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.


  1. I agree. Why spout about abstract qualities when such qualities are so ambiguous: democracy? but apathy and low turn out? liberty? but unemployment, slums and poverty? tolerance? but ghettos and racism?
    I see Cameron does not mention the Bullingdon Club and the implied snobbery of public school; and Oxbridge education, nor the greed of bankers like Fred the Shed.
    Perhaps our two national characteristics are now our love of queuing and tattooing.

  2. Thanks for reminding me of the Bullingdon Club, with values, if I understand correctly, based on wealth, arrogance (a far cry from "modest stillness and humility), contempt for the ordinary, and the legitimisation of vandalism for those who can afford to pay for the damage. Really they're bullies. In terms of our schoolboy stories whey would be classed as cads. I can't remember the names of any particular bullies other than Flashman, but I do recall, in either the Wizard or the Hotspur, an episode entitled "Curtains for Reid." Curtains for Cameron and his cohort of posh boys has an agreeable ring.

    1. Since you recruited me to the London Review of Books, Stuart, you are probably aware of the "sermon" by Alan Bennett in the current issue (Vol 36, No 12, 19th June) . Referring to his interview for a place at Cambridge in 1951, he writes:

      "That weekend was the first time I had come across public schoolboys in the mass and I was appalled. They were loud, self-confident and all seemed to know one another , shouting down the table to prove it while also being shockingly greedy. Public school they might be but they were louts."

      I supect things hadn't changed much by Cameron's time. Maybe they still haven't.

      Later, on the topic of privatisation, Bennett writes:

      "I have no time for the ideology masquerading as pragmatism that would strip the state of its benevolent functions and make them occasions for profit. And why roll back the state only to be rolled over by the corporate entities that have been allowed, nay encouraged , to take its place? I am uneasy when prisons are run for profit or health services either. The rewards of probation and the alleviation of suffering are human profits and nothing to do with balance sheets."

      To that I would add eduction, and am rather more than uneasy at the way Liberals Democrats in government have connived at this "ideology masquerading as pragmatism."

  3. I happened to watch a (very) old "Minder" today, and there was Arthur Daley running up a Union Jack flag on his dodgy second-hand car site with "British is Best" emblazoned across the centre. He explained to his colleague that this was "a little bit of England" and stood for such traditional values as "cricket on the green, Sunday roasts and Saturday night-punch-ups". I felt inspired knowing that British values had been pioneered by such a worthy (iconic?) character as Mr Daley many years ago.

  4. Thanks Severn Boar. I've never been a "Minder" fan but suspect Arthur Daley is an archetypal example of a British "Spiv" With posher accents, perhaps, there are now too many of them at the top rather than the bottom of the pile.