Michael Gove as Education Secretary, was more terrifying than any horror film his late friend Christopher Lee starred in throughout a sixty year career. His inability to listen to anyone with vast teaching experience and his pig-headed belief in his own expertise could turn out to be one of the most damaging aspects of this Tory campaign – which is quite an achievement considering their rap sheet so far.
During his tenure, Gove championed prescriptive teaching of nation centred history in the bombastic, imperialist mould. When dictating what children can and can’t read, he favoured a list of pre-20th century English writers over Arthur Miller, Harper Lee and John Steinbeck. Gove was said to look so unfavourably on the latter’s novel ‘Of Mice and Men’ as to be ‘deeply disappointed‘ that 90% of schoolchildren had previously studied it. Who can forget his attack on the writers of Blackadder and other ‘leftie historians‘ for daring to suggest that the millions of working class soldiers who were butchered in World War One on both sides, died needlessly for the whims of aristocrats and world leaders? In the centenary since the start of the war he led the trumpet call to celebrate the occasion proving the epitaph lest we forget is now a bigger contradiction in military terms than friendly fire.
One of Gove’s most sinister ploys was his sustained attack on the Ofsted-sanctioned syllabus for ‘not being British enough.‘ After an anonymous letter alleged that certain academy schools in Birmingham were being radicalised in the infamous Trojan Horse scandal, Gove called for British values to become a staple aperitif to all free thinking in the classroom. In a breathtaking display of double speak the fundamental British values were then outlined by Ofsted as follows;
- the rule of law.
- individual liberty and mutual respect.
- tolerance of those with different faiths and beliefs.
On this basis it could be argued that Britain has never received a sufficient education. Certainly not with regards to its own history which boasts shameful chapters as well as proud achievements. The trappings of nationalism ensure that people view historic events relating to nationhood personally which is an exhausting trend to sustain. Whenever unfavourable events of British history are broached to explain consequences of the present you will often hear the same defensive retort of liberal guilt being used for political gain. As a humble historian, I find this ignorance an affront to everything that has gone before us. How can we learn from the mistakes and achievements of the past with such a reductive and oversensitive attitude? Sadly, the noose of patriotism has entwined itself around the buried heads of state and grows tighter every time mythical British values are espoused.
Immediately after the Second World War, there was a sustained effort of denazification implemented throughout East and West Germany via education policy. Instead of burying their heads in the sand, the German people faced up to some of the greatest crimes against humanity committed in the name of their country. The British Empire has blood on its hands through centuries of pillaging, slavery and exporting other Great British values but we are yet to see any decolonialism in the history texts – quite the opposite. We are now retreating backwards to a time of insular and delusional beliefs that these tiny isles will forever rule the waves.
What’s more, the proud radical traditions of Britain are slowly disappearing from wider public consciousness. If the Levellers, Chartists and Suffragettes were given similar coverage to the bloodlines of Kings and Queens, it might nurture greater understanding amongst the populace about the struggles for the freedoms currently being redacted by this government. Obviously, this is not in the Tories’ interest, which makes their shameless assault on education and championing of convenient British values so alarming.
Home Secretary Theresa May has started her thinly veiled prime ministerial campaign in earnest, by tackling extremism with extremist measures. Now, people will be penalised if they do not adhere to and openly adopt the British values as defined by the Home Office. The definition of extremism is still being worked on although we’ve been assured it ‘would take into account the need to allow strong debate.‘ Whether or not those debates will take place in a six by eight cell remains to be seen.
Tolerance of those with different faiths and beliefs is a lovely premise but possibly the most audacious thing to preach when it’s demanded by flagrant hypocrites. Islamophobia has reached sickening levels and is ignored by the mainstream media and politicians whose barbed rhetoric inflamed the situation in the first place. Large numbers of Muslims have been settling in Britain for generations at the behest of former governments looking for cheap labour from the commonwealth. Prior to 9-11 and the subsequent war on terror, there were no examples of home-grown terrorism from these communities. People got on with their lives without the daily barrage of headlines calling for them to be more British. Ironically, through marginalising the Muslim population further, the government risks creating more extremists, a fact that wouldn’t go unnoticed if they studied a more varied sphere of history.
The domestic terrorist label also extends to activists who have been labelled as such for exercising their right to protest. This is a worrying trend which allows the goalposts to be moved at will and if May and Gove reignite their campaign to scrap the Human Rights Act, people face the terrifying prospect of arrest for thought crimes. This leads to the next British value of individual liberty and mutual respect. Individual liberties have been eroded thanks to a three-pronged attack by state, media and businesses tackling unions, privacy and any beliefs that don’t hold water in this capitalist stronghold. Even the prime minister openly disregarded these values straight after the election with his best Phillip K. Dick impression;
‘For too long, we have been a passively tolerant society, saying to our citizens: as long as you obey the law, we will leave you alone.’
We are told the rule of law is another British value but the laws passed since the advent of parliament are as transient as the notion of Britishness. And yet, quite how many laws have been repealed and redrafted through centuries of political and religious upheaval would no doubt be described as honourable in Gove’s re-imagining of the world.
History is said to be written by the victors, which is what Britain of a bygone age arguably were. The odious arrogance of being world leaders was then at least warranted. Now it isn’t. The empire disbanded long ago but the same ignorant posturing remains and no amount of redrafted values are going to change that. How much longer can this denial persist without history repeating itself?