More Important Than Ever

Picture of a stormy ocean - encouraging political involvement is now more important than ever

This time last week I was writing about the importance of demonstrating the value of democracy to the youngest people in our society. As the United Kingdom reels from the shock of last week’s European Union Referendum decision the realisation is dawning that an irreversible decision has been made that will have far reaching consequences, not just here in the UK, but across Europe and the rest of the world.

I sit here now and reflect upon my own naivety and the giggle I had as I took a photo of my cat and posted it on Twitter for #CatsAgainstBrexit. I think about how hopeful I was when I took my son to the polling station and later wrote a celebratory blog about how lucky we are to live in a democracy with the right to actively participate in important decision making. Never in my wildest dreams did I believe we would be leaving the EU. I am left feeling bereft for our future and that of my son and I cannot help but think that, somehow, democracy has failed us.

The mess that the UK finds itself in has come as a result of a campaign that was completely out of control. While the Remain side focused on a wholly negative campaign that completely failed to address the positive case for remaining in Europe, the Leave side made ridiculous promises about the economic benefits of independence, while preying on an irrational fear of immigration that we have worked for so many years to overcome.

I recently finished writing a book, Promoting Fundamental British Values in the Early Years. It outlines the Prevent aspect of the Government’s counter-terrorism strategy and explains how early years professionals can meet the Prevent duty by promoting a set of ‘fundamental British values’ that aim to stop people being drawn into terrorism. I would argue that now it is more important than ever to promote such values in order to protect future generations from themselves.

When the Government first introduced the Prevent strategy and identified these four British values, the inclusion of the word ‘British’ caused much controversy. In a letter to the education secretary former Children’s Laureate Michael Rosen explains why he finds the inclusion of the word ‘British’ so problematic:

‘Your checklist of British values is: “Democracy, the rule of law, individual liberty, mutual respect, and tolerance of those of different faiths and beliefs.” I can’t attach the adjective “British” to these. In fact, I find it parochial, patronising and arrogant that you think it’s appropriate or right to do so… We use adjectives to describe, modify, define, colour and infuse the noun that follows it. It’s clear… that your government would like us to think that there is indeed something specially British about the items on the checklist.’

(The Guardian, 1st July 2014)

Rosen takes issue with attaching the word ‘British’ to these particular values in a way that insinuates they are specific to any one nationality, and I wholeheartedly agree. There is a case for arguing that the use of the term ‘British values’ is contrary to the value of mutual respect and tolerance because identifying such values as ‘British’ sets them apart from the values of other societies and cultures around the world. Ironically, the term might be construed as divisive rather than inclusive, undermining the intention to promote community cohesion. Therefore, many feel it is more appropriate to consider them as ‘human’ values, rather than values that can be ascribed to any single nationality.

Ofsted inspector Julia Gouldsboro, on the other hand, supports the use of the term ‘British’ and suggests ‘having a more inclusive definition’ of the term. An Irish immigrant, she draws on her own experience of growing up in England while struggling with her twin identity as an Irish national. She suggests societal division is resultant of a lack of ‘sense of belonging’ and ‘generations still growing up with hatred for others because of their ethnicity’:

‘Britain is made up of small individual groups with many various cultures, races and religions, and we need some umbrella to stand under that gives us an identity together… By British values, we do mean basic human values, but we need these to celebrate and proclaim that our diversity is actually our strongest bond and defines our “Britishness”.’

(Early Years Educator, October 2015)

Gouldsboro has a point. If this referendum has taught us anything, it is that there are some very deep divisions within our society. The events that unfolded throughout the referendum campaign and in the wake of the result demonstrate how it is more important than ever that we work together to ensure the cracks are not allowed to deepen. Whether you agree with the term ‘British values’ or not, this referendum has highlighted the importance of promoting ‘democracy, rule of law, individual liberty, and mutual respect and tolerance of different faiths and beliefs’. It further underlines the importance of teaching children about their rights and responsibilities as members of a cohesive and democratic community.

Although it can be argued that the word ‘tolerance’ has negative connotations, its underlying principle of mutual respect aims to promote inclusivity and ensure people of different races, faiths, cultures and beliefs can exist together in peace. Prejudice and hatred stem from fear and ignorance and it is therefore vital that we educate our children about different cultures so they grow up understanding and valuing difference instead of fearing it.

Commentators have called the referendum a gamble, accusing David Cameron of promising it only to protect his own interests and secure his position. If this is true, it only further highlights the failure of this democratic exercise. The fundamental principle of democracy is ‘rule by the people’ and I support the right of UK citizens to participate in making this decision. However, the referendum has shown the damage that can be done through the misuse of free speech. It has demonstrated how democracy can be undermined by self-serving politicians and media propaganda that promotes a misguided sense of nationalism. It has confirmed the need to ensure our children are better informed about the important issues that affect their own lives as well as the lives of others around the world.

Picture of a child's hand inside an adult's hand.

The referendum has also highlighted the disaffection of the younger generation, whose lives this result will impact upon the most. It is estimated that just 36% of people aged 18-24 turned out to vote, leaving their future in the hands of their elders. Never has it been more vital to get actively involved in the democratic process. This was arguably the most important decision of their lives, and will have a tremendous impact upon their future life chances and choices. Their apparent lack of interest demonstrates the need to impress upon children how lucky we are to live in a democratic society and the importance of active participation.

I am sure many who voted in the referendum did so because they want something better for our children. However, the outcome has highlighted the importance of ensuring the politicians, campaigners and voters of the future recognise the responsibilities that come with individual liberty and democratic participation. We should be helping our children develop a sense of their place in the world as global citizens and encouraging them to work together and with others for the greater good. Unfortunately, we are now left questioning what kind of example we have set for them.