'Why on earth would we deceive our children into thinking Britain is better than other countries?'

No-one can define what British values are. Any serious attempt to do so will always end up descending into cliché or broadening into the meaninglessly universal, this teacher argues

Lucy Rycroft-Smith

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It feels odd to be British this week. For me, this is simply compounding a feeling I’ve had for a long time – that national identities belong in the past, along with sexism, racism and whacking small children if they get their sums wrong.

But, like love in an insidious Wet Wet Wet number, patriotism is all around. Flags fly. Anthems blare. Poke an ear outside any time the footie’s on and you’ll hear collective bellows of delight and anguish, all in the name of “our team”. It’s even crept into our classrooms, where since 2014 the government has made it a requirement that schools teach fundamental British values as part of the PSHE curriculum.

Harmless enough, you might say. But patriotism is not harmless, and its effects are only just beginning to be felt in a nation torn apart by futile, purposeless nationalism.

Arbitrary boundaries

Patriotism is a fallacy. It is a convenient way to manipulate people’s feelings based on arbitrary boundaries. There are so many logical inconsistencies in the very idea of one’s nationality it unravels with any kind of close scrutiny. I’ve always been utterly uncomfortable with its being taught in schools, and this week has taught me precisely why.

Being a citizen of a country is a meaningless civil process, not a kitemark of values.

What does it mean to be British? This should be easy to define, right?

Go ahead. “To have been born in Britain” doesn’t work, because plenty of immigrants have successfully applied for British citizenship. You can also have citizenship if both parents hold it, even if you were born elsewhere. Simply speaking our mother tongue won’t do either, for obvious reasons.

While it can be personally important (and in some cases lifesaving) for individuals to become legally British, there is absolutely nothing that being a citizen of Britain says about you as a person. It says nothing of your values, your politics, your culture – and why should it? It might mean nothing more than you fell in love with a Brit, your mother gave birth a month early, or you decided that the English education system was preferable for your children. 

Blood, kin and clan

Back in the days of clans, raids and sackings (no, not the last two weeks in politics) we drew boundaries for survival – blood, kin, communities – and countries were tied to each other. Why? Because resources were scarce, and killing and stealing were commonplace. To keep the ethics simple, people drew geographical boundaries around themselves and defined the “in” and the “out” thus. They had to protect and support each other in groups just to survive, which meant dehumanising and vilifying anyone not included.

This is the basis of patriotism, and this is what it leads to – the superiority of one group over another, the hatred of the unfamiliar, the rights of one clique usurping another. This principle is an Orwellian necessity in times of war, and its purpose is to propagandise and justify bloodshed. It is the same hot-blooded barbarism that leads to racist contempt in the playground, senseless xenophobic beatings, pounding riots at the football, a torrent of homophobic bullets through partygoers.

No-one can define what British values are. Any serious attempt to do so tends to descend into cliché or widen into the universal. There are citizens of Great Britain who range from the extreme right to the extreme left of politics, citizens who are engaged and educated and citizens who are apathetic and ignorant; citizens who are criminals and citizens who are law-abiders; citizens who are ethnic minorities and citizens who are wealthy white men. There is precisely zero holding this disparate group together – not even where they live, because plenty of them have left their homeland and settled elsewhere. Britain has been invaded, allied and intertwined with so many cultures in its chequered history that chasing its nucleus is like trying to pin down a quark.

'Supremely arrogant'

Ofsted hedge-bettingly defines “fundamental British values” as: “democracy, the rule of law, individual liberty, and mutual respect for and tolerance of those with different faiths and beliefs and for those without faith”. As aspirations for a nation, these are hard to disagree with. They’re also incredibly ubiquitous – how supremely arrogant, how full of pride and superiority, to state that these are unique to our nation. They are not, and furthermore they are not something we can – or do – test for as a gateway into British citizenship.

Calling them “fundamental human values” changes this completely, of course – it’s the addition of “British” that is both distasteful and misguided. Why on earth would we deceive our children into thinking Britain is better than other countries?

Because we believe it. We really do. We sit down to watch Wimbledon in the frantic hope that this year “one of ours” will prevail over those nasty foreigners. We urge on the British flag in the athletics, caring not too much if the athlete is a Brit by birth or naturalisation – we’ll even allow them an accent if they’re good enough. We define an unspoken circle of inclusivity, widening when it suits us and closing down when it doesn’t. Excuses for “us”, blame for “them”. We crow when “we” score a goal and taunt when another country does.

This, make no mistake, is racism by a more acceptable name and it can be nothing but a force for division in this new, connected world our children will inherit from us.

Soup of the day

The qualities of tolerance and mutual respect are golden threads that should run through teaching, of that there is no doubt. But by including the word “British” we do exactly the opposite – we divide, we judge, we subjugate.

By this paradox, we do not practise what we preach. The immigrant child who is “tolerated” in the classroom goes home to watch their parents being told to “get out of our country” by colleagues. The Muslim child who is assured they will be “respected” in the classroom goes home to ignorant graffiti on the doorstep. The EFL child who is “supported” in the classroom goes home to bewildering jibes in the street after the latest sports results. 

If we believe we are different to those starving, begging, dying in the world because of a perceived birthright, these things will never change. If we take the opportunity to turn on our neighbour because they have chosen our country rather than been born in it by happenstance, we take a step back in the history of civilisation. If we fail to understand that nationality is arbitrary – it is the soup of the day, the sum of all its cultural parts and nothing more – then we risk failure to learn from history’s mistakes. It is not because we are British that we strive towards these values. It is because we are human.

Lucy Rycroft-Smith is a teacher and writer. She tweets at @honeypisquared

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Lucy Rycroft-Smith

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