While I’m not going to write about the Trojan Horse allegations as such (if only more people kept schtum about things which they know little), our beloved Prime Minister has said something interesting for once. As our Secretary of State for Education has demanded schools teach something called ‘British values’, Dave has had a stab at defining this most vexatious and slippery of terms.
I would say freedom, tolerance, respect for the rule of law, belief in personal and social responsibility and respect for British institutions - those are the sorts of things that I would hope would be inculcated into the curriculum in any school in Britain whether it was a private school, state school, faith-based school, free school, academy or anything else.All very common denominator stuff. All that’s missing is fair play, afternoon tea and cricket. No, to give Dave his dues, this is pretty much what anyone would come up with. You might easily suppose a Pole might say the same about Polishness, a Frenchwoman about Frenchness, and so on. But such is the conceit of each and every national identity.
The one bit I'm going to latch on to is this "respect for British institutions". What does this mean? Knowing Dave and how desperate the Conservatives are, this is a clause allowing them to label certain things as un-British. So, someone like me, a life-long republican, is by default 'un-British' because I do not "respect" the absurd pomp and anti-democratic reserve powers of the monarchy. You can say the same for anyone favouring progressive and socialist policies.
Respect, however, is super slippery. It wouldn't take much to describe everyone who doesn't vote, or has criticised Parliament as a sack of shit as un-British. Or those many millions of motorists who didn't "show respect" to the British car industry and went for something sleek and foreign instead. Or even those Londoners who've downloaded Uber, do they not "respect" the "institution" of the cockney cabbie and their hallowed knowledge?
Everyday folk are un-British, by Dave's definition. Yet even more damning than that is the Conservative Party itself, an organisation that has time and again set itself against the institutions Britain has built up over generations. Let's just keep to the last four years. Say what you like, but I don't think flogging off Royal Mail to the government's city mates on the cheap is the best of British values, let alone respecting a well-loved facet of national life. Speaking of which, there's the NHS too. Since 2010, the NHS has effectively ceased to exist as an entity. What we have instead is a market of state-owned and private health providers competing for the tax payer dollar to provide free (mostly) at the point of need healthcare. This has driven bureaucracy up along with waiting times. Is that "respect for a British institution"?
National identity is a slippery subject, and in this instance it can be turned as a political weapon against near absolutely everyone. If we want to turn this potent brew of ideas, nostrums and sentiments against the Tories, we have to actively fight for it.