10 Jun 2014

This Happy Breed: what the heck are British values?

Let’s start with the knowables: I am British and I have values. After that it gets complicated. The values I have in my head, and try to live to, have been formed by a complex process: education, experience, working in a globalised world, rebelling against things I don’t like.

It would be easy, therefore, to scoff at Michael Gove’s insistence that “British values” be taught in state schools, and even more so at the few thin bullet points the Department for Education has put forward in an attempt to define them.

Miners socialising at the miners' welfare club, Horden Colliery, Sunderland, Tyne and Wear, 1964. Artist: Michael Walters

Miners from the Horden colliery, Sunderland, Tyne and Wear, 1964

But I do think there are British values. It’s just that I probably won’t agree with Michael Gove on what they are (and neither did you on Twitter, where #BritishValues was trending all morning – see some of your tweets interspersed through this blog).

At the age of 10 I was a newsboy in Noel Coward’s play This Happy Breed. The title itself is lifted from Shakespeare so was meant to convey irony.

In the inter-war years Coward was writing about, we were not a happy breed but riven by poverty, class conflict and the fear (correct as it turned out) that we would have to die by the hundreds of thousands once again to protect ourselves from what it’s now impolite to call “German values” – which were seen as militarism, racism, torture and brutal policing.

In that play the whole of inter-war politics are acted out in a lower-middle class sitting room: the general strike, the depression, the abdication crisis and then Munich. First performed in 1942, it was meant to show that the social conflicts generated by mid-century capitalism were containable within a national narrative.

My hero in that play was a card-carrying communist called Sid. I only realized he was meant to be a caricature many years later – so well does Coward write him.

Anyway, my acting debut turned out to be just the first lesson in a long education in the complexities of being British. I saw migrants from the Caribbean and India turn up and, despite being faced with racism, do their utmost to fit in. I saw the containable, amicable class struggle of the 1970s turn into a knockdown fight in which the winners carried on hitting the losers while they were on the floor. I heard former PM Harold Macmillan warn Mrs Thatcher she would have to crush the miners – “the best men in the world, who beat Hitler and the Kaiser and who never gave in”.

The first phase of globalisation – the 1990s – was bracketed by two military adventures which seemed to confirm something quite fundamental about Britishness: our ability to engage in military conflict and win.

But since then there are two big external forces eating away at “Britishness” that have become quite noticeable to my generation. The first one is the thing Michael Gove et al are worried about in Birmingham: the tendency for minorities to avoid integration and to build identities that are nothing to do with “Britishness”.

This, incidentally, is not only true of some Muslim communities: it is also true of recent east European migrant communities, whose economic intent is rarely to stay and settle.

The second influence is on the upper classes. In Coward’s day there was a clear minority of the British upper class associated with appeasing Hitler and defending aristocratic privilege. But they were politically defeated and socially ostracised. Mostly, in two world wars, and for many decades after, the British elite understood they had a common bond with ordinary people.

In part it was the product of an overt bargain: fight a war, defend the empire, and you get a welfare state and a commitment to democratic rights and justice. It’s easy to forget, now, that by 1942, when Coward wrote the play, Britain was the only major European country where democratic rights existed.

So not having surrendered, not having seen your army collapse and turn tail, not having gone fascist, not having given in to the Tory right and the Communist left who wanted peace with Germany in 1939, not having experienced the humiliation of occupation: all these contributed to something I am quite happy to call “British values”.

But 20 years of globalisation has created a cross-border elite that no longer thinks primarily in terms of national interest. Many of the young men crowding the counters of Rolex shops in London this afternoon will be from Russia, China and the Gulf. Their attitude to their servants, bodyguards and minimum wage employees probably does not conform to what I think are British values, and nor do they really care.

And this is where we hit a problem. In America, which still encourages immigration and which has a highly globalised upper class, there is a national narrative that has survived the turmoil of the past 20 years. Here I am no longer sure there is.

You’ve got some migrant and immigrant communities whose identity – especially among the young – is religious or cultural, and a globally significant elite that has no connection with Britain, its story, its shared narrative etc.

So the challenge for politicians – who have to represent the entire nation, and are accountable to it – is to redefine what they mean by Britishness, if they are going to make it compulsory. And the emphasis here is on “re”.

You only have to glance at Twitter this morning to realise that for many young people, attached to liberal global values, the whole idea of British values has become risible.

Michael Gove’s edict, and the bemused reaction to it among the Y generation, fits neatly into the pattern of complete mismatch between the atmosphere among the networked young and that among politicians.

But I think it is worth trying to define them. You have to do it in such a way that includes experiences like the Peterloo massacre in 1819: where cavalry fresh from the Napoleonic Wars were deployed against a crowd of 60,000 striking cotton workers who’d come out to demand the vote.

There was something quintessentially British about the whole event: the drunken yeomanry composed of factory owners; the ruthless efficiency of the cavalry; the shock and outrage among the workers, who then chased down every penny of compensation they could get while forming secret societies to educate themselves and prepare an armed insurrection. All these things were British and helped define British values.

Noel Coward

Noel Coward broadcasting on the BBC, 1943

So if you’re going to teach British values you have to understand it in their contradictions, their historic context. You have to understand that 1.5 million Muslims live here because Britain conquered and ruled the countries they come from. Pakistan, India, Egypt, Bangladesh, Nigeria, parts of Somalia and many places beyond were all once ruled from London; and at the end of empire politicians encouraged some of their people to come and live here.

You also have to understand that people whose grandfathers fought to keep Britain non-fascist also thought they were fighting for a permanent social contract: a national health service, a welfare and pensions system and legal system where the term “rubber truncheon” was used a a metaphor for fascism, not as an obligatory item in police inventory.

So I think we should crowdsource the British values syllabus for Michael Gove. My Britishness was shaped by being the grandson of both an English miner and a Lithuanian Jewish violinist; at a Catholic school where some of the priests were as hostile to science as some of today’s imams are, at a university where I met Malaysian communists and Iraqi Baathists.

If I walk, smiling, into a Muslim village in Nigeria and they treat me like somebody who might not even throw them a crust if they were starving, I have to understand why. If I turn up in Greece and an old geezer says: you look just like the paratrooper who dynamited a Nazi convoy near our village in 1944, I also have to understand why.

If I had to contribute one thing to Gove’s curriculum – highly specific to my time and place and gender and whiteness – it would be the speech made by the main character to his baby grandson at the end of This Happy Breed:

“You belong to a race that’s been bossy for years and the reason it’s held on as long as it has is that nine times out of 10 it’s treated people right… The ordinary people know something better than all the old fussy politicians put together… We haven’t lived and died and struggled all these years to get decency and justice and freedom for ourselves without being prepared to fight 50 wars if need be to keep ‘em.”

I’d probably quibble with Coward’s “nine times out of 10” but I’d be quite happy to have that as the starting point for a debate about British values. That passage sums up what people like my grandfathers thought they could share with, say, David Cameron’s grandfather. Treating people right is the bit I’d start with.

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18 reader comments

  1. Philip says:

    A very interesting article. The reactions to Gove’s statement should have been predicted. But he lives in a rarified world…and the statement was probably made for political purposes (i.e. if most ethnic minorities tend to vote Labour, it puts Labour on the spot if they don’t support “Britishness” – but if they do they risk alienating their support….and a nuanced response – which is, of course, the right one – is too complicated for our political/media discourse, which largely consists of 30 seconds on words of no more than 2 syllables).
    I do think there are certain aspect of national personality which we could reasonably consider to be “British” (though that doesn’t exclude them being the values of other countries) – tolerance; respect for individuality; sense of humour – including the ability to laugh at ourselves; freedom of expression & of how one lives one’s life – subject to not harming others; scepticism about authority in all its various forms; nostalgia for a past that never was coupled with wishful thinking that it could return; a curious mixture of pessimism and creative energy; a blinkeredness which enables the better-off not just to ignore the worse-off, but to find ways of blaming them for their circumstances; a reluctance to resort to violence which might also be termed passivity; an inward-lookingness that enables use to concentrate on our own little world and avoid doing anything active outside it; a sense of fairness.
    I’ve put some of these in negative terms, but it seems to me that the Y generation behave broadly similarly. It’s just that their “little world” is apparently wider – but is largely in cyberspace. I’m in my sixties & can remember days before computers & mobile technology, but I have various good friends scattered across the globe who I’ve only met in cyberspace. And they tend to be people with similar interests & ethics. My little world is quite different from that of my parents, but it is similarly bounded.
    I think if you’re going to try and give a clear idea of what Britishness is – or perhaps more significantly – what you wish it to be, you have to be clear & concise – and leave people to define your words in their terms (They’ll do that anyway). I’d go for –
    Tolerance, Fairness, Openness, Scepticism….and I’d want to add Compassion (which is broadly speaking not a British value, but should be).

  2. Donnacha DeLong says:

    “…the tendency for minorities to avoid integration and to build identities that are nothing to do with ‘Britishness’.”

    Much like the Irish back in the 1860 – 1870s under the shadow of IRB violence (particularly Clerkenwell). Much like the Jews of the 1890-1910s under the shadow of “propaganda by deed” violence by anarchists and nationalists (Greenwich and Sidney Street, in particular). Much like the Irish again in the 1970-1980s under the shadow of the Troubles.

    It is, sadly, a British practice (if not necessarily a value) to ascribe the actions of a militant few to whole communities and to discriminate accordingly, thus creating protective ghettos and preventing integration.

  3. Sheila Henderson says:

    Which age of Britishness are we talking about I wonder.

    The age of ignorance when we held the establishment in awe and could be persuaded to give our lives in the cause of patriotism to further their selfish aims or now when we have access to information as never before and should be able to define for ourselves what is truth and what is not.

    We still have a democracy that can work if sufficient people use it wisely to deprive the same cosy cliques from eventually destroying it.

    It seems that a great part of the world consider themselves British and I’m sure they have their own ideas of what it means

  4. anon says:

    “Treating people right is the bit I’d start with.” Paul Mason

    “Tolerance, Fairness, Openness, Scepticism….and I’d want to add Compassion (which is broadly speaking not a British value, but should be).” Phillip

    I beg to differ. America is more progressive than Europe, put together, not even mentioning the UK. How many minorities are in top positions in Government or corporations in the UK? Can you compare that with the U.S.A?

    Is it the Tory Government who wants to tear down every single progressive/liberal policies or legislation to ensure minorities get on or progress in the UK?

    We British hide our discriminatory attitudes towards minorities especially in the private sector employment. Minorities end up staying within themselves to provide for themselves etc. The only good thing about Britain (if the Tories don’t destroy it) is the social safety net.

    The best employment/life prospects of ALL people, the lower the crime rates and blame-game.

    For me, British values = being polite – not the kids of nowadays!

  5. John D says:

    British values are not so easy to define in general terms. Most of us have different ideas about human values, let alone cultural ones. I am from a working class background, and I still live on a council estate today. Even though the vast majority of the houses on this estate are now privately owned, the people who live here are very much the same class. But in saying this, although we would all identify as being the same class and culture, we do not all love each other. Some people’s values are quite defunct in the eyes of others. There was a period when kids seemed to run wild and unencumbered with awkward qualities such as principles and respect. Gladly, things have improved over recent years. As far as I can recall, everyone here is white British, but values seem to vary like the colours of the leaves.

    We now have cultural settlements here in the UK, where people have coalesced into comfort zones. Perhaps it’s evolution, but whatever it is, one thing for sure is that there will be differences. What we need to do now is keep calm, and carry on. The way forward will be through common developments in what we can agree about “Human Values”. I do think this article is spot on with regards to the need to re-define British values. We are evolving all the time as a nation, and if we want to make a success out of the past, then we need to agree a common set of values that we can all work towards a successful future.

    The word “Extremism” has been used in this “panic attack” that’s beset the nation recently. Ridiculously strong language for minor infractions of cultural misunderstanding in schools trying their level best to provide education and competitive futures for young people. Nothing even remotely heinous as to warrant labels like “extremism”: it was people trying to do their best in a new and challenging situation. The reaction was more extreme than anything found. Nobody set out to make sinister changes. Everything needs to be regulated, I think we can all agree on this, but let’s drop the intimidation and mistrust, and do things in ways that resemble some of these values we keep hearing about.

  6. John C Batey says:

    I think this question of values is really a matter of language. I’m guessing that what Cameron and Gove really mean is British culture. But in the politically correct, buttoned-up public discourse created by the politicians and media over the last decade we are discouraged from talking about our own culture. Yes, young people (and right-on politicians) believe in liberal, global, boundary-free values (humanity is more complicated than that). Everyone is equal so we are all the same.
    Wrong: Paul mentions the ‘national narrative’ that still exists in America. In a country built on immigration, citizens are proud of its flag, its anthem, its country, its Independence Day, its clam chowder, its sense of identity.
    Here we went for multiculturalism but we aren’t sure what that means. Encouraging separate ethnic cultural communities, which promote their own religious, social, ethical – even legal – mores, is different to ‘celebrating diversity’. Integration is different to multiculturalism (‘ the tendency to avoid integration’ as Paul puts it).
    Listen to Tristram Hunt, shadow education secretary, ‘… an education system which welcomes and integrates migrant communities, builds successful citizens in a multicultural society…’ What is he saying?
    What happened in some Birmingham schools is a failure of multiculturalism. Seeing an encouragement to pursue their own separate culture in our society, can we be surprised if they decide to perpetuate that among children who attend their (our) publicly-funded schools?
    To return to our culture, I would point Paul Mason to the following to start on:-
    our Union Jack (for now), our national anthem, our traditional sunday lunch, the historical reasons behind our holidays (May Day, Shrove Tuesday, Easter, Christmas etc.), Guy Fawkes Night, Tolpuddle Martyrs, Peterloo, Jarrow marchers, St George’s Day, Hogmanay, Magna Carta, Trooping the colour, our democratic history, Morris Dancers…
    This kind of stuff is often labelled ‘harking back to the past’. In fact it may be the case that the future we are building is not progress at all. Is (was?) the British culture worth fighting for?

  7. jane st keverne says:

    Freedom of religion but no pilgrimage to Mecca?

  8. Steve says:

    I think that’s great, Paul, but I suspect the current round of ‘globalisation’ has been going on for a bit longer than you suggest. Nigel Harris was writing about it in the 1970s, and I was heavily influenced by his ‘Of Bread and Guns’ in 1983. When I stop to think about it, I can see ways in which one could argue that globablisation has been a constant phenomenon. And I also have my own set of ‘British values’ drawn directly from Yorkshire, Tyneside, Fife, Edinburgh, Glasgow, and south Wales, and indirectly from everywhere else. There’s what appears to be a closed-minded debate going on in Scotland at present, where people are turning on each other like snarling animals, trying to “out-Scot” each other, and it’s horrifying to watch and hear. At a time when an outward-looking, internationalist, inclusive perspective is hugely important, not least to combat the rise of the far-right around the world, and oppose horrendous exploitation in the emerging economies, Scotland is turning inward; the complete reverse of what the ‘Scotland’ I grew up in used to be about. Just a few thoughts. No particular axe to grind!

  9. Susan Dobinson says:

    Thank you. This is a useful debate. My Britishness was formed firstly the arrival of Ugandan Immigrants into my city in the early 70’s. I was born poor working class but along with the majority of my community, If we didn’t welcome, we were neutral to the influx. As a child I felt sorry for what my new classmates had been through. I’m proud to be from that city. Also Comedy. in the 80’s we were rich in a passionate, compassionate inclusive satire that helped shape thoughts on equality. Also we had Thatcher to compare with that and my community had a sense of humour. She did not. Politics had not yet learned to spin and use the media to set us on each other in the way it does now. We were compassionate, fair, open all those things but the British have always tugged the forelock far too much. Wanted to believe what our masters say and I dont think we are at all skeptical. This means we get frightened, look for answers without thought and we have the disparity of “values” we have now as a result. We have never learned to vote in our best interests – not ever. Hence the disbanding of the health service. I dont equate establishment values with the values of “The British People. I really don’t They are not compatible. I agree with so much of what you say. Treat people as people, not as things, thats where Evil begins, ( to paraphrase Terry Pratchett ) and Evil is not a British Value.

  10. sam says:

    I’m a working class lad from Essex in my mid 30’s. Went to a comprehensive school, blagged my way onto a uni course through clearing but dropped out in my last year because of the financial pressures and that I felt generally unwelcome and looked down upon despite apparently having an IQ in the 140’s. I learnt that British values are about accepting your place in British society denoted by class and ascribed at birth. I cant overstate the cognitive dissonance I’ve lived with, wanting to believe I could be successful by hard work but having to live with the reality that people like me are not nurtured by society in the UK to achieve my potential. Well I moved to Colorado USA to find my place in the world and for the first time I feel like a valuable person. British life drives people to despair as a matter of course. I’m so relieved not to be there and that I get a chance to heal. I just wish that other working class lads and lasses in Britain could have access to the same medicine.

  11. Technical Ephemera says:

    Cameron’s British values involve driving the disabled to poverty and suicide in order to pay for a millionaires tax cut.

    I am fairly certain my Grandfathers generation didn’t sign up for that.

  12. Andrew Moran says:

    Here, here, Philip. Of course want politicians want is to impose their way of thinking on the rest of us so that we vote their way. Want we really want taught in our schools is morality, ethics and responsibility, which it increasingly seems politicians themselves lack.

    Maybe if that was what was taught in schools, then we wouldn’t get so many kids breaking the law and we’d demand better from our so-called leaders.

  13. joy says:

    It is sad and unsettling to watch politicians scratching a wound of the society that we leave in and putting some salt in it to make it more painful.
    Although Britain is a country that promotes tolerance and fairness (two of my favourites british qualities) it seems incapable to deal with other cultures’ values.
    If one leaves in a country that promotes multiculturalism than one must adapt to this. How can it be one way only!
    It is quite misleading to think “I leave in a country that is free and democratic however I have to be politically correct and be careful with what I say”
    Is this freedom of speech!!!
    The deepest problem of “our multiculturalism” start and end with religion (in my personal view).
    Does Britishness mean being Christian?
    Does being a muslim mean you are a terrorist?
    Does being a priest mean you are a pedophile?
    Perhaps time has come to listen to Professor Richard Dawkins and a have a school reformation with all religions being taught so children can make their minds up about what they want.
    Having faith schools only deepens the segregation of people in our society.
    Isolating communities also deepens people’s differences and segregation.
    Let’s not forget that some great people were born in this country that gave our humanity a lot and we owe it to them to make it a better place for the future.

  14. Robert says:

    Judging by the above article there are without doubt a considerable number of cultural Marxist values currently being passed off by the media as British values.

  15. Oliver S says:

    Interesting article Paul. As something of a tangential note to this whole tawdry farce, it is perhaps worth noting the Gove is Minister for Education in England and he probably thinks he maens English values. The Scots and Welsh have devolved Education powers now so what would the zealot Gove like to teach them?
    Is this yet more ammo for the Yes vote in Scotland? I don’t live there and didn’t think they should separate but the increasing nastiness of UKIP and this Birmingham affair makes me wonder if they are right after all. They could well be better off out of it.

  16. Kevin Donovan says:

    Good stuff. And we certainly no longer find them represented by the BBC; their report tonight on the 10 o’clock news about schools, religion and British values was a disgrace. Do not Catholic and Jewish school governors attempt to determine the ethos of their schools? Or is it merely Muslim governors? And is it sinister? It may be based on a range of superstitions or faiths but until we have decent local schools for the whole community it won’t disappear.

  17. Geoff B. says:

    Everybody keeps parotting that tolerance is a principal British value – but it is hard to square this with Ukip’s triumph in the recent local & European elections. But this only serves to illustrate my two favourite candidates for core British values – self-deception & hypocrisy. (Also to be confirmed by England’s World Cup supporters in the coming weeks!)

  18. eve tibber says:

    Dear paul
    British values : historically based ok , not original but rather uncontroversialy so.
    Your blog + tweets : good idea but all tweets used to illustrate your point are from men, not even one woman one, in your analysis not one mention. Ergo british values are men’s values. Britain belongs to men. Historically you are right, what about the futur? If you are a representative of that futur of British values all women in masse should leave such inhospitable island ? Should we? ( Aggy may be femal ! )
    Yours most sincerely

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