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.

Follow @paulmasonnews on Twitter