 meeting in April 2009, I could see the strain he was under.” Such percipience. He always seemed so chilled to the rest of us. David Cameron was “intellectually curious”, and William Hague “a thoughtful statesman with good sense and good humour. He also became a good friend.” Way to make Angelina dead jealous!
Yet she reserves her warmest and most sincere affections for David Miliband, who was Foreign Secretary when she took the job. “David proved to be an invaluable partner,” she breathlessly recalls. “He was young, energetic, smart, creative and attractive with a ready smile.” For years the relationship between them rang a faint bell, but only now can I place it. The nerdy, gauche young Jewish guy and the blonde, icily mature WASP … consciously or not, Hillary and the elder Milibandroid were playing out their version of The Graduate.
You have to doubt they replicated Benjamin and Mrs Robinson by taking a room, or that a traumatised David ever muttered: “Madam Secretary, are you trying to seduce me?” Even so, I’d strike a decent bet at even money that if and when Hills becomes President in 2017, she finds an advisory West Wing berth for the Benjamin Braddock of British political exiles.