Happy One Britain One Nation Day! What do you mean you aren’t celebrating? Well, your children had better be.
Westminster’s Department for Education (DfE), which only looks after education in England (it’s a devolved matter in Wales, Northern Ireland and, of course, Scotland), saw fit to announce that it would like all UK school children to celebrate “One Britain, One Nation” Day on June 25, “and learn about our shared values of tolerance, kindness, pride and respect.”
That sounds great, right? I am always up for my kids learning about tolerance and kindness, in particular.
However, this celebration takes the form of children being encouraged to dress up in red, white and blue, and sing a song with somewhat confusing lyrics. Some of them make sweet, vague mention to a country with “so many different races, standing in the same place”, but the effect is rather undermined by a rousing chorus of: “Strong Britain, great nation” (repeat x4).
It is a hilariously bad song, and amongst the derision it has encountered this week include a number of jokey (and accurate) comparisons to the anthems forced on school children in North Korea.
The government’s doublethink doesn’t seem to bother them
One Britain One Nation is actually an independent campaign that has been running in Bradford since 2013. It was set up by a retired police officer, Kash Singh, to “build an even stronger Britain. A society built on compassion, tolerance and harmony based on mutual respect.”
While these are clearly laudable aims, the degree to which the campaign has been adopted by this particular Conservative government (Tory MP Esther McVey is its champion in parliament) is very revealing.
The lazy, unthinking endorsement from both the prime minister and the DfE, seems to have happened without anyone stopping to check whether or not all UK school children would still be in school today (around half of Scottish council districts started their holidays yesterday; my kids are off from lunchtime), or consider that there is really no such thing as “Britain”.
The United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland is four conjoined populations with three devolved governments and a hybrid in England. Lyrics created to be positive and inclusive in Bradford will read, at best, as hilariously out of touch in Wales and Scotland, and at worst potentially antagonistic in Northern Ireland.
The OBON song lyric: ‘We’ve opened our doors, and widened our island’s shores’ seems to be in direct contradiction to Priti Patel’s current obsession with migrants in boats
They see the union flags; they hear the ghosts of official Great Britons like the PM’s much-mentioned hero Churchill in the lyrics “strong Britain, great nation”; they see the buzz words “tolerance and respect”, which mean very little without specific, active context behind them, and feel satisfied that these fig leaves are enough.
What particularly frightens me about it is that the doublethink doesn’t even seem to bother them.
Increasingly racist, divisive and openly hostile immigration policies
Singh’s own, inspiring story – having arrived here from India aged six without a word of English, alongside his “unskilled” labourer parents – is one that this government, since coming to power 11 years ago, have tried their hardest to make sure is never repeated again, with increasingly racist, divisive and openly hostile immigration policies.
The OBON song lyric: “We’ve opened our doors, and widened our island’s shores” seems to be in direct contradiction to Priti Patel’s current obsession with migrants in boats.
How interesting, too, that OBON Day is in the same week that Tory Baroness Dido Harding – a close friend of many of the cabinet and the wife of the UK’s Anti-Corruption Champion, currently in possession of £37 billion of our taxes for as yet undisclosed reasons – announced her candidacy for the head of NHS England by pledging that she would make the organisation “less reliant on foreigners”.
Stoking up interracial resentment among disadvantaged voters
The other education story grabbing the headlines this week is a report by the Education Select Committee, a group of mostly Conservative MPs. It investigates the apparent underachievement of white working class children at all stages of education across England compared to similarly disadvantaged children of other ethnicities.
The report, which a number of Labour MPs on the committee refused to sign off on, concluded that these children were being left behind because the use of phrases like “white privilege” and increasing education focus on racial history being taught in schools. Not, say, the deliberate underfunding of early years care; the systematic closure of libraries, Sure Start centres and youth clubs; and the premeditated stretching of the attainment gap as part of 11 years of Conservative austerity.
It’s a deeply, deliberately divisive tactic, weaponising underprivileged children and stoking up interracial resentment among a category of voter the Tories’ own policies have disadvantaged.
That we have a government which will merrily wave both of these flags in the same week tells us a lot about them, and we should be taking notes, not just laughing.
Kirstin Innes is the author of the novels Scabby Queen and Fishnet, and co-author of the forthcoming non-fiction book Brickwork: A Biography of the Arches