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A kinder Britishness

Mrs Thatcher famously said, "There is no such thing as society." It was the keynote of an era which emphasised individuals at the expense of people, where the strong flourished and the weak had to get on their bikes, where selfishness and greed became acceptable in the business world, but somehow care in the community was supposed to serve the elderly.

At the same time, Mrs Thatcher and her supporters were very big on Britishness and old-fashioned values. Newspapers brandished xenophobic headlines as Europe was vilified as a threat to British national sovereignty. Meanwhile, Europeans' strongest image of Britain may well have been of football hooligans waving Union Jacks and tearing their host cities apart. Were these themes contradictory? Can you have Britishness without society?

In kicking off the latest debate on national identity and its place in schools, Nick Tate is signalling that there is such a thing as society. The chief executive of the School Curriculum and Assessment Authority believes that a greater sense of their common culture, fostered by schools, will help British children to feel that they belong to "a community which stretches back into the past and forwards into the future which is so important in giving people a sense of meaning in a world which is in a state of constant social, economic and technological flux". He speaks of a kinder, gentler Britishness, which includes people from ethnic minority groups and emphasises tolerance, but which is rooted in a specific (but culturally diverse) past and heritage. He believes that a culture which is confident in itself will respect others. If tolerance is a national trait, that should guard against a people sliding from national identity to its less benign relative, nationalism.

But Dr Tate is in danger of being naive and, perhaps, too idealistic. In his speech to Shropshire heads which launched the debate, he warned that futurology "often consists of wish-fulfilment: a projection forward of what the writer or speaker wants to happen under the guise of saying that this is what is going to happen". Is Dr Tate seeing what he wants to see?

It is true that schools can promote and teach tolerance, and that they can help change society. But they are also within society, and, as our writer Rifat Malik argues (page 7), racism features not only among the general population, but also in pronouncements by public figures. Would this disappear in a more confident nation? What about Victorian Britain, where supreme confidence led to arrogance in its dealings with foreigners?

Dr Tate has launched an important debate, about culture, race and the role of schools. There are big questions in the air: How is a sense of community to be fostered in an increasingly diverse society? How are the nation's young people to feel they have a stake in that society? The latest research evidence reported at the weekend shows that violent crime by and against teenagers is rising, that 150,000 17-year-old school-leavers have never worked, and that the wages of under-18s have fallen. Meanwhile, about a third of children are living in poverty, according to the National Children's Bureau. If Britain's children are to feel that they belong and that they share a national identity, their country has got to give something in return.

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