Wednesday 11 June 2014

Whose values?

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.


Anonymous said...

To my mind Gove makes perfect sense. But perhaps this is because I value education. Better still, I can relate to use of the term 'British' and Britishness and all things best in the world.

Here in Wales education isn't particularly valued and the population is more malleable as a result. Britishness is now ridiculed in favour of 'Welsh values'.

Performance-wise the results are plain to see. Performance at primary, secondary and tertiary education levels. And performance in the workplace thereafter.

You can take you pick.

John Dixon said...


I understand "Better still, I can relate to use of the term 'British' and Britishness", although I'm not convinced that anyone who then adds "and all things best in the world" is taking a wholly objective view.

But that isn't quite what he's saying. What you're describing isn't what I'd call "values"; and what he's describing isn't particularly "British".

Anonymous said...

Sorry, but I think you completely misunderstand what Britishness is all about. And especially so when the expression is used by a Scotsman such as Gove.

Britishness means all that is right in the world (right values, right virtues, right manners, right education, right side of history, and so on) and all that is best in the world (meaning that the best has come about because of British people or because of British influence).

Anyone educated in Wales after the 1960's will probably struggle to understand this now uniquely Scottish and English view of the world. A view the rest of the world still envies to this day.

It's what makes us British as a 'culture' so unique and so respected the world over (despite our so very obvious day to day failings, transgressions and so on).

John Dixon said...

Assuming that you're the same Anon (that's the problem with anons - I can never tell one from another), I can only apologise for not spotting the satire the first time round.

G Horton-Jones said...

I too started life on your blog as an anon but there you go. After a short while I decided that if I really meant what I put in as comment then I should be able to stand up and be counted as a individual rather than hide my true identity.
I sometimes wonder if flooding a blog with anonymous comments is a thinly disguised method to discredit the blog
A comment made anonymously has no value in my way of thinking and is certainly not one of all things best in the world
So here is to all you anonymous or is it anonymice Put you name where you mouth is and the we will have a real debate

Anonymous said...

Well there you go.

Unlike a politician, local councillor or similar no-one is paying me to be anything other than anonymous. As and when they do start paying I'll be more than happy to succumb to full disclosure.