If you want to see exactly how Britain has turned itself from an unremarkably grotty island in a grey and chilly sea into a kind of brutally ironic Hell, consider visiting the Saltley Academy in Birmingham. This school is funded by the Department for Education, but is effectively run as an independent company. It has a mostly Muslim student body and was caught up in 2014's "Operation Trojan Horse" faux conspiracy. It also prominently features a large red cross pattée on a white shield one of its walls, with the slogan "I'm St. George. I'm here to defend: Tolerance, The Rule of Law, Freedom of Expression, Community, Equality, on behalf of everyone."
Whatever his actual historical background, St. George is a figure closely associated in the national psyche with the Crusades, a relation that the red cross on a white shield does little to dispel. When the invading Crusaders took the city of Ma'arrat al-Numan in what is now Syria, they indiscriminately slaughtered 20,000 inhabitants, and ate them. A 12th century chronicler neatly summed up the attitudes of the time when he wrote that "the Christians did not shrink from eating not only killed Turks or Saracens, but even dogs." In terms of good sense and cultural sensitivity, Saltley Academy's mural is a little like putting up a big poster of Idi Amin in the cafeteria, the tyrant in full British ceremonial uniform, stuffing a forkful of human flesh into his puffy cheeks, with the slogan "A Varied Diet is Good for You!" Or painting some jaunty Khmer Rouge slogans on the walls of an optician's.
In a way, that mural does reveal some of the truth of the situation: All our high-minded rhetoric about tolerance and freedom of expression is often just old-fashioned medieval racism given an unconvincing makeover. The mural was put up in tandem with the government's Prevent strategy, which aims to deter young people from being seduced by extremist Islam and to encourage them to embrace British values, apparently by smearing some of the worst of this country's history in their faces; letting them know British values include the idea that, at a pinch, Muslims make a decent substitute for roast beef.
Not that this was the intention, but the vague drooping nonsense about Community and Equality and Other Poorly-Defined Concepts That Require Capitalization to Avoid Collapsing Under the Weight of Their Own Abstraction does carry a set of ugly, racialized concepts. It's taken as read that Britain really is free and tolerant and inclusive; when young Muslim students are singled out as needing to be taught this particular message, the implication is that they, in particular, are intolerant, and therefore not tolerated; noninclusive, and therefore not to be included.
It shouldn't need to be said that Britain isn't free, or tolerant, or inclusive; it's a damp and wretched clod chiefly defined by mass idiocy, antique ethnic squabbling, and shiny new buildings that conceal century-long decay. This was nicely demonstrated recently by another example of the Prevent strategy in action, when it came to light that a 14-year old schoolboy in north London had been taken out of a lesson to be interviewed by officials over whether he was "affiliated with ISIS."
Under the Prevent strategy, teachers are supposed to watch out for any inappropriate religiosity on the part of their students; basically, they're being drafted as a part-time Stasi. In this case, the school was alarmed when—during a French lesson in which students had been discussing the environment—he had talked about environmental activists, and mentioned that some people refer to it as l'ecoterrorisme. He hadn't expressed any support for terrorism, eco or otherwise; he just said the word. The school reacted as if it were some magical incantation that turns ordinary kids into black-robed beheaders; as good Preventers, they had to notify the government. And the room in which this child was isolated and interrogated was—of course—called an "inclusion center."
These pleasingly waffly buzzwords, like "tolerance," or "inclusion," tend to have a sinister double aspect: They seem like the flaccid self-definition of a country still not used to thinking outside the terms of the empire it no longer has, while actually being a kind of weaponized irony. In practice, like with the "inclusion center," their meaning is always the opposite of what it appears to be. Take "Free Speech"—in the aftermath of the attack on Charlie Hebdo, thousands marched through the streets of Paris in defense of the freedom to say whatever you want, no matter how many people it might upset. The dominant slogan was "Je suis Charlie": it wasn't enough to be horrified by the murder of 11 people, you had to identify yourself with a stupid and offensive magazine.
Not long afterwards, an eight-year-old Muslim child was taken from school by police for saying he "felt he was on the side of the terrorists" because he was against caricatures of the Prophet when teachers repeatedly singled him out to ask if he, too, was Charlie. It was a simple and callous reminder: free speech is important—but ours, not yours. Our free speech is the freedom to say whatever we want, and your free speech is the freedom to agree with us—even if you're far too young to really understand the situation. Our tolerance is seething fear mongering that only just stops short of actually calling for you to be killed and eaten, and your tolerance is putting up with it. Our inclusion is a cold and intimidating cell, where we demand that children tell us which salafist gang half a world away ordered them to say the T-word in a classroom, and your inclusion is helping us put them there.
The Prevent strategy, as it stands, is colossally idiotic. It's hard to think of anything that would more efficiently drive an angsty and solitudinous teenager to Islamic fundamentalism. But what about all the other threats to our national welfare?
It's fair to guess that all the relentless bullshit about British Values is not a major feature of the school experience at (say) Eton, the spawning-grounds of our slimy ruling classes. (At my own school, which has also produced its fair share of high-powered tosspots, it was notably absent.) The news that this country is founded on principles of equality and inclusion might be a strange one for kids with eight middle names and titles dating back half a millennium, but surely it's something they need to be taught.
Public schools don't have police officers on standby to swoop in whenever students express the kind of radicalized class snobbery that might lead them to, one day, do things like systematically cut benefits provision. Posh white kids aren't taught that the long British tradition of decency and tolerance forbids one from hacking into the phones of dead children, or setting up a government strategy that sees millions of British schoolchildren as terrorists-in-waiting. If we're really serious about ensuring that people grow up learning good democratic values, that might be a good place to start.