Tuesday, 10 June 2014
British Values and Michael Gove
Some twenty years ago (or maybe thirty - how time flies when you're retired) some politician was sounding off about how immigrants to Britain should adopt British values. Someone with a foreign-sounding name wrote to the Guardian asking exactly which British values he and his compatriots should adopt. Was it having the highest teenage pregnancy rate in Europe? Or putting their elderly relatives in homes and forgetting about them? Or maybe sending their sons to rampage around Europe in support of their football teams whilst getting plastered on lager and vomiting in the gutters?*
Yesterday, in response to the Education Secretary Michael Gove's demand that all schools should not only "respect" British values, but actually "promote" them, the Department of Education has issued up-to-date clarification. British values are: democracy, liberty and tolerance.
To claim that these values are uniquely, or even especially, British, is a ridiculous conceit. They are surely universal values, upheld at least in theory by every member of the European Union and espoused by the United Nations. Sadly, respect for human rights is curiously absent from Gove's list.
The values of my childhood and adolescence were largely gathered from middle-grade literature. I never took the Boys Own Paper but, like many of my contemporaries, voraciously consumed the Biggles adventures of W.E.Johns, the Scout and Sea Cadet stories of Percy F. Westerman, and of course the public school tales which appeared weekly in the Wizard and Hotspur. From these we learned that the clean- limbed British lad was expected to be modest, honest, have a penchant for the underdog, be a good sport and, of course, a good loser.
These values have been turned on their head. Rather than being modest, unassuming and mildly self-deprecating, our young people today are expected to shout about their achievements, and exaggerate them on their CVs, job and university application forms. The ultimate ambition of many appears to be to achieve fame (or notoriety) via reality TV shows in which those with the loudest mouths win. Quietly understated competence is out of fashion, winning is the goal, and losers, good or otherwise, are just that - losers.
Then, of course, we were taught proudly that we had no need of officious legalities to ensure our integrity. An Englishman's** word was his bond. Indeed, that was the motto of our world-renowned stock exchange. A handshake was all that was required to secure trust. Today, however, lying and cheating are endemic, apparently throughout the financial sector, and not least in our political system, where hypocrisy, dissimulation and misrepresentation, called "perception management", are the expected norm.
Our penchant for the underdog has also gone by the board. If we follow the example of Mr Gove's government we are expected to revile , denigrate and punish those less fortunate than the norm, especially if they have come from another culture in search of a better life or are fleeing from oppression.
Finally, and perhaps trivially, good sportsmanship seems to have gone our of the window too. I'm no sports fan but I understand our sporting heroes routinely "dive" in order to secure a penalty; prance, gestiulate and hug each other if they do something good; challenge the decisions of umpires and referees; and, even at cricket, fail to "walk" even if they are obviously out. What has happened to the modest nod to the crowd on scoring a goal, or casual wave of the bat when applauded for a century?
The restoration of the values of my childhood will not be achieved by government edict, inspections without notice from OFSTED or any other bullying, but by a change in our culture. This needs needs an example from the top. How about less concern with fancy salaries, an end to bonuses and more trust of people to do a fair job for a fair day's pay, and more honesty and modesty from our political elite?
* Today's paper (11th June) reports that we also have the highest level of obesity in Europe: 64% of British adults are classified as being obese or overweight.
**Although not specifically included, we assumed that this applied to English women, and the Scots, Welsh and Irish as well. The Irish also had charm.