Where do “British values” come from?

Schools in which pupils are taught to follow the same values as the government are usually associated with totalitarian regimes. This has not stopped Michael Gove and David Cameron from saying that “British values” should be taught in all British schools.

Despite their repeated use of the word “British”, Gove can determine only what’s taught in English schools, as education in Wales, Scotland and Northern Ireland is handled by the devolved administrations there. This is a thus a policy that fails before it gets to the end of its first sentence.

There have been a lot of jokes about attempts to define “British values”. Will children have lessons in moaning about the weather? Will there be exams on the rules of cricket? Will pupils have to demonstrate an ability to glare at people who jump queues while never actually challenging them?

Perhaps all these jokes going round social media demonstrate that one “British value” is a belief in the importance of laughing at ourselves.

Gove’s supporters suggest that “British values” include concepts such as democracy, free speech and human rights. The irony of teaching people what view they should take on free speech and democracy seems to be lost on them.

There are many countries that can take pride in their traditions of democracy and human rights. Nonetheless, I see nothing wrong with people in Britain being proud of what has been achieved in these areas in Britain. But before we do so, let’s remember two overlooked realities.

Firstly, Britain’s traditions of democracy and free expression have sat alongside other traditions – of oppression, racism and violence. The British Empire was rooted in economic exploitation and justified by a racial view of conquered people. It diverted attention away from poverty at home by telling people to be proud of what their masters were achieving abroad. Wars were fought not only against subject peoples but against other imperial powers that threatened the British Empire’s dominance – the first world war is the obvious example. During that war, the government exercised heavy censorship, lied to the public about what was going on at the front and imprisoned 6,000 critics of the war.

Secondly, progressive traditions of free expression and human rights have survived despite all this. When democracy has triumphed in Britain it has done so in spite of the powerful and not because of them. The great parliamentary reforms of the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries were dragged out of a reluctant elite by mass public campaigns. In some cases, reforms were desperate attempts to avoid revolution or to buy off one section of society so that they would not ally with another. But such changes would not have happened at all without the reality of grassroots campaigns, even if the reforms often did not go as far as the campaigners wanted. Society was changed from below, not from above. Going back to the seventeenth century, the rule of law was established only when King Charles I was convicted of treason after waging war against his own people, establishing the principle that no-one was above the law.

The human rights and relative democracy that we have in Britain are due to millions of ordinary people going out and campaigning for them over centuries. They did so in defiance of the rich and powerful. Michael Gove and David Cameron have far more in common with the politicians and monarchs who resisted such progress than they do with the people who championed it.

What could illustrate this better than Cameron’s deals with the vicious regime of Saudi Arabia, to whom he continues to sell weapons? Or the government’s use of drones in Afghanistan, killing civilians in a way largely indistinguishable from the “extremists” who Gove is so keen to challenge with “British values”?

Let’s celebrate our democratic traditions. Let’s do it by campaigning against the concentration of power and wealth in the hands of a few, and by insisting that school pupils must be free to hear a wide range of views, ideas and interpretations – not just those of Michael Gove.

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