The toxic phrase “British values” has crept back into prominence thanks to odious Tory education secretary Michael Gove.
He has demanded that schools promote a certain set of values which include the importance of British law, religious tolerance and opposition to gender segregation.
However Gove’s intention is not about spreading equality or fairness, it’s about racism.
Constructing a British identity around a set of values creates an opposite category—“non-British”—for those who are seen as foreign and opposed to “us”.
Coming after the witch hunt against Muslims in Birmingham schools, Gove’s pledge to push “British values” is designed to set Muslims apart.
His racist clamouring is nothing new.
Tory communities secretary Eric Pickles pledged in 2012 to end multiculturalism by forcing people to celebrate “shared values” around the queen’s jubilee.
In tones similar to Gove he said new education standards will bar schools from teaching that “undermines fundamental British values”.
And prime minister David Cameron called for more “muscular” promotion of British values.
He said that these were “freedom, tolerance, respect for the rule of law, belief in personal and social responsibility and respect for British institutions”.
Our rulers perversely attach these worthy phrases to what it means to be “British” to obscure the reality of what their institutions do around the world.
People living in Britain’s former colonies would rightly wonder what kind of “freedom” Cameron meant when they were brutally subjugated by the British crown.
Where was this concern for social responsibility when Victorian Britain was the greatest drug pusher in the world?
It launched the Opium Wars—three separate invasions of China between 1839-1860—to safeguard Britain’s extremely profitable trade in opium.
Winston Churchill is often the stock historical figure used to tout an idea of “Britishness”.
But during the Second World War millions of Indians starved to death in the Bengal famine after rice stocks were requisitioned for the British army. As prime minister, Churchill refused to release food aid to these “subjects”.
And during the Mau Mau uprising in Kenya, 80,000 people were detained in British-run concentration camps. Thousands were tortured.
The crimes of the British state are hidden behind talk of “spreading democracy” and being a “force for good” in the world. The ruling class has continually fed this fake ideology of its empire to bind working people to the state to allow it to interfere in other countries.
Creating and maintaining this common identity is intimately linked to the development of their economic system.
The politicians who want us all to fly the flag and celebrate Britain’s empire are worried for the future of their state.
That’s why we have seen their attempts to frighten people in Scotland into voting against independence this September.
The “values” of the ruling class are the polar opposite to ours. These people share very little of the way our lives work.
They are raised by nannies and packed off to boarding schools such as Eton to prepare for a life at the top of society.
Their “core values” are about justifying the crimes of the rich in their pursuit of profit.
Though they hearken back to supposedly ancient traditions, the idea of Britishness dates back only 300 years. A political and economic union helped spawn the British Empire.
It was an empire driven fundamentally by economic and military competition with rival empires. That competition continues to this day.
Senior politicians of all the mainstream parties want people to celebrate this bloody history, bow to the queen and know their place in society.
Better to blame someone on benefits for the cuts than City bankers and their Tory chums driving through austerity.
Flying their flag is not just a bit of harmless fun. The union jack is one of the clearest symbols of the British Empire’s criminal enterprise.
This butcher’s apron is unfurled at every opportunity to encourage the idea that Britain is a unit where we all have something in common.
Through centuries of colonising vast swathes of our planet the union jack flag became synonymous with slavery, theft and murder.
The brutal occupations of Afghanistan and Iraq, where over a million civilians died, are just the latest example.
The chance is never missed to promote the history of empire and flag. The same happens whether it is the birth of a baby royal parasite, or the Olympic and Commonwealth games.
And these ideas can dominate and be picked up by ordinary people as something they can relate to when it is sold as progressive.
But the union jack or reforging an idea of Britishness can never be progressive.
It is an idea that suits the ruling class, and they have many opportunities to promote it.
That’s partly because they are in control of the means of mass communication and school curriculums, which allow them to pump out ideological propaganda.
It’s also because in the absence of a revolutionary challenge to their rule the ideas that go with it can appear to be natural.
But they still have to try and associate British nationalism with things that are seen as progressive and egalitarian.
That’s why we now hear about tolerance and women’s rights being central to British values—a very recent rewriting of history.
So for many the high point of the 2012 Olympics in London was when Somali-born Muslim Mo Farah celebrated winning a gold medal by draping himself in a union jack.
This was held up as the image of modern Britain—multicultural and reclaiming the flag from association with racists.
But it is a peculiar thing to attach common social traits to a group of human beings just because they were born on the same chunk of rock that waves a certain flag.
In capitalist class society workers and bosses do not have the same interests.
Bosses want to exploit workers but workers would rather not be exploited.
The rich minority at the top of society do not face the same daily reality as the majority of us. We are not “One Nation” fighting for the same thing.
Often forms of nationalism can emerge as a response to imperialist oppression, such as in Palestine or Northern Ireland.
But this has never been the case in Britain. Here nationalism is a tool to try to bind the poor to the rich.
Our rulers want us to accept the myth that we are “all in it together” and that our interests and theirs coincide.
This denies the reality of the bigotry used by capitalist rulers to divide working class people from one another in order to rule as a privileged elite.
And it denies the very existence of class society and the economic inequality intrinsic to it.
Yet as much as the history of the British ruling classes has been brutal, the working class has an inspiring history of struggle from below in Britain.
It has nothing at all to do with a set of universal or “British values”.
Indeed, most of what the Tories perversely attribute to “Britishness” were hard fought for by the working class.
From the Peasants’ Revolt of the 14th century through to the mass industrial struggles of the 19th and 20th centuries, we’ve much to celebrate in the struggle of working people to shape their own destinies.
Many of these struggles saw immigrants participating and leading the fights and did not just involve “British” workers.
Solidarity of the working class was not invented in Britain and it does not stop at the border. It is part of a rich international heritage of struggle.
It is impossible to understand the 1926 General Strike in Britain without the 1917 Russian Revolution.
The Bolshevik revolution in Russia didn’t just inspire workers in Britain—it sparked revolutionary upsurges across the whole of Europe.
The poison of nationalism divides our side and weakens our fight against the class enemy—the Tories and the bosses.
Instead of buying into Gove or Cameron’s “British values” we should value our history of working class unity and solidarity against their class.
“Britishness” is a reactionary idea based on imperialism and racism.
Each act of resistance against it helps strengthen the fight against the system.
The Blood Never Dried: A People’s History of the British Empire
by John Newsinger, £13.99
Imperialism: The Highest Stage of Capitalism
by Vladimir Lenin, available online at bit.ly/1xUO4jU
The Making of the English Working Class
by EP Thompson, £20
Available at Bookmarks, the socialist bookshop. Phone 020 7637 1848 or go to bookmarksbookshop.co.uk
Class struggle toppled apartheid