The Null Device

Core British Values

As Britain's higher education minister puts forward a plan to teach "core British values" in schools, hopefully reducing the number of kids who turn into happy-slapping hoodied thugs and/or radicalised Islamist jihadists, Grauniad blogger Stuart Jeffries looks at just what these values could be:
We must try to help Mr Rammell and find out which values are characteristic of modern Britain. Here are three that occurred to me:
  1. Drinking to excess in order to obliterate feelings of social awkwardness, existential angst and the fact that there's nothing worth watching on television.
  2. Invading other countries and imposing our values, even though we aren't really sure what they are, on them. Then feeling terribly guilty about the mess we have made and doing a lot of (1) to make the guilt go away .
  3. Having a marvellous tolerance for other people's rudeness, vulgarity and impoliteness - mainly because we're too worried that the rude, vulgar and impolite people we encounter might hurt or kill us if we complain about their anti-social behaviour. Hence the national sport of moaning about anti-social people who aren't there, which helpfully reduces the risk of hospitalisation, while never really confronting the core problem that bedevils British society.
None of these values, I submit, should be taught to secondary school pupils. In any case, kids will learn them just by living here for five minutes.
In her book Watching the English, social anthropologist Kate Fox concludes that there are three English values. They might not be quite the same as British values, but let's assume that they are for a moment. She suggests that the values are fair play, courtesy, and modesty. When you've quite finished laughing, let's review them as contenders. First, fair play. Has Fox ever seen an English premiership football match, where fair play has been substituted for feigning injury to deceive officials and mobbing the referee until he concedes that they were right and he was wrong? True, there are many English idioms that invoke fair play such as That's not cricket, Live and let live, but not Did you spill my pint" and Did you look at my bird, you slag? Fair play is about an aspiration to be better than the base behaviour we see around us.
How about modesty? Is Britain really a country where everybody (man and woman) wears burkas to conceal their naughty bits? Sartorial modesty isn't really what Fox means. Rather, she means that the British detest boasting and self-importance. True, the countervailing bling culture may represent a counterexample to this, as may, for example, Jordan's autobiography and the fact that every cough and spit of her worthless life is seen as fit material for weekly magazines. Fox contends that this modesty is a form of self-deprecation which is usually found by us saying the opposite of what we intend people to understand, or by using deliberate understatement. Hence what she calls the English sport of one-downmanship, whereby we deny wealth/class/ status differences for the sake of some polite egalitarianism. As Fox suggests this ironic self-deprecation often acts as a counterbalance to our natural arrogance, and so is rather hypocritical. Our values may in fact continually be at risk of being destroyed by from our uglier impulses. But that doesn't mean we shouldn't stand up for them.
Jeffries concludes that actually teaching values in a classroom would be futile. The idea strikes me a bit like the endless pontificating about "the Australian national character" that happened in Australia, and the compulsory subject of "Australian Studies" which the state government of Victoria introduced into schools in the early 1990s. This was generally a load of hot air seasoned with left-wing identity politics (at least before the conservatives took office, and presumably reduced it to its core component of hot air), and ended up involving assignments like "watch an episode of Neighbours and write about how work roles are represented in it". Perhaps they could adopt this, replacing "Neighbours" with "Eastenders" and "work roles" with "extra-marital sex" or something.

There are 4 comments on "Core British Values":

Posted by: gimbo Mon May 15 21:58:54 2006

Fox isn't writing about the English in her book. She's writing about the English middle/educated class. Not the same thing at all, as the examples cited by Jeffries show. :)

Posted by: acb Mon May 15 23:21:55 2006

So the chav/bling thing isn't just a momentary aberration as she suggests, but the default working-class behaviour (as Julie Burchill claims)?

Fox does claim to have interviewed English people from all socioeconomic strata, and does talk about working-, lower/middle/upper-middle- and upper-class houses, for example, so I'm not entirely sure she's wrong on working-class Britons.

Posted by: dj Tue May 16 04:42:27 2006

Well, as far as I know, none of my relatives who still live in England, even the most yob ones, are Chavs. They are all working class.

Do you think English public culture is generally even more anti-intellectual than Australia's? Or does the BBC tip the odds slightly in their favour?

Posted by: acb Tue May 16 08:28:28 2006

I think the BBC helps, as does the diverse range of newspapers (the Independent, the Graun and Mr. Murdoch's Times are all fairly high-quality). And people seem to read more here (probably because having barbecues and lounging on beaches isn't really an option much of the time). Having said that, British culture does have much to offer to those who don't enjoy thinking; i.e., Jordan, the Sun, EastEnders, reality-TV, and such. Not to mention the ever popular option of drinking in excess, something Britain could probably beat Australia at quite easily.