The proposal by the Education Secretary for England, Michael Gove, that all schools should “promote British values” is one of those glib statements which politicians make which initially sounds obvious but actually needs a lot more examination.
There’s one immediately obvious anomaly: he can only insist on teaching “British” values in “English” schools - he has no authority over those in Wales, Scotland, or Northern Ireland. It’s tempting to assume that he really means “English” values but simply hasn’t thought about it (although given the context of his announcement, he might simply be looking for a euphemism for “non-Muslim” values).
Leaving aside anomalies and nomenclature, it still leaves open the question of “what are these values to which is referring” – let alone the question about who decides what are “British” values.
Chris Dillow has done a little analysis of British values here – and has come up with mediocrity, drunkenness, laziness, obesity, criminality, and inequality with a small dash of environmental friendliness thrown in. Somehow I doubt there’ll be much in common between his list and Gove’s, although his is the more empirically based.
Gove’s list - which includes the primacy of law, religious tolerance, and opposition to gender segregation – is all very worthy; but what makes it specifically British? It sounds very general to me; the sort of thing which any European country could equally say. "Promoting European values” doesn’t have quite the same jingoistic ring to it, and is not a phrase likely to escape the lips of many UK politicians. But it seems to me to be a great deal closer to what he is trying to suggest.
More generally, are “values” a “national” trait at all? There are certainly cultural differences between nations; particularly in the widest definition of culture to include practices and habits. But I’m not convinced there’s much to distinguish between values at a national level. Values are much more generic – it’s more meaningful to talk about values in terms of European, Christian, or Muslim values (although far from straightforward even then) than in terms of British, French, or German values
Gove isn’t the first – and won’t be the last – politician to try and articulate something which he thinks of as a somehow uniquely British set of values. Such attempts often seem to be based on a romantic and Anglo-centric notion of the sort of superiority and world domination which spawned an empire, but which bears little relationship to modern day reality. One might have hoped that the more time which passes between the end of Empire and the current day, the less our politicians would cling on to outdated notions. Instead of that, some of them seem to be clinging onto old perspectives with ever more determination.
But there’s one thing that concerns me even more than Gove harking back to the past or being unable to understand the generality of the values he refers to, and that is his apparent belief that telling teachers to inculcate his values in schools is somehow a coherent response to Islamic extremism amongst some governors and teachers. The connection isn’t an obvious one to me.