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Chris McGovern: France still knows who it is. We have grievously lost our way


Andrew Neil’s impassioned denunciation of so-called Islamic State (Isis) on the BBC’s This Week news programme has won widespread applause and acclamation. He gave vent to the pent-up feeling of many of us. How could it be, he commented, that “a bunch of loser jihadists slaughtered 132 innocents in Paris to prove the future belongs to them rather than a civilisation like France”?

To remind us of that civilisation, Neil invoked the memory of:

“Descartes, Boulez, Monet, Sartre, Rousseau, Camus, Renoir, Berlioz, Cézanne, Gauguin, Hugo, Voltaire, Matisse, Debussy, Ravel, Saint-Saens, Bizet, Satie, Pasteur, Molière, Frank, Zola, Balzac, Blanc. Cutting edge science, world class medicine, fearsome security forces, nuclear power, Coco Chanel, Chateau Lafite, Coq Au Vin, Daft Punk, Zizou Zidane, Juliette Binoche, liberté, égalité, fraternité and crème brûlée.”

He might, equally, have reminded the fanatics of Vercingetorix, Jeanne d’Arc, Charles Martel, Lafayette, Marshall Ney, the defenders of Verdun in 1916, and Jean Moulin. French identity embraces ‘resistance’ as much as our own here in the UK.

I wonder, though, if we in the UK can still speak with such confidence about the status of our British identity as Andrew Neil does about the identity of France. There are few difficulties in composing a list of those, like’em or loathe’em, who traditionally are seem as having helped define our country and our values. Here are a random few:

Shakespeare, Locke, Churchill, Darwin, Elizabeth I, Newton, Fleming, Wilberforce, Guy Fawkes, Boudicca, Henry VIII, the Pankhursts, Wallace, Burke, Dylan Thomas, Scott, Elizabeth Fry, Elgar, Hardie, Chaplin, Jenner, Brunel, Lloyd George, Dickens, Marlborough, Nightingale, Turner, Drake, Alfred, Thatcher, Stopes, Nelson, Berners-Lee, Mary Quant, Victoria…and so on.

In a war of ideologies even my small selection seems well able to stand up to what Neil describes as an assault from an Isis ideology  based on: “Beheadings, crucifixions, amputations, slavery, mass murder, squalor – a death cult barbarity that would shame the Middle Ages.”

The only conceivable conditions under which such a barbaric distortion of religion might gain a hold in our country would be if the shared memory and the knowledge that defines our identity were to be eroded.

In a strange twist of fate, this is what is already happening; rather less through any propaganda of Isis than through a form of educational self-immolation.

We have a new National Curriculum for History that fails to require the teaching of any specific personality or event from British history. Islamic history and the history of West Africa, however, appear on a compulsory list alongside the Mayas of Central America, but it is entirely optional as to whether, for example, Magna Carta, Agincourt, Waterloo or either World War is taught.

The new English A-Level exam includes such literary luminaries as Russell Brand, Dizzee Rascal and Blackadder. They can only be taught at the expense of ditching some of the canon of our greatest literature. For GCSE Drama, “Mogadishu” is being taught to 14-year-olds, saturated as it is with themes of racism, bullying, violence, self-harm and suicide,  all wrapped up in a reported 218 uses of the F-word. Meanwhile, GCSE Music has descended to the option of ‘deejaying’.

Survey after survey indicates the ignorance of young people of the landmarks of our national identity. As former Education Secretary, Michael Gove, lamented “the trashing of our past” in schools. He could, certainly, ‘talk the talk’ but he needs to be judged by what he did rather than by what he said.

Meanwhile, the BBC has reported a survey “that revealed a generation of children with little knowledge of the most important stories forming the basis of Christianity, and parents who often knew little more.”

Andrew Neil is magnificent in his contemptuous dismissal of Isis and of all it represents. Sadly, I fear he is overlooking the fact that without the help of Isis we are still busy destroying ourselves. The schooling we provide our children carries much of the blame.

In his insightful book, England: An Elegy, Roger Scruton observed: “The proof that England is in the hands of her enemies, my father told me, can be found by looking out of the window.”

Political leaders and media commentators should take note.

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Chris McGovern
Chris McGovern
Chris McGovern is the Chairman of the Campaign for Real Education. A retired head teacher with 35 years’ teaching experience, Chris is a former advisor to the Policy Unit at 10 Downing Street under two Prime Ministers.

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