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".