We are taught a distorted version of history which erases the serious political struggle that really brought us the fragile freedoms we have today.What does it mean to be British? Many things have apparently come to define British values.
Winston Churchill, the monarchy, empire, received pronounciation, aristocracy, whiteness.
But some of the people of this island have much more interesting, subversive counter-cultural traditions buried below the surface. These traditions don’t fit the elites message that they alone are responsible for everything that’s good in society.
Therefore it’s no surprise that most of us learn more at school about Henry VIII’s marital dramas, than we do about the Peterloo massacre.
These are the traditions embodied by striking miners, peasants revolting against private tyranny, and by the suffragettes.
Also embodied by William Cuffay, the disabled black man from Kent who led the 19th century Chartist movement for free speech.
A tradition embodied by the John Brown Women’s Society from Sheffield, who refused to make manacles for factories that supported slavery, but because they were poor – and women to boot – their names have vanished into history.
A tradition whose legacies includes Notting Hill carnival, Europe’s largest street festival, which was born out of multi-cultural, anti-racist activism in what was 50 years ago one of London’s poorest areas.
Today these traditions are embodied by activists, youth workers, schoolteachers, and nurses who go that extra mile for the people they are trying to serve.
These traditions have often been persecuted and even labelled anti-British or anti-state until they bear fruit that the state wants then to claim for itself. Such as poor people getting the right to vote. Or the abolition of child labour.
These gains are then presented as the result of inherent British values, rather than as the result of serious political struggle, that they in fact were.
Whilst I am not a nationalist, how national peoples and cultures see themselves undoubtedly has world implications.
The question in these tumultuous times, is which of the traditions of the people of this island will you be drawing on and identifying with? The one that promotes and reinforces race and class oppression, and explains away the genocide of empire as a civilising mission? Or the one of relentless activism that secured for us the very fragile freedoms that we have today?