On British Values and British Nature

‘Pride’ has always struck me a peculiar and entirely inappropriate way to express your feelings about your homeland. After all, the accident of having been born somewhere is hardly something over which you had either any choice or any control. But for all that, I’m certainly happy enough to call Britain ‘home’; and despite having had the good fortune to visit some wonderful parts of the world, and to work with people from many different countries, I have never seriously considered settling anywhere else. The one - fantastic -  extended period I did spend out of the country, as a student in France, made me realise how many things I do appreciate here. So I take a pretty personal interest in all the talk over the last few weeks about ‘Britishness’, ‘British Values’, and so on. Some of this talk is good natured - possibly triggered by sporting rivalries, although I am not aware of any recent sporting events of note - or well-intentioned commemorations of events from world wars I and II. Some stems, no doubt, from the imminent vote on Scottish independence, and from the rise of ugly nationalism in other parts of the country too. All of it is fanned of course by politicians, such as the minister for education who has his own peculiar views of what British values do, and don’t, imply for the way we teach our kids. Typically, if you’re properly British, the narrative goes, you should know the dates and the exploits of Great Men (and occasional women) from our Glorious Past.

My interest is not, however, particularly in such debates - if you want to read about them simply google “British Values” and take your pick from the 3/4 million hits returned. Rather, it is in something that these debates - and associated phenomena, such as the much ridiculed UK Citizenship Test - omit, but which for me is a key factor that roots me to this place. That is our natural history, in its widest sense - from the seacliffs and grouse moors to the buddleia and valerian cheering up neglected walls (and hungry pollinators) throughout my city right now.

The heros of this British narrative include the likes of Gilbert White and John Clare; key dates include 24th April 1932. But really this is not a narrative of ‘Great Men’ and their deeds. Rather, it embodies a set of values including a sense of curiosity and wonder at the natural world. These are universal, nor British; but understanding a little of the natural history of the nation to which fate has assigned you is as good a link as any to its deeper culture. Once gained, it’s an understanding - I would argue - that has the potential to enrich almost any interaction with the wider world. And what’s more, this ought to be within the reach of everyone, regardless of means.

‘Ought to be’; but is it? Debbie Coldwell, a PhD student with Karl Evans here in Sheffield, has been trying to find out how people interact with green space within urban settings, and in particular whether ‘nature’ has any impact on these interactions. Part of her study involved asking people to identify from photographs a set of twelve common species - birds (nuthatch, starling, linnet, blue tit), mammals (water vole, fox, hedgehog, mole), and plants (dandelion, daisy, wood sorrel, yellow rattle). Of the almost 300 people she has asked to date, no-one has yet identified all 12; the top score remains 10. But while most people (around 2/3) can identify between 4 and 8 species, almost 1 in 6 people could identify none at all.

Fancy, you might think, not knowing what a dandelion is, or a fox or a hedgehog. I just find that terribly sad, because without this basic knowledge of plants and animals you’re missing all of the culture wrapped up in them, documented for example in the Floras and Faunas Brittanica of Richard Mabey and Stefan Buczacki. I’ve written before about the profound effect that British wildlfe has had on my own life. I think I’d go so far as to say that I don’t think you can fully claim to embody ‘British Values’ without scoring pretty high on Debbie’s test.

Becoming a UK Citizen involves a 45 minute test on modern British life based on the book Life in the United Kingdom: A Guide for New Residents. This book promises information on (among other things) the values and principles of the UK, traditions and culture from around the UK, and the events and people that have shaped our history. Our natural history is, you will note, entirely lacking. Wouldn’t it be wonderful to introduce immigrants to our country to a range of the kinds of animals and plants that every child ought to be familiar with?

And shouldn’t it be our responsibility to ensure that every child is indeed familiar with these too?