Education secretary Michael Gove recently declared that all 20,000 primary and secondary schools in the UK, stating that this government 'will put the promotion of British values at the heart of what every school has to deliver for children'. But this raises several questions, most importantly: what actually are "British" values?
Gove announced that they 'already require independent schools, academies and free schools to respect British values' and would be extending this to active promotion, which came as some surprise to me--I don't remember being taught about "British" values during my time at school. So what, then, are these elusive British values?
David Cameron also chose to chime into this debate, defining British values as including 'freedom, tolerance, respect for the rule of law, belief in personal and social responsibility and respect for British institutions'.
I've flagged up tolerance in particular here because this whole situation has arisen after Muslims in Birmingham began taking responsibility for their community. Which, incidentally, was exactly what the Conservatives prescribed in their idea of a Big Society - in Cameron's words: 'I think there is enormous potential in churches and faith-based organisations to tackle some of the deepest problems we have in our society, whether it is educational and under-attainment . . .' This apparently doesn't extend to Muslims however, and instead they--and the press--have chosen to appallingly conflate religion with extremism throughout this matter.
Beyond Tory hypocrisy however, this affair also reveals that they consider Muslim values and British values to be incompatible, as well as a barely concealed belief that Muslims aren't British. As Lee Donaghy, assistant principal of Park View Academy, one of the schools in question, pointed out: 'this is a normal state school like thousands of [others] across Britain - 98 per cent of our pupils just happen to be Muslims - British Muslims'. Gove, Cameron & co. seem intent on forgetting that religion isn't a precursor to nationality - Muslims can indeed be British(!)
The wider significance of this, as with when Cameron declared Britain is a Christian country is--beyond the fact that he doesn't actually support Christian values--that stressing Christianity or British-ness compounds the notion of Britain as being monocultural, which in turn others peoples that don't fit into those categories.
It seems strange to stress coherent "British" values when Northern Ireland, Scotland and Wales stress their distinction, and when the UK might split come this October, but further to this, it's simply narrow-minded to suggest that there's ever any kind of fixed, unchanging British identity; identity is fluid - it results from cultures and peoples mixing. The idea of British values (or British-ness) ignores that assimilation and adaption are both fundamental to the formation of identity. Disregarding this ignores the significance of multiculturalism in today's Britain, and is awfully divisive.
Values don't come from, or belong to, distinct groups of people. The notions and ideals Gove and Cameron are purporting to be British--like tolerance, mutual respect, freedom, social responsibility, and respect for British institutions--are not only British, and as this whole affair shows, are not even tolerated by the Tories themselves, who hypocritically chastise Muslims and other minority groups with one hand, and demonise them with the other. To paraphrase the words of one online Guardian commenter, the most prominent British value is a loathing of Michael Gove.