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

Share

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

Recruitment Genius: Operations Manager

£30000 - £35000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: An exciting opportunity to join...

Recruitment Genius: Recruitment Consultant

£30000 - £35000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: We have an excellent role for a...

Recruitment Genius: IT Support Analyst - Bristol

Negotiable: Recruitment Genius: An IT Support Analyst is required to join the ...

Austen Lloyd: Senior Private Client Solicitor

Excellent Salary: Austen Lloyd: SURREY - An outstanding high level opportunity...

Day In a Page

Read Next
 

For once, Kerry Katona had the right idea

Dom Joly
Should parents be allowed to take pictures at nativity plays?  

Ghosts of Christmas past: What effect could posting pictures of nativity plays have on the next generation?

Ellen E Jones
The week Hollywood got scared and had to grow up a bit

The week Hollywood got scared and had to grow up a bit

Sony suffered a chorus of disapproval after it withdrew 'The Interview', but it's not too late for it to take a stand, says Joan Smith
From Widow Twankey to Mother Goose, how do the men who play panto dames get themselves ready for the performance of a lifetime?

Panto dames: before and after

From Widow Twankey to Mother Goose, how do the men who play panto dames get themselves ready for the performance of a lifetime?
Thirties murder mystery novel is surprise runaway Christmas hit

Thirties murder mystery novel is surprise runaway Christmas hit

Booksellers say readers are turning away from dark modern thrillers and back to the golden age of crime writing
Anne-Marie Huby: 'Charities deserve the best,' says founder of JustGiving

Anne-Marie Huby: 'Charities deserve the best'

Ten million of us have used the JustGiving website to donate to good causes. Its co-founder says that being dynamic is as important as being kind
The botanist who hunts for giant trees at Kew Gardens

The man who hunts giants

A Kew Gardens botanist has found 25 new large tree species - and he's sure there are more out there
The 12 ways of Christmas: Spare a thought for those who will be working to keep others safe during the festive season

The 12 ways of Christmas

We speak to a dozen people who will be working to keep others safe, happy and healthy over the holidays
Birdwatching men have a lot in common with their feathered friends, new study shows

The male exhibits strange behaviour

A new study shows that birdwatching men have a lot in common with their feathered friends...
Diaries of Evelyn Waugh, Virginia Woolf and Noël Coward reveal how they coped with the December blues

Famous diaries: Christmas week in history

Noël Coward parties into the night, Alan Clark bemoans the cost of servants, Evelyn Waugh ponders his drinking…
From noble to narky, the fall of the open letter

From noble to narky, the fall of the open letter

The great tradition of St Paul and Zola reached its nadir with a hungry worker's rant to Russell Brand, says DJ Taylor
A Christmas ghost story by Alison Moore: A prodigal daughter has a breakthrough

A Christmas ghost story by Alison Moore

The story was published earlier this month in 'Poor Souls' Light: Seven Curious Tales'
Marian Keyes: The author on her pre-approved Christmas, true love's parking implications and living in the moment

Marian Keyes

The author on her pre-approved Christmas, true love's parking implications and living in the moment
Bill Granger recipes: Our chef creates an Italian-inspired fish feast for Christmas Eve

Bill Granger's Christmas Eve fish feast

Bill's Italian friends introduced him to the Roman Catholic custom of a lavish fish supper on Christmas Eve. Here, he gives the tradition his own spin…
Liverpool vs Arsenal: Brendan Rodgers is fighting for his reputation

Rodgers fights for his reputation

Liverpool manager tries to stay on his feet despite waves of criticism
Amir Khan: 'The Taliban can threaten me but I must speak out... innocent kids, killed over nothing. It’s sick in the mind'

Amir Khan attacks the Taliban

'They can threaten me but I must speak out... innocent kids, killed over nothing. It’s sick in the mind'
Michael Calvin: Sepp Blatter is my man of the year in sport. Bring on 2015, quick

Michael Calvin's Last Word

Sepp Blatter is my man of the year in sport. Bring on 2015, quick