This was the ‘Big Question’ on BBC1 TV this morning. It’s a programme I don’t usually watch, as although the studio guests brought in to discuss these issues invariably put forward very valid points, it is always equally obvious that none of them are going to budge from their position. They shout each other down and never listen to one another, so I usually end up feeling very frustrated. Those arguing and discussing this morning were an interesting mix: journalists, academics, psychologists, social workers, lawyers, Christians, Jews, Muslims, atheists and all the rest of the British rainbow. And not quite so belligerent as usual.
What prompted today’s discussion was the huge row that has erupted over accusations and allegations of extreme Islamism being promoted in Birmingham schools. I have no idea how well or ill founded these allegations are. I do know that there are areas of the city, and of the west Midlands in general, with a predominantly Muslim population, ghettos almost, and that many of the parents would not necessarily realise that certain aspects of their children’s education might be viewed with amazement or even distaste by British people in purely white British areas of the country. As a result of this row, our government is telling schools that they must teach “British values”. Presumably, Prime Minister David Cameron and Education Secretary Michael Gove both have a clear mental image of what they mean by “British values”. The participants in this morning’s discussion proved that the rest of the country isn’t quite so sure.
We English are a notoriously mongrel race, but the influx of outside elements into that gene pool has multiplied enormously over a relatively short period since the end of WWII. Where you have just a trickle of controlled immigration, it’s possible to integrate the immigrants and absorb their children into the mainstream. Where there is a flood, this is not so easy. Interestingly, some of the latest news of unrest comes from a district in the city of Sheffield chiefly populated by peaceful Pakistanis who are protesting at the influx of Slovakian Roma. The Pakistanis came in the nineteen-fifties and have settled comfortably into their niche, and do not like what the “invading” Roma are doing.
I am in a strange position, viewing these events almost as an outsider, having been an ex-pat for most of my life. I know that the Britain I was born and grew up in has gone – in many ways for the better: that was the Britain for which my father and grandfather went to war. I’m fairly certain that the simple soldiers, sailors and airmen who served in the two world wars of the twentieth century defending this country had a clear sense of what constituted “British values”.
It wasn’t just thatched cottages, ruined castles and rural scenes as painted by Constable and promulgated by magazines like ‘This England’ and political parties like UKIP, although that is undeniably a part of it. But so is the wonderful juxtaposition of serious article and crazy photo of Rik Mayall published by The Times, or the trooping of the Colour and the England football fans parading around Brazil.
To all intents and purposes I left England aged 21. For most of my adult life, I have lived in a multicultural, international environment abroad. The England I returned to in 1968, following 6 years absence, had been changed out of recognition by the swinging sixties.. When the UK joined the EU (or Common Market as it was then) and the grammar, secondary modern and comprehensive schools in which I had been teaching for five years all became comprehensive, I was not reluctant to relocate: it was clear even then that “my” England no longer existed.
Returning two years ago once again to live in the place of my birth, this time after more than 4 decades in toto of being a foreigner, demanded an adjustment, and has made me question my Englishness. I feel a foreigner here. Yet paradoxically I still feel I have remained English. My core values are, I insist, British values. Like my forefathers, I would fight passionately to defend and promote them, even if I find it hard to define them.
Today is the 799th anniversary of the signing of Magna Carta, one of the greatest moments in English history with its defining by-line: Freedom under Law. It is as relevant as it has ever been, still being quoted in Parliament, on TV and in newspapers, as evidence of British values. I was pleased to find this article online. Someone agrees with me!