The UK government has officially declared the June 25th celebrations One Britain, One Nation (OBON) Day. As part of a campaign to promote British patriotism, the day has been a long-standing endeavor that few months ago hardly anyone outside a group of schools in West Yorkshire had heard of. But it has accumulated since then Celebrity support, discussed in parliament and now Gone viral.
Written by students and their music teacher at an elementary school in Bradford, the OBON anthem video shows children waving union flags and singing lyrics like “Strong Britain, Great Nation” and has been viewed over 3 million times.
That sudden interest was sparked by Education Secretary Gavin Williamson, who praised the campaign. With such Whitehall enthusiasm, we would be forgiven for thinking the government made this whole thing up on its own.
The actual story of OBON Day is more complex. But the government’s endorsement of the celebrations is part of a wider, controversial initiative to use schools to promote “British values”.
Indeed, this is the ninth year One Britain One Nation Day is celebrated annually. In 2005, former Police Inspector Kash Singh founded OBON as a Society of Public Interest. Singh came to the UK from Punjab at the age of six and did not speak English.
He has stated that he would like to see “everyone feel part of this great country”. His project, he said, aimed to “harness the power of all of our people to build a proud nation where everyone has a strong sense of belonging and strives to play an important role in the life of our nation”.
At Singh’s instigation, OBON Day celebrations have since taken place in Bradford and West Yorkshire. That year, the campaign caught the attention of notable MPs, including ex-Cabinet member Esther McVey, who got Boris Johnson to endorse them on the Prime Minister’s questions in May. This was followed by an official confirmation with a post on the Twitter account of the Ministry of Education, calling on schools to celebrate the day.
While some MPs have confirmed the Ministry of Education’s support for the project, others have criticized it for allegedly nationalistic undertones. The song was mocked all over the social media. Memes have drawn a comparison with totalitarian regimes. Scottish Prime Minister Nicola Sturgeon said she thought it was a parody.
The Welsh Football Association has since suggested that Welsh students sing their nation’s anthem, Mae Hen Wlad Fy Nhadau, instead. It’s a subtle indication of how the campaign does not recognize decentralization. It also vividly illustrates the heated debate the campaign is sparking on issues of patriotism and national identity and what we teach our children.
It is noticeable that the government expressed its support for OBON Day in a commitment to so-called fundamental British values. In 2012 it introduced an obligation for schools to promote democracy, the rule of law, individual freedom, and mutual respect and tolerance.
Although ideas of respect and tolerance apparently have broad appeal, this legal requirement for teachers has been controversial. The research has critically examined their motivations and links to the counter-terrorism prevention strategy. Overall, the Department of Education’s encouragement to celebrate more schools in celebration of OBON Day can be seen as the latest in a series of actions over the past decade to promote values, virtues, morals and character building.
In my upcoming book, I will trace these curriculum initiatives and related extracurricular activities. The Ministry of Education’s focus on character-building programs in sports, music, and volunteering for school children has grown with the push to implement military ethos programs and cadet units in schools. In this context, Gavin Williamson’s support for OBON is hardly surprising.
What great nation?
One recently survey found that there are still deep divisions in terms of the Brexit referendum. In that case, you might be wondering if the mood of something like OBON Day could actually be restful.
The problem is that Britain is not one nation but a union of four: England, Wales, Scotland and Northern Ireland, the latter not being part of Great Britain. The fact that this celebration takes place on June 25th puts Scottish schools on the sidelines, many of which are already closed for the holidays by that time. Education is also a decentralized issue, and that Welsh government stressed that it was “not involved in this project”.
This incoherence in the campaign seems to have been overlooked by the government. A similar dynamic can also be seen in other projects that she has supported. The National Citizen Service, for example, is a government sponsored youth volunteer program, but only operates in England and Northern Ireland. My research shows how its name and brand overlook decentralization and how this has ultimately hampered its potential for implementation in other parts of the UK.
It is unclear how many children will participate in OBON activities. In fact, its reach still seems largely limited to the West Yorkshire schools that knew about it before the song went viral. However, the approval of the Ministry of Education is important. It shows Westminster’s continued desire to promote basic British values in schools at a time when education is increasingly becoming a broader one Culture war deserves much more attention.