Wednesday, 12 March 2008

British Values Under Fire: Oafs of Allegiance.

It is common subject-matter for both broadsheet and tabloid journalists nowadays to try to define what makes Britain "British". Gordon Brown's speech to Labour Spring Conference referred repeatedly to "British values" without defining them. Now Lord Goldsmith's report on citizenship has recommended several important changes which will surely leave us feeling more British than ever.

What does make Britain "British", and why? Well, opinion polls regularly come up with the same few virtues which Britons consider themselves to embody: tolerance of others, politeness, fairness, modesty and a sense of humour. Tony Blair defined explicitly what he meant when he talked about British values: "[F]air play, creativity, tolerance and an outward-looking approach to the world."

I see history being responsible for this: the spirit of the Blitz, the Somme, Trafalgar and Agincourt have traditionally been said to have moulded the national character, for example. The fact that for over a hundred years Britain sent its intolerant megalomaniacs to govern places like Rhodesia and Burma into the ground might also have been a factor.

Anyway - my point is clear: where is the tolerance, politeness, fairness and modesty in Lord Goldsmith's proposals? Is the idea of schoolchildren pledging allegiance to some inbred hereditary billionaires his way of giving the British sense of humour some new material to work with? Since when have masturbatory nationalistic rituals fostered "an outward-looking approach to the world"?

I'm in favour of a voluntary citizenship ceremony/party/pish-up, perhaps to mark the time when incoming Britons and native Britons first exercise their right to vote. This is on the grounds that very occasional liminal rituals create a sense of belonging and can be good fun. But forcing children to make pointless and fake pledges throughout the time when they are just beginning to question and rebel against authority is the best possible way to impart nihilism to a new generation.

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