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Archive for June 2nd, 2013

A few months after becoming an MP in 2010, Nick Boles, the Conservative member for Grantham, wrote a fascinating book, Which Way’s Up. It outlined several policy ideas, a fair few of which have since been picked up by ministers.

Which is not surprising because before he was an MP, Boles was the founding director of the distinctly Cameroon think tank Policy Exchange. He is also an ex-flatmate of Education Secretary Michael Gove, who also helped found Policy Exchange.

Re-reading it recently, I was struck again by one particular proposal – to introduce a US-style pledge of allegiance in British primary schools. Of course, the gut instinct is to recoil at something so ghastly, so American and so unBritish…but when you think it through, it does have an appeal.

And it’s also fascinating that among the admittedly small sample of people with whom I’ve discussed it, those of a more recent migrant background have been most in favour.

As Nick points out in his book (the extract is copied below), the wording would be crucial, but it would not be an oath of loyalty to the Queen, such as that sworn by MPs each new Parliament. Neither would it be compulsory.

But it would instil in people of all backgrounds a “commonality”, as he puts it.

He’s now a Planning Minister, a job in which he has succeeded in upsetting the Telegraph, the Mail and Simon Jenkins with his demands to build more homes for people on Britain’s “green belt”. When I spoke to him last week he said he was still very keen on the pledge idea. The events of Woolwich have underlined a lingering sense of mistrust between communities.

And here in Tower Hamlets, I suspect those feelings are starker at grassroots level than most politicians would have us all believe.

I also spoke to Labour MP Barry Sheerman about the idea last week and his thoughts were equally absorbing. He made a similar suggestion in November 2001, two months after 9/11 when he was chair of the Commons Education Committee. He also remains keen on the idea and supports the call by Nick Boles, but what he would like to see ingrained in pledge is a sense of citizenship. He said he was particularly concerned about the disregard for equal women’s rights in some communities (he cited the grooming cases in Rochdale and Oxford as examples). He said there needed to be an emphasis on that from an early age.

Respect for our nation, a pledge to treat all equally, and respect for all religions and backgrounds…? What would you have in it?

I wrote a piece in today’s Sunday Express here, and it’s copied below. Under that is the extract from Nick’s book.

A US-STYLE pledge of allegiance should be introduced into Britain’s schools as a way of uniting the country’s diverse communities, one of the most influential ministers in Government urged yesterday.

Nick Boles, a close friend of Education Secretary Michael Gove and David Cameron, said the changing face of Britain meant the common bonds that united previous generations had weakened after years of large-scale immigration.

He said it was time to learn from America which has for decades encouraged children to start the school day with a pledge upholding the values of patriotism, liberty and justice for all.

Reciting a simple 10-second sentence from an early age has successfully instilled a “commonality” in Americans regardless of ethnic or religious background, he argues.

Having largely succeeded in the US, which was founded on mass migration, he said it could be part of the solution—and a cost-free one–for an increasingly multicultural UK.
The wording of the pledge would be open for public debate, but as in America, it would not be compulsory to recite, he said.

He would not want it to be a solemn oath of loyalty to the Crown, such as the one sworn by MPs, but he said it could make reference to the Queen and other institutions—and also to themes such as equal rights for women.

He said slightly amended pledges could be used in Wales, Scotland and Northern Ireland to reflect their own national identities.

The brutal murder of Drummer Lee Rigby in Woolwich 11 days ago, and the anti-Muslim response to it from the likes of the English Defence League, underlined the need for longer-tem action.

He believes when Britain was largely a Christian country populated by peoples of similar races, such “artificial” measures were not necessary, but policymakers now need to be much more assertive about creating unity.

He told the Sunday Express he would like to see the idea introduced if not by the Coalition before 2015, then as part of the next Tory manifesto in two years’ time.

A former flat-mate of Mr Gove and member of Mr Cameron’s inner circle, he is regarded as one of the freshest thinkers in Government.

He founded the Policy Exchange think tank in 2002 and many of his ideas have since become flagship Tory policies.

He first mapped out the idea for a pledge in his book Which Way’s Up, which he wrote shortly after the 2010 General Election as a new backbench MP for Grantham.

Now a Planning Minister, he said diplomatically yesterday: “I stand by the idea and it certainly still has merit but it’s for others to work out if it has some potential.”

He accepts that some might see the pledge as “unBritish”, but a source close to him said: “It would just be a moment that children would get used to.

“It would instill in them, however many the number of first languages in the classroom that they’re in, a sense they’re all part of one thing which is rather great.”

His idea was backed by senior Labour MP Barry Sheerman, who made a similar call as chairman of the Education Select Committee two months after the 9/11 terror attacks in 2001.

Mr Sheerman said yesterday: “I’m all for setting a number of values that are the commonplace of a decent, civilised society in a modern democracy.

“And absolutely ingrained in that should be the equal rights of women because I think that’s the thing most in danger today among certain societies who don’t believe that equality of women is not unquestionable.”

In his book, Mr Boles wrote: “The process of assimilating and integrating is a crucial first step to restoring a sense of one nation.

“Recitation of the pledge would not be compulsory – that would be offensive to the freedom of speech that is one of the hallmarks of our democracy. 
“But it would not need to be.

“If it were introduced in the first year of primary school and established as a daily convention to which most children and teachers adhered, then it would generate its own gravitational pull.

“In later years, when older children see a refusal to take part as a pleasing act of rebellion, the social norm would be established, its power asserted by the very fact that it triggers teenage revolt.”

The US pledge was first introduced in schools in 1892 and reads: “I pledge allegiance to the Flag of the United States of America, and to the Republic for which it stands, one Nation under God, indivisible, with liberty and justice for all.”

This is from Which Way’s Up, by Nick Boles MP:

The process of assimilating and integrating is a crucial first step to retoring a sense of one nation. But the 7 July bombings demonstrate that it can take time for a sense of alienation in migrant communities to manifest itself. People who themselves took the initiative to move to Britain are often more willing to integrate than their children, who were born in Britain but may encounter racism while growing up, and can become confused by the apparent clash between the inherited values of their families’ religion or culture and the acquired values of modern, secular Britain.

Even if future levels of net migration are restrained by some of the policies outlined above, there is still much to do to help the children of everyone who has made their home here in the last forty years feel bound to their compatriots by common values, a shared culture and mutual respect and understanding.

The process needs to start when children first go to school. One of the way the US has achieved a remarkable level of assimilation and integration, despite constant flows of new migrants from a kaleidoscope of countries, is by establishing the convention that all public schools begin the working day with a recitation of the pledge of allegiance. “I pledge allegiance to the flag of the United States of America, and to the republic for which it stands, one nation under God, indivisible, with liberty and justice for all,” they intone.
 
It is time to introduce a similar ceremony in British schools. While the precise wording of the pledge should be left to better writers and philosophers than me, I think we need something more than the oath of allegiance required of MPs and other officeholders, which requires allegiance only to the monarch and her successors. Instead, it should make brief reference to the essential institutions to which we wish all British children to develop an instinctive loyalty (the monarchy, the union and Parliament) as well as vital concepts such as freedom and the rule of law. Children in Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland could recite a slightly different pledge, referring to their own nation and its democratic institutions.

Recitation of the pledge would not be compulsory – that would be offensive to the freedom of speech that is one of the hallmarks of our democracy. But it would not need to be. If it were introduced in the first year of primary school and established as a daily convention to which most children and teachers adhered, then it would generate its own gravitational pull. In later years, when older children see a refusal to take part as a pleasing act of rebellion, the social norm would be established, its power asserted by the very fact that it triggers teenage revolt.

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