A government decides to promote British values

The British government worries that Britain may not be British enough. It worries so much that the Department for Education has instructed schools to promote British values.

Part of this is meant to counter the lure ISIS has on a (let’s be realistic, limited but highly publicized) number of young people, but I seem to remember that they started talking about British values back when Scotland was voting on whether to leave the U.K. So I’m guessing that some more general unease lies behind the decision.

Let me be clear: I take ISIS seriously. Hell, I take Scotland seriously. What I don’t take seriously are people who think “promoting British values” is a response to either of those very distinct entities. Especially since the British values campaign forces everyone to confront the awkward question of what those values are. I mean, they’re not , say, the flag or apple pie. They’re hard to define.

Irrelevant photo: an old shed at Trebarwith Strand.

Irrelevant photo: an old shed at Trebarwith Strand. The pink flowers are red campion. I don’t make this stuff up. Really I don’t.

As prime minister, David Cameron defined them as freedom, tolerance, respect for the rule of law, belief in personal and social responsibility, and respect for British institutions. Nick Clegg, when he was deputy prime minister, added gender equality and equality before the law. Then his party tanked in the elections and no one’s consulted him since. Michael Gove, when he was secretary of education, defined them as democracy, the rule of law, individual liberty and mutual respect and tolerance of those with different faiths and beliefs. Awkwardly enough, in 2007 he said trying to define Britishness was “rather un-British.”


Since Ofsted (the Office for Standards in Education, Children’s Services and Skills, which should really be OSECSS) will have the joy of assessing the schools’ efforts, it’s published the official set of British values. They’re democracy, the rule of law, individual liberty and mutual respect, and tolerance of those with different faiths and beliefs.

Can we tolerate people with different, non-British values? Sorry, the question’s too complicated. Ofsted lives in a true/false culture.

Do other countries hold to these same values and if they do are the values still specifically British? Sorry, that’s not on the test and we can’t discuss it now.

Can we tolerate politicians offering three sets of non-identical British values plus one opinion trashing the whole idea of codifying them? Of course we can, because by now everyone’s swung their weight behind the official version and has forgotten that they didn’t always agree. Except possibly Nick Clegg and, see above, no one consults him anymore.

In joyful response to this attempt at unifying the nation’s beliefs, a whole lot of people cut loose on Twitter under the hashtag #BritishValues. According to The Independent, some of the early tweets summarizing the aforesaid values included:

  • Being wary of foreigners while having a Belgian beer with an Indian curry in your Spanish villa wearing Indonesian clothes.
  • Queuing; dressing inappropriately when the sun comes out; warm beer; winning World Wars; immigration & Pot Noodles.
  • Wearing socks with sandals
  • complaining about immigration

The Independent article online was open for comments, and they included a few more suggestions:

  • Seeing a rogue traffic cone and immediately working out the nearest sculpture in need of a hat.
  • Denouncing immigrants, while we have a royal family made up of immigrants.
  • Loving fish and chips even though the potato migrated here from abroad.

The comment thread quickly degenerated into arguments, name calling, and “This comment has been deleted,” so I stopped reading. Instead, I went to Twitter to check out the more recent comments. Not all of them are funny. Some are bitter-edged comments about homelessness and not rescuing migrants in the Mediterranean.  Others are about trash in the hedges and dog-poo bags left by the side of the road. But, hey, we try to keep laughing here, even when the world’s going to hell in a handbasket.  The lighter tweets included:

  • The bloke in front of me just put his entire body weight on my foot & I said sorry.
  • Forming an orderly queue.
  • Pie and chips done properly!
  • Get an exclusive 15% off any order from @TwiningsTea

None of these answers the question (and I do understand that it wasn’t posed as a question) of what British values are, but it does point us in the right direction: Whatever they are, they include an ad for tea and a sense of humor. So brew yourself a nice cup and tell me something silly about British values, would you?

Or American values. Or any other nation’s values. I can’t wait to see where this goes.

Defending the honor of a British politician

A politician made a valiant attempt to defend the honor of a colleague last week and accidentally brought the whole British Parliament into disrepute. Or further disrepute. Or just possibly none of the above. Take your pick once I tell you the tale.

Sir Malcolm Bruce, a former deputy leader of the Liberal Democrats, tried to defend Lib Dem MP Alistair Carmichael by saying that if every MP was kicked out of office for lying “we would clear out the House of Commons very fast.”

(Note: You can follow that link safely. Unlike the one in last Tuesday’s post, you won’t find any mankinis on the other end.)

Did Bruce mean that lying was widespread in public life? a BBC interviewer asked.

“No,” he said. “Well, yes.”

cute kitten photo

Irrelevant photo: Fast Eddie, fast asleep.

Or, just possibly, both of the above. I’m a great fan of all of the above and none of the above, especially when they’re not logical possibilities. They give us an illusion of choice and expansiveness and—well, I don’t think freedom is too high-flown a word for this. Sure, the world may be falling apart and the weather’s getting stranger by the year, but the range of what’s possible just expanded beyond what’s possible and if that ain’t freedom, my friend, what is?

So once again, take your pick. And if you want it to be both all of the above and none of the above at the same time, be my guest: Pick both. There’s no charge.

But back to our story. Carmichael got into trouble by authorizing a leak before the recent election and then denying that he knew anything about it, and it was the denial that caused the problem, not the leak or even that the information he leaked was apparently inaccurate. Or made up, which is a polite way of saying a lie. You can take your choice there too. We’re just rolling in choices today.

For the sake of both British and non-British readers, I won’t go into the details. Brits have already heard about it and for everyone else I’m already teetering on the edge of incomprehensibility with all this talk of Lib Dems and MPs and disrepute. A politician’s in disrepute? American readers are asking themselves. And this makes the news why? (Am I being unfair here? Are readers in other countries asking the same question?) Besides, the content is almost never what matters in these scandals, it’s cover-up that gets politicians in trouble. How come? Because that’s what we, the ordinary newspaper readers and evening news watchers, can wrap our heads around.

Oh, sure, if someone someone slept with someone they weren’t supposed to sleep with, we can follow that without waiting for the cover-up. But the real scandals? The ones involving billions of dollars, or pounds, or whatevers? The ones, say, involving the banks and the Great Recession of 2008? They’re so deeply incomprehensible that our eyes go glazy the minute we hear about them and I’d better end this paragraph fast or you’’ll all click onto something else.

I’m almost inclined to admire ol’ Malcolm. (Sorry, I just can’t call anyone “Sir.” Like ironing, it’s against my religion.) The impulse to defend a colleague, and for all I know a friend, led him to tell the truth as he knows it, which is that in politics almost everyone lies. Or maybe that should be everyone. Yet another chance to take your pick.

I don’t know which you chose just then, and I don’t suppose it changed anything, but didn’t it give you a wonderful feeling, as if your life had just grown larger?

A very British form of protest

Someone was recently convicted of disrupting prime minister’s question time—called PMQ by those in the know—by throwing marbles in the general direction of the MPs. (“Marble-throwing PMQs protestor gets suspended prison sentence”)

No, that’s not the part that strikes me as particularly British. We’ll get to that.  But before we do, I should explain that it takes an expert to tell when someone disrupts PMQ, because the MPs bray at and heckle and bully each other like a classroomful of twelve-year-old boys whose teacher stepped out for a smoke a month ago and still hasn’t come back. (My writers group, whose members are an invaluable and giddy guide to all things British, advises me that the MPs sound like public school boys, which if you’re American means private school boys, because public schools here are private, but that’s too much confusion for one post. Let’s thank them politely and not get into it here.) All that braying and harassing are politics as usual. The reason this guy stood out was because he was in the visitors’ area.

And, yeah, the marbles. I admit that.

Plus his language. The MPs are allowed (even expected) to be horrible to each other, but their language has to be pristine.

Blackthorn in bloom on the North Cornish coast

Irrelevant photo: Blackthorn in bloom.

What kind of language did the protester use? That’s in dispute. The prosecutor claimed he stood up and said, “I’m sorry about this, ladies and gentlemen. You fucking wankers, you’re just liars.” But the protester, who as far as I can figure out had already pled guilty, interrupted, shouting, “Can I just say, for the record, I didn’t call anyone fucking wankers. I called them dishonourable bastards.”

That “dishonourable”? That’s British. The next person who interrupts the American House or Senate will not, I guarantee, use the word dishonorable, even though I switched to the American spelling to make it a fraction of a percent of a probability more plausible.

The “I’m sorry about this, ladies and gentlemen”? That’s also British.

I’m still not sure what our protester was protesting. According to the article, he has (as the current phrase puts it) mental health problems and felt his life was wasting away. In response, I’m sure the government will make more speeches about putting mental health on a par with physical health and keep on underfunding both.

They’d outlaw marbles but Parliament’s dissolved until the election.

Beer and British politics: The Pub Landlord runs for office

British politics just got a bit less depressing: A new candidate just entered the race for a parliamentary seat, a comic named Al Murray running under the name of his comedy character, the Pub Landlord. His party’s logo looks a lot like the one the U.K. Independence Party (Ukip) uses, and although I hate to give Ukip any space in my earth-shatteringly influential blog, the joke doesn’t work unless you know a bit about who the Pub Landlord’s making fun of.

Ukip wants to take the U.K. out of the European Union and get rid of all of us pesky foreigners. Or maybe they don’t want to get rid of quite all of us, because Ukip’s leader is married to a woman from Spain, so presumably they’ll make exceptions, but basically they don’t like furriners coming over here, taking British jobs and speaking funny languages on their streets. Last I heard, the party leader’s wife had a paid job in his office, but I guess that wasn’t a British job, it was some other kind of job, so it must be okay.

Irrelevant Photo: Mulfra Quoit, an ancient monument in West Cornwall

Irrelevant Photo: Mulfra Quoit, in West Cornwall

What else does Ukip stand for? Well, it sort of depends when you ask and who you ask and what sort of mood they’re in. And whether they’re still in the party, because periodically one of their candidates goes too far and gets thrown out. One proposed banning Islam and tearing down mosques. Another posted anti-Semitic and anti-Muslim statements on his Facebook page. A third was convicted of assault. Let me quote the Mail Online here: “The Ukip official charged with vetting the party’s election candidates has revealed he spends half his time ‘weeding out the lunatics’. . . .

“The remarks come after one Ukip candidate was recorded making homophobic, racist and obscene comments—while another was exposed as a fantasist after becoming embroiled in a public sex scandal.”

Ukip does stand for a good pint of beer, though—that’s been pretty consistent and to date no one’s been thrown out for it. And they’re polling well considering that they’re a minor and basically bonkers party. Well enough to scare the bejeezus out of the major parties and drag them all into a discussion of what to do about immigration, as if everyone agreed that immigration is what’s wrong with—and probably the only thing wrong with—the country.

But back to the new party: Its name is Free United Kingdom Party, or FUKP. (Yeah, go ahead and pronounce it.) And what’s its platform? The Pub Landlord promises to burn down the Houses of Parliament for the insurance and brick up the Channel Tunnel to keep immigrants out. His most inspired proposal is revaluing the pound so it’s worth £1.10. About cutting immigration, he says, “This is the greatest country in the world and people want to move here. We need an MP to make things worse. Look no further.” On corporations and globalization, he says, “Blah blah blah paradigm blah blah blah, blah blah dialectic blah blah blah blah blah blah game-changer.” Which is pretty much what all the politicians are saying.

Finally, he pledges that the U.K. will leave Europe by 2025 and the solar system by 2050.

Politics hasn’t made this much sense since Screaming Lord Sutch ran on the Official Monster Raving Loony Party ticket.