Archive oldie: David Floyd on schools and migrants (2002)

Citizenship of fools: Another new subject hits our schools, the government hits immigrants, David Floyd makes the connection.

One major thing immigrants and young people have in common is that, when something’s going wrong and politicians need someone to blame, they tend to end up in the firing line. Now, one way or another, both groups are about to be on the receiving end of lessons in how to play a full part in ‘new Britain’.

A few months ago we had a big hoo-hah when the government’s proposed changes to immigration and asylum policy suggested that foreign nationals applying for British citizenship would be forced, not only to demonstrate their language skills but also to received lessons in ‘Britishness’. Then, if they got through this nonsense without dying of laughter, they would then be treated to a ridiculous US style naturalisation party. After much furore, during which David Blunkett managed to offend several minority groups by making fatuous statements about arranged marriages and genital mutilation, it turned out that, while they might still get a party, immigrants probably won’t be subjected to lectures on the nature of ‘Britishness’ after all. The main reason for this being that no one, least of all new Labour, has any idea what ‘Britishness’ means.

A possible solution to this problem could be another one of David Blunkett’s big ideas, ‘Citizenship’ lessons in schools. This was pioneered when Blunkett was Education Secretary and it’s finally hitting the national curriculum this September. There will be a half GCSE in ‘Citizenship Studies’ and everyone who takes it will either turn out a successful or failed young citizen. There’s a danger of getting stuck in the mindset that, because new Labour is wrong about most things, they are automatically wrong about everything. But teaching young people about citizenship is a broadly sensible idea. The problem is that, if I had children and I wanted them to be taught about what it means to be a good citizen, I don’t think I’d want Estelle Morris and her Blairite chums to do it. This applies to most other subjects as well but citizenship is a subject with a political agenda.

It’s been suggested that citizenship lessons are crumbs chucked under the table at those bleeding hearts liberal types who’ve been writing long reports on the subject for obscure campaigning organisations. This is partly true but they’re also some flesh on new Labour’s decidedly boney masterplan to tackle voter apathy.

Young people are the least interested in voting of all and the idea is that if you give them lessons in how politics works, then they’ll more likely to vote. The problem is that, contrary to popular misconceptions, most young people in this country are some way ahead of your average government minister on the old arse from elbow question. Therefore it follows that, if citizenship gets taught properly and they really do find out how the political process works, they’ll be less likely to vote that ever, and even less to join a mainstream party.

The problem goes deeper than the fact that young people aren’t interested in politics. In fact, young people who do understand what new Labour are all about will often be even less likely to get out of bed to put their tick in the box. I recently had a conversation with Waltham Forest’s representative in the UK Youth Parliament. She wondered, quite reasonably, why Tony Blair’s plans to civilise the world with ‘the Daisycutter’ had not made it to his 2001 election manifesto. Are the almost 50% of the population who chose not to bother voting last year bad citizens or, as the progress of new Labour in this parliament suggests, just fairly shrewd judges of the rubbish on offer. Can it really be a coincidence that Britain and America, two countries where voters basically have a straight choice between two lots of slimy right-wingers dancing to the tunes of big corporations, a large number of voters are choosing to vote for nobody. It seems bizarre that while it’s important for schoolkids and immigrants to know what it means to be a citizen the rest of us are left to work it for ourselves. Especially in the context of the fact that none of these people are amongst the 40%+ of the electorate who chose not to vote in 2001.

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