The Teaching of Britishness
The Government's latest answer to Muslim disaffection is to teach core British values in schools. We know what those values will be: toleration, respect, freedom, consideration - the virtues of the "open society", detached from the religious absolutes that Muslims seem, on the whole, to prefer.
I cast my mind back to the way in which Britishness was taught to me by family, school, church and town. Those British values, as I recall, were seldom mentioned, and never taught. Britishness was a state of mind, imparted like the sense of family, as a collective "we". It was a matter of belonging, of being at home, of thinking by habit in the first person plural.
Our lessons were shaped accordingly. History was our history. It recounted battles that we had fought or lost; it dwelt on our achievements and our shortcomings (though the latter were strictly rationed). Literature was our literature, and all our lessons and activities were marked by the same proprietary feeling: we were being brought up as British, by authority figures infused with a love of the country that we shared.
It is not only Muslims who have problems with that kind of education. Labour, too, has never accepted it. Celtic bias and class resentment have made the party uncomfortable with our traditional forms of patriotic sentiment.
It is suspicious of national loyalty, and is looking for a set of "values" that will make no reference to a country or the people who inhabit it. It cannot stomach the island history of our ancestors, sneers at English institutions....It has been conciliatory towards Welsh and Scottish nationalism, not because they are nationalisms, but because they are not English....
You can be fairly sure that, within a few years, the ideals of toleration, fair-mindedness and the rest will be turned into anti-patriotic weapons. This will happen by an invisible hand, as teachers, many of them every bit as disaffected as their Muslim pupils, look for ways in which the British people have fallen short of the values preached in their name.
In studying freedom, much time will be spent on the British participation in the slave trade, but very little on our heroic attempt to abolish it. Under the heading of toleration, much attention will be paid to the religious persecutions of Reformation England, but little or no attention to the great blemish on the face of Islam, which is the punishment by death of apostasy.
"Fair-mindedness" will not be taught through the long history of the English common law, or through those edifying stories of self-abnegation that taught our ancestors to "play up and play the game". It will be taught through the great injustices of imperial government, from the massacre at Amritsar to the Zulu war.
It is not inevitable that this will happen. But it is very likely. For "British values", as understood by the Government, are really Enlightenment values, with no intrinsic connection to the history, loyalty and shared experience that define our country. They can be used as easily to undermine national sentiment as to uphold it.
And when the inspectors come round to tick the boxes, they will give a higher score to the teacher who covers all the stated "values" while also teaching his pupils to "think for themselves": in other words, to reject the very idea of Britishness as an offence to the Enlightenment values that they have learnt to discuss in class, though not necessarily to exemplify in their lives.
There is a fallacy at the heart of the Government's thinking, which is to think that, if children lack some vital accomplishment, then we must teach it in school. The Government conceives of values as a kind of knowledge, to be put up on the blackboard and discussed by the class.
But values are matters of practice, not of theory. They are not so much taught as imparted. You learn them by immersion, by joining with your contemporaries in team spirit, competition, and adventure - in short, by fashioning an "I" out of the collective "we". That is how I became both English and British: because I was immersed in them and they were part of me.