DAVID CAMERON, assailed by stray bullets coming at him from unexpected directions, this week decided to restore order by making an Important Pronouncement.
Which was to join with Michael Gove in telling all schools to promote British values, although Mr Cameron didn’t go into much detail about what those values should be or how schools, already fully occupied in keeping up with Mr Gove’s near-daily policy decrees, are supposed to find time to promote them.
The problem is that, as is the way with 21st century politicians, Mr Cameron is not advancing a policy, he’s sending out a message. Which is that, although he heads a party which has a Thatcherite attachment to the word ‘freedom’, there are limits.
He’s decided, without much pause for thought and in reaction to a complex situation affecting some schools in Birmingham, to give every school in Britain a new purpose in life.
I imagine teachers up and down the land breathing out a collective ‘Oh heck’. Hardly any of them will ever have promoted anti-British values or thought how to promote pro-British ones, they just get on with their jobs, which at present don’t involve promoting much more than hard work and good behaviour.
And anyway, isn’t the best way to promote British values to live by them, rather than to preach them? To accept fairness and tolerance and a certain sense of decency which, although by no means confined to Britain, is something we’ve prided ourselves on in the past. The British vision of ourselves is that we are a rather taciturn, under-stated nation; we don’t shout about the superiority of our values, unlike the Americans or North Koreans. That wouldn’t be British.
Alongside the unarguable virtues of responsibility and respect for the rule of law, Mr Cameron also thinks schools should promote “respect for British institutions.”
Once I would have taken the NHS and the trade union movement to be central British institutions, but Mr Cameron’s party, with little resistance from New Labour, has spent the last 40 years doing its best to dismantle both of them.
And will it now become part of Ofsted’s remit to prevent schools questioning such British institutions as the costly and, at the lower end, mostly pointless Royal family, the House of Lords, fox-hunting, the Boat Race, the rotten City of London or near-criminal bankers? Will pupils have to show their respect for baying, expenses-fiddling MPs?
When I was in the sixth form, there was a subject (I don’t know whether it still exists) called General Studies, which was rather pointless because nearly everybody who could be bothered to take it, passed it. Our values couldn’t have been anything but British because, this being all-white Lincolnshire in the late 1960s, we had yet to meet anybody from the wider world, but we didn’t feel obliged to uphold a kind of all-embracing national agenda; we just enjoyed, as a break from serious studying, idle talk and the chance to speculate on the grown-up world we were about to enter.
Out teacher, being a good one, steered the discussion with the lightest of touches and didn’t try to correct us when some of us formed ourselves, probably out of boredom, into the only Marxist-Leninist cadre in North Lincolnshire. We did stray into republicanism and revolution, but I don’t think we constituted a threat to the nation. Of course, the alleged attempt by Muslim traditionalists to shape pupils’ thinking in Birmingham is a different thing, but Mr Cameron is advocating, in emphasising British values, the same solution for all schools. I wouldn’t say this was thought through.