Yesterday was the shortest day of the year. Cosy by our winter solstice fire, we watched TV. It was the epic film Spartacus, with its unbearable ending in 6,000 crucified rebel slaves lining the road from imperial Rome. Drinking wine and eating olives, we played with the old joke ‘what did the Romans ever do for us?’
We then dressed up a Yule log and burned it on the hour, the spoke of the turning. The word Yule means wheel. It has its origins in German and Nordic languages – used here since the Anglo-Saxon and Viking invasions.
We had spent the evening sorting through a box of memorabilia belonging to my father-in-law’s father, Alex McKenzie. He was a New Zealander, who as a teenager had served in France during the First World War. We read his account of weeks spent as a Prisoner of ‘the Fritz’. He described light-hearted banter with English-speaking Germans. Digging into the papers, we then found a handwritten letter signed ‘George R.I’.
George V, King of the United Kingdom and British Dominions and Emperor of India, wrote to him: “The Queen joins me in welcoming you on your release from the miseries and hardships which you have endured with so much patience and courage. During these many months of trial, early rescue of our gallant officers and men from the cruelties of their captivity has been uppermost in our thoughts. We are thankful that this longed for day has arrived and that back in the old country you will be able once more to enjoy the happiness of a home and to see good days among those who anxiously look for your return.”
By all accounts, George V was an assiduous man, and writing this was not out of character. It’s hard to imagine his discomfort at being from a long line of German royalty, leading his nation and empire against the Germans. To appease British nationalists he changed the name of the House of Saxe-Coburg and Gotha to the House of Windsor. In fact, he was quite xenophobic – the first of his line not to speak German, disliking anything foreign and only making four state visits abroad in his 26 year reign. This Pathe footage of his state visit to France in 1914 shows just how much a monarch’s power is constructed from ritual and pomp, built up around a mortal body of a hunched man with receding chin and baggy eyes. Over the past year, there has been so much unearthing of the lives of ordinary people in the Centenary celebrations of the First World War, it’s hard to see him differently. He’s just a man. But then, look at what he had and others had not.
And look at what inequality we still put up with 100 years on! I won’t be sorry to turn away from 2014, although I expect we won’t see an end to nostalgic nationalism and rampant xenophobia against immigrants.
We’re also bound to hear more demands that educators and cultural workers teach British Values, without more nuanced and incisive debate. The impetus for this push is to tackle the kind of religious extremism that potentially produces recruits for ISIL. Because education reforms have given schools more autonomy, fundamentalism has arisen in a few state schools, most notably in Birmingham, both with faith school status and without. I’m paying attention to this because I’ve recently been elected a governor of the Brit School. In the new DfE guidance, fundamental British values are held to be ‘democracy, the rule of law, individual liberty, and mutual respect and tolerance of those with different faiths and beliefs’.
There are a lot of problems with this British Values thing and it’s not the values in themselves. Few of us can be against them, as baldly stated. Most nations would say they stand for democracy, law, liberty and tolerance. So, the first problem is that they aren’t particularly British values. To lay claim to them as such feels smug, simplistic and disingenuous. Britain has been invaded and changed by many groups of migrants, and it has also invaded 90% of other nations. Britain has been incredibly diverse in its values, while also being guilty of imposing imperial monopoly across the world.
The second problem is that systemic issues need to be dealt with in systemic ways, not through rhetoric and curriculum edicts. Schools were doing better at encouraging values when Citizenship and PSHE had a stronger place in the curriculum, and when local authorities had oversight over school governance, before Gove’s reforms. Much as I believe education is important, I question the way that schools are seen as the primary shaping force of children, as if good ingredients like ‘grit’, aspiration and fair play can be poured in and bad elements like tyranny and laziness can be efficiently sealed out.
The third problem is that it is awkward to promote tolerance through the dualistic framing of ‘British’ and ‘others’: It perpetuates a solitarist view of humans, that we form groups with distinct identities unchanging over time, which need to rub along with each other.
The final problem is the worst, but is also why the British Values move offers some hope. The big problem is that there is so much hypocrisy in it all. What democracy do we have to be proud of when a Government without a mandate is effecting a wholesale demolition of public sector institutions and selling out to corporate power? What rule of law do we celebrate when the justice secretary wants to restrict access to judicial reviews? How can we believe that our Government values individual liberty when it wants to scrap the Human Rights Act? What kind of model are they setting for us to respect and tolerate diverse peoples when they try to win back the support of UKIP voters by cracking down on immigration and free movement of people? There is more hypocrisy I could point to. This is why I feel there may be some hope. In asking us to teach British Values, we may be raising awareness of the potentials of participatory democracy, of freedom with moral responsibility, and of capacities to love self and all others equally.