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Tuesday, June 10, 2014 

Our true shared values.

Perhaps it was just me, but as a kid I always got an illicit thrill out of seeing a swear word written down or spoken by an adult you wouldn't normally expect to use an expletive.  You could hear the same word used multiple times a day, and yet still get a tingle of the forbidden from finding it in a book.  At some point we made a visit to a city (I can no longer recall which city or when this was) and went past a theatre where Mark Ravenhill's Shopping and Fucking was being performed. I didn't have the slightest clue what the play was about, just there was something outré, thrilling about seeing it starkly advertised, uncensored and completely unvarnished.

If you're wondering what kind of tenuous connection I'm going to make between this astoundingly banal anecdote and something in the news, then here it is. Amid all the joking and mockery of defining what "British values" are, and the deadly serious politicians who always end up sounding wretchedly po-faced and about as current as Geoff Capes when they attempt to do so, the only true values we honestly share as humans are that we eat, and we fuck.  Sure, we do a lot else as well, and as my dear old nan had it, if you don't eat, you don't shit and if you don't shit, you die, but the two things that drive us as animals are eating in order to stay alive, and procreation in order to pass on our genes.  Some of us do a lot more of one than the other, call it the Russell/Jo Brand dichotomy if you like, but the equilibrium has just about remained in balance.

Yes, it sounds flippant, reductionist, facetious.  Is it any sillier though than trying to instil a set of rigid values on a people for whom abstract concepts such as the rule of law and belief in personal and social responsibility are going to mean different things?  This isn't to get into a redundant debate about relativism, it's more the absurdity of regarding the prime minister's list of values as being intrinsically British, let alone unique to this country.  If anything there is something particularly unBritish about teaching respect for the very institutions we spend so much time either making fun of or complaining about, a view a certain Michael Gove also once shared, at least when it was Gordon Brown commissioning reports "designed to enhance the bonds of citizenship".  We should note that schools will only be meant to "promote" rather than teach British values, but what the difference will be when it comes down to it remains to be seen.

Besides, beyond freedom and tolerance, just what kind of person would ever says Britishness is about responsibility?  Bizarre as it is to discover, it was John Major who almost certainly came closest to the nub of Britain as it sees itself and the world sees it when he described it in 93 as "the country of long shadows on county grounds, warm beer, invincible green suburbs, dog lovers and pools fillers and as George Orwell said “old maids bicycling to Holy Communion through the morning mist”".  He was definitely nearer than either William Hague or Shirley "no revolutions" Williams came in similar remarks.  Strip away the stereotypes, the clichés and the self-hatred/self-love, however difficult that last one is and I'd hazard we're now a nation of cynical, atomised, oblivious, ill at ease, generous when we feel like it, generally tolerant and funny people.  We believe in applehood, mother pie, there being no such thing as privacy, in freedom of speech for ourselves and chain stores of every variety on our doorstep.

The only reason David Cameron can be so assured the policy will have "overwhelming support" is there's not much people like to imagine more than the idea they have some kind of influence over what the next generation will be brought up to think, and as "British values" are such an open book it can mean every thing to every man.  As any parent will soon tell you, it doesn't work out like that.  The same will be the case in this instance: by the time any secondary school gets round to promoting the Govian view on Britishness, most teenagers will already know what they think about our glorious institutions, the quaintness of the traditional sense of fair play and the tolerant way young people are regarded and reported on by the world's finest media.  Gove and pals of course know this, but every education secretary ends up reduced to imagining they will leave some legacy, or indeed scar on those currently growing up.  The difference is Gove came to the job certain in what he wanted, and to hell with the consequences.  It's enough to make you wish for a politician who would break it down to we eat, we fuck, we die.  Or maybe that's just the sadness in me.

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