| 7.2°C Belfast

Is it any wonder so many people are suffering an identity crisis here?


A woman wears a burka in London

A woman wears a burka in London

A woman wears a burka in London

Who shapes our values? It's a modern question that cannot be easily answered - anymore - because so many global influences are constantly shaping culture and society. When most 11-year-olds have their own private access to the internet, then the role of family, school, church or community has got to be lessened.

Yet, disturbed by the evidence that so many British Muslims seem to feel alienation from the society in which they grew up, David Cameron's administration is resolved to implement a programme of "teaching British values" in schools.

The problem, however, is defining 'British values' nowadays. Only a generation ago, former prime minister John Major could allude to George Orwell's picture of British, or certainly English, values: the gentle sound of ball on bat over the village cricket pitch, the draught of warm beer in the local pub, and 'old maids cycling to Holy Communion' in the morning.

Even in the 1990s, it was well outdated. India is today the greater cricketing nation, Britons have switched from warm beer to cold lagers (and anything else), while local pubs close down in droves, and modern unmarried women are outraged to be referred to as 'old maids'.

More women do go to church, but these days, they're more likely to be aspiring to be bishops in the Church of England than relegated to dear 'old maid' status.

Cameron and his chief whip, former education minister Michael Gove, only seem to be able to come up with rather vague and generalised definitions such as "democracy, decency and freedom of speech". But everyone in the developed world claims to believe in 'democracy, decency and freedom of speech', don't they? In what way do such 'British values' differ from Danish values, or Australian values, or the values of Brazil - at least in aspiration?

And are such vague banalities likely to get young Muslims 'bound into' the host society, rather than feeling attracted to the fiery and often terrible vision of building a new caliphate?

Daily Headlines & Evening Telegraph Newsletter

Receive today's headlines directly to your inbox every morning and evening, with our free daily newsletter.

This field is required

French society has historically had a different approach to shaping the values of a nation. In the 19th century, a deliberate policy was developed to 'make Frenchmen' of the many different regions of the hexagon, some of whom spoke different languages.

A strongly nationalist and sometimes rigidly enforced education system was developed, whereby all people living in France - and many living in French overseas territories - were expected to be, literally, on the same page of the same schoolbook, day by day. Black inhabitants of the French West Indies or of French Indo-China, were taught to recite from a history-book which famously began: "Our ancestors, the Gauls".

This attitude of enforcing a sense of 'Frenchness' lasted until modern times. When I was a student in Paris in the early 1960s, I was sent to attend 'French civilisation' classes, where it was carefully taught that anyone who dwells in France should respect the great traditions of 'French civilisation' - this included, by the way, a concept of 'republican elitism', which was also part of a proud tradition. This 'republican elitism' derived from the idea that 'careers are open to talent', but the best should get to the top. Republican equality did not trump republican excellence.

In the United States, too, schoolchildren have been taught to salute the flag each morning, and the sense of 'becoming an American' has always been taken seriously. America was the melting-pot in which private culture might be respected privately, but in the public realm, it was 'America first'.

The British, by contrast, have seldom taken the view that Britons should be deliberately shaped by culture: Britishness was 'absorbed'. British traditions, such as the Crown and the Church of England - not forgetting the City of London - were expected to work their attraction by osmosis.

British schools did once teach about the glories of the British Empire, but since about the 1940s, most schoolteachers have been anti-imperialists and, in recent decades, education has bent over backwards to be 'diverse'.

And maybe that's part of the problem. Diversity is all fine and dandy, but a nation does need to impart some sense of identity to its people.

Nationalism is out of fashion these days, but if patriotic feelings are totally quelled, then young people - particularly from a background with a strong magnetic pull such as Islam - will have nothing to adhere to.

The notion of an oath of allegiance caused civil war in Ireland - differences about the oath of allegiance to King George V was what caused the treaty split in 1922 - so we can see that notions of allegiance can be divisive.

The substance of allegiance may differ, but the principle remains constant: no society can thrive if citizens do not have a sense of belonging, or loyalty, to its structures.

Maybe today the Republic does this better than Britain. Maybe it is easier for smaller societies to knit people together.

Britain, after all, is absorbing a quarter of a million of new migrants a year. And that's a heck of a lot of people to whom 'British values' need to be made meaningful.

Top Videos