Paul Gilroy wrote that “racism does not, of course, move tidily and unchanged through time and history”. While on the surface “acceptable” racism in the UK has shifted its focus from colour to creed, culture and religion, its tools of operation remain the same: the judiciary, the police, the education system, the media, namely the British state itself.
Following the attacks on 11 September 2001, already growing anti-Muslim racism was normalised by the US administration and successive British governments.
The promotion of “fundamental British values” through the school curriculum is one of the means of this normalisation. These values were identified in the Prevent Strategy in 2011 as “democracy, the rule of law, individual liberty and mutual respect, and tolerance of those with different faiths and beliefs”.
Prevent is a part of the UK government’s counter terrorism strategy and, since 2012, these values have been part of the Teachers’ Standards. Subsequently, in 2015, their promotion became a duty in schools and colleges.
Michael Gove, then the secretary of state for education, took advantage of the so called “Trojan Horse” affair in Birmingham schools in 2014 to justify the incorporation of “fundamental British values” within the national curriculum. The Trojan Horse affair was an alleged “Islamic take over” of the Park View Academy, a successful Birmingham school, and others nearby. The claims were made in an anonymous letter and have been roundly debunked (see Countering Extremism in British Schools? The Truth about the Birmingham Trojan Horse Affair by John Holmwood and Therese O’Toole, Policy Press 2017).
Gove was acting on then prime minister David Cameron’s “muscular liberalism” speech at the Munich Security Conference in 2011. Cameron argued that multiculturalism had failed and that some communities, namely Muslim communities, were “living a parallel life”.
The “parallel communities” argument was not new; New Labour had used it after the riots in northern towns in 2001, but “muscular liberalism” initiated a new chapter.
It was a wholesale attack on multiculturalism. Cameron’s coalition government focused on “assimilationist” education policies. Promotion of “fundamental British values” was the central plank of this shift.
Cameron was not acting alone; the German chancellor Angela Merkel and French president Nicolas Sarkozy, were singing from the same hymn sheet in their respective countries at the time. Like their British counterpart, they attacked immigrant communities for not integrating within German and French cultures.
The promotion of “fundamental British values” is part of a racist, anti-immigrant, anti-Muslim discourse. The ideology of French secularism (laicite) and the German dominant culture (leitkultur) fulfil a similar role.
The promotion of so called “fundamental British values” through the curriculum serves multiple purposes.
Firstly, it is a tool for identifying “radicalisation and extremism” in schools. As it is part of the Prevent strategy, it makes teachers agents of the state security apparatus.
Secondly, it promotes the notion that “British values” are an essential element of western “civilisation” and that they are superior in comparison to non-Western values. The British are portrayed as the defenders and promoters of democracy, individual liberty and respect around the world.
This dovetails the notion that the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq were concerned with spreading “democracy”. It is a means of “othering”, a divisive policy which implicitly and explicitly and contributes to the positive elevation of Britain’s bloody colonial past.
Thirdly, it serves to legitimise the idea of a “clash of civilisations”. This concept was promoted by neo-conservatives in the early 1990s who argued that Western democracy had defeated the evil of communism but that it faced a new enemy: the “barbarism” of the “Islamic” world. This argument has been the backbone of the West’s “war on terror”.
The main teaching unions (NEU, NASUWT, UCU) have criticised the promotion of “fundamental British values” and the Prevent strategy. They have also agreed policy to campaign against Prevent. However, they have failed to take any visible action to implement this policy, for fear of breaking the law.
In 2017 the Home Office reported that 7,631 young people were identified as “radicals” and “extremist”; 65 percent of those were Muslims. Worryingly, a third of those were identified by schools and colleges and the median age was 14. One of the identification indicators is opposition to “fundamental British values”.
We can challenge and stop the promotion of “fundamental British values” and Prevent. This can be done through collective union action and building support from all sections of society, particularly from the most affected Muslim and immigrant communities.
The recent 14 day University strikes demonstrated that collective sustained action can win. Workers pension, pay and equality demands can be combined with their political demands.
Education workers should make it clear that the notion of “fundamental British values” excludes Black, Asian and minority ethnics. But more to the point, there are no “fundamental British values” which span all classes and all communities. Explicitly challenging the notion involves challenging racism, defending multiculturalism in schools and opposing imperialist ideology.
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