Mark Steel: So which British values should we teach our kids?

The idea of a constant Britishness is nonsense, which is why it has to be fabricated
Click to follow
The Independent Online

This idea that's been proposed, of teaching "core British values" to kids from the age of 11, could be hugely popular, especially with the kids themselves. Because if teachers are to reward true British behaviour, they'll snarl to the class, "Tyrone here still hasn't handed in his homework, and it's now 18 months late. Excellent! He had the initiative to sub-contract it out to Multiplex Ltd, and they've no idea when it might be ready. Well done for a truly British piece of work."

Lessons in Britishness will begin with the tradition of the class standing as the teacher enters the room. Except instead of mumbling, "Good afternoon, Sir," they'll have to wave both arms above their heads and yell "Wanker, wanker" at him. Foreign students will get reports that read, "Mohammed has tried hard this term and his stomach has got much fatter, but he still finds it difficult to get it sunburned and pat it violently while grunting outside a pub in summer. I recommend he comes on the day trip to France to learn how to piss in a foreign fountain."

Language teachers will be sending parents a note to say, "Sadly, Joshua has been moved into the bottom group as he shows far too much interest in learning Spanish." The Britishness course will include French lessons, with a tape that begins, "Listen and repeat these phrases - 'What's the point in learning bleeding French?' - and remember the emphasis on bleed-ing."

Once the lessons in British values are really working, even the French kids will be taught to forget their own language. If they go back to Paris, they'll tap strangers on the shoulder and say "Oy, mate, is there a cashpoint round here. Oh, for Christ's sake a cashpoint, you know - cashpoint."

One of the values deemed most British by advocates of these new lessons is "tolerance". So you would assume that the more British someone claims to be, the more tolerant they are. But is that right? That should mean the blokes who cover themselves and their cars with Union Jacks and bulldogs shout, "I'm British and proud of it. That's why, when I saw those gypsies on the common, in their caravans, I've gone up to them and gone, 'Oy, don't stay here. Come round my house and I'll put you all up in my garden.' 'Cos I'm British and tolerant."

The liberal argument for teaching British values can be quite perplexing. For example, it's suggested that it was because of those values that we abolished slavery. Maybe, but we were only able to abolish it because we were doing it in the first place. By that reckoning, if Harold Shipman had stopped killing his patients after about 30 years, he would have been hailed as the heroic doctor who abolished murdering grannies.

Perhaps a better way of presenting slavery as positive would be to say that the English carried it out politely. French slave traders would shove their captives about with a Gallic shrug, but if one of our slaves was dying of exhaustion we'd say "Yes, it is frightfully warm for the time of year." And we always took a break from whipping for afternoon tea.

Other core values that may be taught in this new course are democracy and justice, but are they really British? It's true that one of the first arguments for modern democracy came from the Levellers, the radicals in the English Civil War. But it's also true they were despised by the King and crushed by Cromwell, who were, I think, British.

The first book to reach a mass audience by proposing democracy and a welfare state was Rights of Man by the British Tom Paine. But just as British were the authorities who banned the book, arrested his followers, and refused the vote for what they called the "swinish multitude".

So British values depend on what sort of British you are. And in any case, Britain and the values in it are constantly changing. For example, modern youthful language is derided as a disgrace, but language revered as "proper" was once deemed uncouth. A teacher from the 16th century would say, "No wonder the country's fallen apart, no one says 'forsooth' any more." And in a hundred years time there'll be letters in The Daily Telegraph that begin "Dear Sir: Dese days no one check for grammar, like when you last hear a bruv say 'mash it up', you get me blood. Yours sincerely init, Sir Bottomley-Huntsworthy."

The idea of a constant Britishness is nonsense, which is why it has to be fabricated, as if there's a link between the behaviour of Stephen Gerrard and Alfred the Great. Maybe the lessons will tell us that when the Druids dragged the stones to Stonehenge they were told, "Thank you kind sir. Now here's a pound, not a euro or a peseta but a pound."

Or perhaps they'll explain that each block of stones is a giant wicket, used in early Test Matches, and they obviously had to be much bigger because it was a long time ago when there were dinosaurs, who we sometimes allowed to play because we were so tolerant.

Then the school day will end with a games lesson, in which the kids are taught yet more British values. And Nathan will be told, "I'm very disappointed with your penalties. Now let's try again, but this time, roll the first one gently up to the goalkeeper, hit the second against the science block window, and whack the third over the bike shed, then blame a wobbly penalty spot."