Leading article: Citizenship, schools and the imposition of national values


How come such an ugly and ill-defined word as Britishness has come to occupy such a central place in ministerial thinking? The Chancellor, Gordon Brown, has been harping on about Britishness for more than a year now. David Blunkett was very partial to the concept, introducing the citizenship test when he was at the Home Office. And yesterday it was the turn of the Education Secretary, Alan Johnson. He accepted the findings of a review by Sir Keith Ajegbo, recommending that "understanding core British values" should be at the heart of a new school history syllabus.

In a BBC radio interview, Mr Johnson elaborated. Schools, he said, needed to find time in the curriculum to teach "values we hold very dear in Britain: free speech, tolerance, respect for the rule of law". Of course, such values are fundamental to the way this country functions. They must not be eroded by anyone - and that includes a government that sees civil rights as fair game in the quest for national security. But are such amorphous values really the exclusive hallmarks of Britishness? Do they not distinguish any civilised democracy?

The truth is that Britishness is an artificial concept that has developed in response to disparate needs and means different things to different people. The Chancellor's fondness for Britishness is of a piece with his support for England during last summer's World Cup. Mr Brown fears that his Scottishness could be an electoral liability. His appeal to Britishness is a call for national solidarity and a reflection of political insecurity.

That his nationality is now an issue reflects, in part, the mood that gave rise to devolution and the knock-on effect of Scottish and Welsh devolution on England. The greater assertiveness of Scotland and Wales has encouraged the English to express their national identity. The way England sports supporters have transferred their allegiance from the Union flag to the St George's flag in the space of a decade is testimony to the change of mood. Symbols count.

The rise in English national sentiment is another factor in the official promotion of Britishness. English national consciousness, while mostly benign, has offshoots that are plain xenophobic. In any case, there are many people living in Britain today whose roots lie outside the country. The hyphenated identities borne with pride by Americans have not become entrenched here. The term British - which expresses citizenship rather than nationality or ethnicity - offers a solution.

The trouble with Britishness is that it attempts to go beyond the fact of citizenship to values. The move was, in part, a response to the 2001 Cantle report, that warned of creeping segregation in parts of Britain. It was spurred on by the London bombings, seen by some as proof that young Muslims were dangerously alienated from society's mainstream. The Ajegbo report was commissioned in the wake of 7 July, 2005. We question, though, whether a nation's values can be inculcated by a school syllabus. Are they not generated by the political and social climate that prevails, and are they not, in truth, constantly evolving? Promoting one set of values is mighty difficult if they are not the values that school pupils, their teachers and local communities perceive all around them every day.

Rather than hot air about supposed British values, we would be satisfied with a ministerial undertaking that every child who passes through a British school will leave with a rounded knowledge of history, together with a thorough understanding of Britain's institutions that would equip young adults to play a full role in society. It is unfortunate that it has taken the confluence of so many different factors to achieve something so fundamental - and that it has to be cloaked in the nebulous concept of "Britishness".

React Now

Latest stories from i100
iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Guru Careers: Software Developer / C# Developer

£40-50K: Guru Careers: We are seeking an experienced Software / C# Developer w...

Guru Careers: Software Developer

£35 - 40k + Benefits: Guru Careers: We are seeking a Software Developer (JavaS...

SThree: Trainee Recruitment Consultant / Resourcer

£18000 - £23000 per annum + Commission: SThree: As a Trainee Recruitment Consu...

Ashdown Group: UI Developer - (UI, HTML, CSS, JavaScript, AngularJS)

£25000 - £40000 per annum: Ashdown Group: UI Developer - (UI, JavaScript, HTML...

Day In a Page

Read Next
New SNP MP Mhairi Black distinguished herself in Westminster straight away when she made herself a chip butty in the canteen  

The SNP adventure arrives in Westminister - but how long before these new MPs go native?

Katy Guest
The Public Accounts Committee found widespread concern among civil servants that they would be victimised if they spoke out about wrongdoing  

Nikileaks explained: The sad thing about the Nicola Sturgeon saga is that it makes leaks less likely

Jane Merrick
Sun, sex and an anthropological study: One British academic's summer of hell in Magaluf

Sun, sex and an anthropological study

One academic’s summer of hell in Magaluf
From Shakespeare to Rising Damp... to Vicious

Frances de la Tour's 50-year triumph

'Rising Damp' brought De la Tour such recognition that she could be forgiven if she'd never been able to move on. But at 70, she continues to flourish - and to beguile
'That Whitsun, I was late getting away...'

Ian McMillan on the Whitsun Weddings

This weekend is Whitsun, and while the festival may no longer resonate, Larkin's best-loved poem, lives on - along with the train journey at the heart of it
Kathryn Williams explores the works and influences of Sylvia Plath in a new light

Songs from the bell jar

Kathryn Williams explores the works and influences of Sylvia Plath
How one man's day in high heels showed him that Cannes must change its 'no flats' policy

One man's day in high heels

...showed him that Cannes must change its 'flats' policy
Is a quiet crusade to reform executive pay bearing fruit?

Is a quiet crusade to reform executive pay bearing fruit?

Dominic Rossi of Fidelity says his pressure on business to control rewards is working. But why aren’t other fund managers helping?
The King David Hotel gives precious work to Palestinians - unless peace talks are on

King David Hotel: Palestinians not included

The King David is special to Jerusalem. Nick Kochan checked in and discovered it has some special arrangements, too
More people moving from Australia to New Zealand than in the other direction for first time in 24 years

End of the Aussie brain drain

More people moving from Australia to New Zealand than in the other direction for first time in 24 years
Meditation is touted as a cure for mental instability but can it actually be bad for you?

Can meditation be bad for you?

Researching a mass murder, Dr Miguel Farias discovered that, far from bringing inner peace, meditation can leave devotees in pieces
Eurovision 2015: Australians will be cheering on their first-ever entrant this Saturday

Australia's first-ever Eurovision entrant

Australia, a nation of kitsch-worshippers, has always loved the Eurovision Song Contest. Maggie Alderson says it'll fit in fine
Letterman's final Late Show: Laughter, but no tears, as David takes his bow after 33 years

Laughter, but no tears, as Letterman takes his bow after 33 years

Veteran talkshow host steps down to plaudits from four presidents
Ivor Novello Awards 2015: Hozier wins with anti-Catholic song 'Take Me To Church' as John Whittingdale leads praise for Black Sabbath

Hozier's 'blasphemous' song takes Novello award

Singer joins Ed Sheeran and Clean Bandit in celebration of the best in British and Irish music
Tequila gold rush: The spirit has gone from a cheap shot to a multi-billion pound product

Join the tequila gold rush

The spirit has gone from a cheap shot to a multi-billion pound product
12 best statement wallpapers

12 best statement wallpapers

Make an impact and transform a room with a conversation-starting pattern
Paul Scholes column: Does David De Gea really want to leave Manchester United to fight it out for the No 1 spot at Real Madrid?

Paul Scholes column

Does David De Gea really want to leave Manchester United to fight it out for the No 1 spot at Real Madrid?