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

Ashdown Group: Technical Presales Consultant - London - £65,000 OTE.

£65000 per annum: Ashdown Group: Technical Presales Engineer - central London ...

Recruitment Genius: Physiotherapist / Sports Therapist

£20000 - £50000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: A Physiotherapist / Sports Ther...

Recruitment Genius: Sales Executive / Advisor

£8 - £9 per hour: Recruitment Genius: Sales Executives / Advisors are required...

Recruitment Genius: Warehouse Operative

£14000 - £15000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: An opportunity has arisen for a...

Day In a Page

Read Next
Isis fighters have set fire to oil wells northeast of the city to obstruct the assault  

Iraq has begun its campaign to rid itself of Isis — and it must go all out

Ranj Alaaldin
Women are less likely to become scientists and engineers  

International Women's Day: How much could be achieved if we scrapped the idea of 'male' jobs?

Anne Richards
Homeless Veterans campaign: Donations hit record-breaking £1m target after £300,000 gift from Lloyds Bank

Homeless Veterans campaign

Donations hit record-breaking £1m target after huge gift from Lloyds Bank
Flight MH370 a year on: Lost without a trace – but the search goes on

Lost without a trace

But, a year on, the search continues for Flight MH370
Germany's spymasters left red-faced after thieves break into brand new secret service HQ and steal taps

Germany's spy HQ springs a leak

Thieves break into new €1.5bn complex... to steal taps
International Women's Day 2015: Celebrating the whirlwind wit of Simone de Beauvoir

Whirlwind wit of Simone de Beauvoir

Simone de Beauvoir's seminal feminist polemic, 'The Second Sex', has been published in short-form for International Women's Day
Mark Zuckerberg’s hiring policy might suit him – but it wouldn’t work for me

Mark Zuckerberg’s hiring policy might suit him – but it wouldn’t work for me

Why would I want to employ someone I’d be happy to have as my boss, asks Simon Kelner
Confessions of a planespotter: With three Britons under arrest in the UAE, the perils have never been more apparent

Confessions of a planespotter

With three Britons under arrest in the UAE, the perils have never been more apparent. Sam Masters explains the appeal
Russia's gulag museum 'makes no mention' of Stalin's atrocities

Russia's gulag museum

Ministry of Culture-run site 'makes no mention' of Stalin's atrocities
The big fresh food con: Alarming truth behind the chocolate muffin that won't decay

The big fresh food con

Joanna Blythman reveals the alarming truth behind the chocolate muffin that won't decay
Virginia Ironside was my landlady: What is it like to live with an agony aunt on call 24/7?

Virginia Ironside was my landlady

Tim Willis reveals what it's like to live with an agony aunt on call 24/7
Paris Fashion Week 2015: The wit and wisdom of Manish Arora's exercise in high camp

Paris Fashion Week 2015

The wit and wisdom of Manish Arora's exercise in high camp
8 best workout DVDs

8 best workout DVDs

If your 'New Year new you' regime hasn’t lasted beyond February, why not try working out from home?
Paul Scholes column: I don't believe Jonny Evans was spitting at Papiss Cissé. It was a reflex. But what the Newcastle striker did next was horrible

Paul Scholes column

I don't believe Evans was spitting at Cissé. It was a reflex. But what the Newcastle striker did next was horrible
Miguel Layun interview: From the Azteca to Vicarage Road with a million followers

From the Azteca to Vicarage Road with a million followers

Miguel Layun is a star in Mexico where he was criticised for leaving to join Watford. But he says he sees the bigger picture
Frank Warren column: Amir Khan ready to meet winner of Floyd Mayweather v Manny Pacquiao

Khan ready to meet winner of Mayweather v Pacquiao

The Bolton fighter is unlikely to take on Kell Brook with two superstar opponents on the horizon, says Frank Warren
War with Isis: Iraq's government fights to win back Tikrit from militants - but then what?

Baghdad fights to win back Tikrit from Isis – but then what?

Patrick Cockburn reports from Kirkuk on a conflict which sectarianism has made intractable