Not so long ago, I was standing at the back of an Islington school hall in an ecstasy of paternal pride. The seven-year-old was playing Queen Victoria, spangled with plastic diadems, and though she had only one line, she belted it out in a particularly regal way. She had to pin a medal on the chests of two other kids – it was some kind of educational pageant about the Crimean War – and then she said: “Well done, Florence Nightingale and Mary Seacole! Without you we could not have won the war!”
When the applause had died down, I turned to my neighbour and chuckled sardonically. Hur hur, I said. Mary Seacole, eh? My daughter had briefed me that this “Mary Seacole” was a black nurse who was “just as important as Florence Nightingale”, and I wanted to make it clear to my fellow parents that I was not taken in.
As far as I could tell, history was being rewritten, for overtly political ends. I mean: Florence Nightingale we all knew. But this “Mary Seacole”, I whispered to the Islington mums around me, she’s just been invented, hasn’t she? It’s just political correctness, I said. They want to find a historic British role model for all those black nurses, don’t they? Hmmm?
My neighbour looked at me with horror, as if to say, shaddap you Right-wing wacko with your numbingly predictable provocations; and so I contented myself with a last cynical snort, and fell silent.
It was only when I got home that I was afflicted by a small pang of conscience, and thought that I had better check; and stone me, there was someone called Mary Seacole; and she was indeed black; and she was very distinguished.
She was born in 1805, in Kingston, Jamaica, and travelled all over the place, setting up a hotel and becoming skilled in the pathology of cholera. She was in London when she heard about the appalling conditions in the Crimean hospitals, and in spite of the obstructions of the bureaucracy she muscled her way out there and did so much good that after the war a benefit festival was organised in her name by Lord Rokeby and Lord Paget, at which a thousand performers shouted her name.
She was briefly so famous that The Times later wondered how England could forget the many services she had done to nursing, and praise only Florence Nightingale.
In fact, she seems to have been such a megastar that I find myself facing the grim possibility that it was my own education that was blinkered, and that my children are now receiving a more faithful account of heroism in imperial Britain than I did.
And yet even if I was on to something first time round, and there is a slight push in our primary schools to big up the role of Mary Seacole, the real question is whether that is such a bad thing. This school pageant concerned a fascinating period of British history; the seven-year-olds shed an interesting light on that period; and, above all, the whole thing was conducted in English.
In other words no one could say that this was a multicultural history lesson. Whatever its deficiencies, the point was that it was inclusive, not divisive.
It was multiracial, certainly, but then you would expect that in a part of London where 80 per cent of the population growth is in the immigrant communities, and 29 per cent of the population is already black or Asian.
The idea was to find something that united everyone – and that is the very opposite of multiculturalism, and the mad segregation we have had over the past 30 years. Everyone is now banging the drum for Britishness, after some of us started the tattoo two or three weeks ago. The Guardian wants more Britishness, and so does Trevor Phillips of the Campaign for Racial Equality, and so does David Davis, and so do I.
We’ve all got to be as British as Carry On films and scotch eggs and falling over on the beach while trying to change into your swimming trunks with a towel on. We should all feel the same mysterious pang at the sight of the Queen. We do indeed need to inculcate this Britishness, especially into young Muslims, and the problem is how.
It was not so much the horror of what they said on Newsnight, those Islamic wackos, one of whom, Abu Uzair, announced: “Even if I am British, I don’t follow the values of the UK. I follow the Islamic values. I have no allegiance to the British Queen whatsoever, or to British society.”
No, what was shocking was the unmistakably English accent in which they said it, the voices that marked them as complete products of our primary and secondary systems. We can’t give them electro-convulsive therapy to make them primarily loyal to Britain, and not to Islam. We can’t brainwash them. Americans all understand instinctively that they are equal citizens of the greatest country on earth, and they all have an equal chance of rising to the top of that country.
That is the idea of America, the American dream; and we have been comparatively hopeless at communicating any sense of the British dream, or the British idea. So what we must now do is begin the immense task with a few practical steps.
We should teach English, and we should teach in English. We should teach British history. We should think again about the jilbab, with the signals of apartness that it sends out, and we should probably scrap faith schools. We should forbid the imams from preaching sermons in anything but English; because if you want to build a society where everyone feels included, and where everyone shares in the national story, we cannot continue with the multicultural apartheid.
It will take time, but if you don’t believe it can be done, and you don’t think Muslims can be loyal to this country, then go and look at the number of Khans and Alis whose names are inscribed on the Menin Gate at Ypres. Read them and weep.