The students boycotting Shakespeare

If you teach us, do we not learn?
Jewish students at Yesodey Hatorah school who boycotted an exam on the Merchant of Venice because they found it anti-Semitic, were backed by their head teacher, despite damaging their key stage 3 assessment results and demoting the school from 1st to 274th place in performance league tables. An ex-teacher of the school blogging on the Talkback message board for the online edition of Israeli newspaper Haaretz opposed Rabbi Pinter’s decision to support the students’ veto, advocating instead closer textual reading, but there were plenty more who supported the students.

The play David Jays once called a "nasty piece of work" here in the New Statesman was pronounced “one of the liveliest, toughest and most necessary conversations about art, prejudice and performance in Western culture” by Boyd Tonkin in the Independent. "What could be more pitiably prejudiced than to refuse to engage with it?" he asked, a view shared by Haaretz’s editor,
Simon Spungin.

Tonkin cited playwrights Harold Bloom and Arnold Wesker as examples of how Jewish engagement with the text could rescue the play from pound-of-flesh stereotyping.

‘Off’ to the Proms?

In the government’s quest to promote British values, Culture Minister Margaret Hodge declared the Proms an arcane cultural event with an exclusive audience that's "still a long way from demonstrating that people from different backgrounds feel at ease" in British cultural life. Although Gordon Brown was quick to clarify that the Proms are "a wonderful, democratic and quintessentially British institution", ex-Lambeth Councillor blogger
Gertsamtkunstwerk translated Hodge’s comments thus: "We can't begin to understand how you little people without our obvious advantages need anything more challenging than Coronation Street. Just crawl back to your hovels please." Over on the Guardian blog, South African-born David Juritz explained why Hodge was wrong for pronouncing the Proms an inclusive failure, and there were one or two sheepish souls grappling with an illiberal guilt for disliking so-called “alternative” cultural events: "I'm not comfortable at the Notting Hill Carnival. I went once and once it got dark I was really scared," StuartP conceded in a post. Telegraph blogger Rick, meanwhile, was quick to suggest a more temperate climate for "Comrade Hodge": "If La Hodge and her ilk do not like the Proms, Cuba still offers what they may have in mind, I'm sure expenses will cover their trip there."

The New Statesman had of course already probed the issue of cultural exclusivity last August, when Tory politician Brian Coleman railed about the sea of white faces that swathe the Promtime Albert Hall.

When life gets in the way…

- Died – Pavarotti - with debts of around £7 million (or £12 million, if the Daily Mail’s “official document” figure is to be believed). Properties worth considerably more than either sum may be sold to settle the debt providing daughters from the tenor’s first marriage cease inheritance-wrangling with second wife Nicoletta Mantovani.

- Revived - Bolshoi Ballet boss 81-year-old Soviet-era Yuri Grigorovich for a new 3-year directorship.

- Awakened - young people by pop music, and that’s sexually awakened by the way. A survey conducted by Jamaican researchers found that music rather than alcohol or peer pressure is the main instigator of sexual activity in young people aged between 9 and 17. A list of the top lust-inducing tunes has not yet been released.

Nichi Hodgson is a writer and broadcaster specialising in sexual politics, censorship, and  human rights. Her first book, Bound To You, published by Hodder & Stoughton, is out now. She tweets @NichiHodgson.

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On the important issues, Louise Casey all too often has little to say

Far from moving the debate on, this new report on integration adds little to the report I commissioned in 2001. 

For 15 years, “numerous government reports on community cohesion and integration have not been implemented with enough force or consistency” concludes Louise Casey’s review of  integration.  The government’s lukewarm response suggests their effort will be as “diluted and muddled” as all the rest.

There’s a deeper reason why governments shy away from the measures that are needed. The report's wealth of data sets out a stark if sometimes contestable picture of a divided society.  But no amount of data can really bring the lives of our fellow citizens to life. As the Brexit vote underlined, this is now a nation divided by class, geography, education, wealth, opportunity and race. Those divisions colour the way we live our lives, the way we see problems in society, the relations we have with others, and our political choices. The report, like many before it, stops short of setting out that reality. It’s easier to pretend that most of us pretty much agree on most things; but just few people don’t agree and they must be the problem. Predictably, much of the early coverage has focussed on the Muslim community and new migrants. If only it were so easy.

According to Casey “in this country, we take poverty, social exclusion, social justice and social mobility seriously” and we do it “across political divides”. Apparently “creating a fair, just society where everyone can prosper and get on” is a cornerstone of British values. Yet for page after page the report chronicles the serial failure of this benign consensus to tackle educational under-performance, and economic and racial disadvantage. If we all agree, how come we haven't done anything about it?

These problems are not certainly easy to solve, but more lip service is paid to tackling them than effort. The practical material issues documented here need addressing, but punches are pulled when hard answers are needed. Given the dramatic impact of mass migration on cohesion, is integration possible while current rates of immigration persist? Can we find the political will to tackle poverty and disadvantage when those who might benefit from the effort are divided against each other by suspicion, race, geography and values? After all, rather than progressive policies producing a cohesive society, social unity is the precondition for the introduction of progressive policies.

We don't actually actually agree on what our “fundamental values” mean in practice. We can all sign up to democracy and the rule of law, but as soon as those are put into practice – see the court case on Article 50 – we are divided. When judges are popularly seen as “enemies of the people” and a vote in an elected parliament as a threat to democracy, in what sense are law and democracy fundamental?

Casey usefully highlights how treating homeless families equally, irrespective of ethnicity and length of residence can create the perception that minorities are being favoured over long standing residents. Our differing views on what is “just” and how “fairness” are defined can tear us apart. Is it fair to favour the newcomer over the indigenous? Is it just to put length of time on the waiting list above housing need? We often don't even acknowledge the legitimacy of other points of view, let alone try to find common ground.

The continual invocation of Britain and British values lends an air of unreality to the report.  Most people in England include British in their identity, but Englishness and English interests are of growing importance. In a worrying development, some areas of England  may be polarising between a white Englishness and an ethnic minority Britishness. Integration won't happen without a shared national story that combines a unifying national identity with the acceptance that we all have more than one identity that matters to us. Ignoring the reality of complex and multiple identities closes off one essential way forward.

None of this means that the criticism of some reactionary and occasionally dangerous ideas and practices in the Muslim community should be ignored and not confronted. But in a country where the established church opposes homosexual relationships and praise for Vladimir Putin's Russia is now mainstream politics it is hard to believe that all our problems can be reduced to the behaviour of a minority of a minority community.

John Denham was a Labour MP from 1992 to 2015, and a Secretary of State 2007 to 2010. He is Director of the Centre for English Identity and Politics at Winchester University