One Britain Tunnel Vision

The embarrassing 'One Britain One Nation' day for schools, with its notorious song, passed with hardly any participation – but its existence showed a growing revisionism in the concept of 'British values'.

Credit: Jeff J Mitchell / Getty Images

I’ve been searching through social media to try and find any evidence of schools that actually took part in the much touted (and much ridiculed) One Britain One Nation day on Friday 25 June. The official OBON Twitter page only seems to have found four, in a country of 20,000 primary schools. I couldn’t do any better than that. A friend who teaches at a state school on the south coast told me he hadn’t even heard of the song until I asked him the other week (‘so, obviously, we’re not going to be singing it at our school’).

Most of the reaction online seems to be reaching for comparisons to North Korea or Nazi Germany (‘ein Volk, ein Reich’, etc.). To my ears, it sounds more like the old Millwall supporters’ song (you know, the one that goes ‘We are Millwall / No one likes us / We don’t care’). It’s the regional car dealership vibes of the OBON logo that really gets me, though. Not so much ‘Strong Britain, great nation’; more ‘Strong traction control, great mileage, one lady owner.’ Given the absurdity of the whole charade, one has to ask why the Education Secretary praised it in the first place?

The idea originated with an ex-Yorkshire cop called Kash Singh, who claims (in a column for the Express) that he wanted to do ‘something great that bonds the people of our country together to celebrate that theme of oneness and togetherness.’ But its roots can be traced back to the early years of the Blair administration when the whole notion of ‘British values’ was first explicitly mobilised as a political project. You will find scant mention of this phrase in Hansard before the turn of the millennium, when, in March 2000, then-Prime Minister Tony Blair spoke of ‘Qualities of creativity built on tolerance, openness and adaptability, work and self improvement, strong communities and families and fair play’ as the defining traits of a quite new concept of ‘British identity’.

All of which sounds rather cuddly, until you recall the context of a simultaneous massive expansion of Home Office powers to track—and potentially deport—immigrants and asylum seekers. We defined ‘our’ values only in order to justify the exclusion of supposedly illiberal others – mostly non-white and/or Muslim (ironic, given that nineteenth-century British visitors to the Middle East abominated the multiculturalism of Islamic societies as a sure sign of ‘Mohammedan degeneracy’). With that in mind, the OBON campaign’s focus on pre-teens feels like a distinctly creepy incursion of border politics into the schoolyard – especially at a time when children as young as four are being referred to the government’s anti-terrorist Prevent unit for the heinous crime of drawing a picture of a cucumber.

Though my friend at the county primary down on the coast may have been relieved at not having to goad his callow wards into singing ‘We are Britain / And we have one dream / To unite all people / In one great team’, he did express a certain wistfulness for the shared assemblies at the church school he trained in. Such occasions, he told me, provided a space to ‘talk about communal values’ in a way that proved ‘binding for the community’.

There’s obviously something to be said for that. Concerns over a lack of opportunity for children to discuss the norms and principles that make a society should not be dismissed lightly. But I’m not sure that this song, with its bludgeoning univocality, really offers that. A solid mass of voices chanting about national greatness in unison over a succession of simple triadic major chords in four-square march rhythm does not, to me, exactly convey the complexity and multiplicity of contemporary UK culture.

British administrators who look jealously at France and America with their clear-cut national constitutions may wish to consider the mess that the Second Amendment is making in a country rife with mass shootings or the way principles of laicité have been rubbing uncomfortably against France’s large Muslim population. In the twenty-first century, expressions of national identity are just too tangled and fraught to be captured by blunt declarations and dirge-like melodies.

Which is why I find myself craving something more like composer Neil Luck’s ‘Regretfully Yours, Ongoing’, premiered at 2018’s London Contemporary Music Festival. A heroically unhinged work, after an opening ten minutes of slapstick stage action and spasmic orchestral stings, it breaks into just the kind of chorus we can all get behind. The drums kick in, a guitar solo starts, and the choir breaks out into the gloriously wrong-sounding refrain, ‘A grim altogether now / A faulty stitch across a wound / A wholly unbeginning again’. What better representation of national identity in the twenty-first century?