Jonny Mitchell: What values make society truly British?

Thornhill Community Academy’s straight-talking headteacher Jonny Mitchell showed the world what life in the classroom is really like in the award-winning TV series Educating Yorkshire.

Monday, 30th June 2014, 1:04 pm
HEAD LINES Jonny Mitchell.

Now he writes exclusively for us.

So what does it mean to be British?

A lot has been made recently of the role of British values in our society, especially now that it has become statutory to teach them as part of the school curriculum.

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I, for one, agree wholeheartedly that something has to be done about teaching those values which we British hold so dear. But I ask myself a couple of questions alongside – what are our values, and why are they so uniquely British?

For example, the only thing that is uniquely (or almost uniquely) British in my eyes is a propensity to be able to turn every conversation into an inquiry about the changeability of the weather. Given that everybody does this all the time already, surely there’s no need to teach it on the curriculum.

Then, I suppose, we could teach the fundamentally British value of being over-enthusiastically naive about the chances of success of our national football team. For the very first time in a generation, quite a lot of us this year appear to have forgotten this value, and were quick to talk down our chances of victory in Brazil. Heartwarming in the extreme.

But what else? An arrogance about the best way to make Yorkshire puddings (no other country is bothered for some reason), a fascination with comedians who bandy about needless profanity for laughs, the embarrassed facial expression which inevitably accompanies the very mention of sex (steady!) and an inability to admit we are ever wrong, even when we are. Very British, methinks.

But the crux of it is simple – British values aren’t really British – they are values which underpin the very mechanics of human civilisation. The principles of tolerance, respect and democracy shouldn’t be too difficult for most people to understand, nor should it be beyond people’s ken to understand why they make society a much stronger place. When these values and principles are eroded, things stop working.

What I thought might be more interesting, however, is to compile a non-exhaustive list of things that are not values, least of all British ones. Unfortunately, the vast majority of the non-values below have supporters and proponents across the country, and many of them are keen to shout about them, as if they were something to be proud of. Non-values such as deception, fraud, cheating, scams, bigotry, aggression, bullying, victimisation, intimidation, racism, generalisation, exploitation, greed, idleness, a wanton disregard for the rule of law, the concept that the world owes us a living, to name but a handful.

What really gets my goat, though, is the very suggestion that British values are being lost because Britain has become less British, and because there are too many non-British people living in the UK. I am not getting into an immigration debate, because that would require the whole paper (yes, I have very strong views on immigration, which I may share some other time), but suffice to say the following: if we go back far enough, everyone who harps on about being pure-bred under the Great British banner needs to be reminded that we are all half-foreign at the very best, and fully foreign if not. French, Irish, Scandinavian, you name it, we’ve got it.

And as if that wasn’t enough, most of our language is a mish-mash of all sorts of other tongues, including German, for those who are interested (remember Angles, Saxons, Normans, Vikings, etc?) So, being British is more complex than you might have thought – and we either all are, or none of us. It’s up to us all to choose which.