The people confront the king in the Peasants' Revolt of 1381, 'when ordinary folk rose in rebellion at a poll tax. Women such as Johanna Ferrour played a key role.' Photograph: Bettmann/Corbis
The government's crusade to embed "British values" in our education system is meaningless at best, dangerous at worst, and a perversion of British history in any case. It's meaningless because our history is the struggle of many different Britains, each with their own conflicting sets of values.
For example, the values of many post-Thatcher Conservatives are predominantly neoliberal, drawn from an ideology that champions the extraction of commercial value from everything and that has little respect for national boundaries. Indeed, its founding fathers are the likes of the American economist Milton Friedman and the Austrian Friedrich Hayek. At a Conservative research department meeting, Thatcher once slammed down a copy of Hayek's The Constitution of Liberty, declaring: "This is what we believe!"
My own values, on the other hand, are inspired by a variety of Welsh, Scottish, English and foreign socialists. Where modern Tories promote dog-eat-dog individualism, ruthless competition and the supremacy of private profit, I believe in solidarity, collective action and a fundamental redistribution of wealth and power. My opponents would characterise their own values rather more sympathetically and mine less so, but the point of agreement should surely be that there is a chasm between us. It will be said that we are united by a common belief in democracy, but this is hardly a specifically British value – and, in any case, my perception of a democracy that is continually imperilled by Tory-backed corporate and private interests is rather different to theirs.
Where the government's agenda becomes dangerous is if one side claims its values are those of the nation as a whole. This is an age-old strategy of authoritarian regimes and movements, used to exclude, ostracise or suppress dissidents. The instrument of McCarthyism to persecute the US left, after all, was the House Committee on Un-American Activities. But we've seen this at work in our own country recently. The Daily Mail declared that Ralph Miliband was the "man who hated Britain" because he was a Marxist who opposed institutions such as the monarchy, the Church of England and the army. Not deferring to the status quo, in its view, is not just un-British, but anti-British.
It is an agenda based on the twisting of British history too. Magna Carta – an English, rather than British document – will be the centrepiece of the values campaign. David Cameron wants "every child" to learn about it. Given that speaking English normally heads lists of skills required by those who like to define the British way of life, it is amusing that a document originally written in Latin, before it was translated into French after four years, is being exalted like this. Here was a charter imposed by powerful barons – hardly nascent democrats – on the weak King John to prevent him trampling on their rights: it didn't satisfy them, and they rose in revolt anyway. It meant diddly squat to average English subjects, most of whom were serfs.
Only in the 17th century did it begin to win its central place in English mythology: it suited Levellers and other radicals to portray themselves as reactionaries, attempting to turn the clock back and reassert ancient rights that had supposedly been trampled on. After all, the word "revolution" comes from the Latin revolvere, or to "turn back".
But here's the point. There is a history of Britain that is about empire, aristocracy, monarchy, the established church, exploitative employers, and so on. The Tory view of history is founded on the myth of a benevolent elite granting carefully managed change out of goodwill and generosity. But there is another history, of struggle from below against those in power – often at great cost and sacrifice – by ordinary people who are airbrushed from history. These different histories inform a schism in values that lasts to this day.
This other history goes back to the Peasants' Revolt of 1381, when ordinary folk rose in rebellion at a poll tax. It wasn't just led by men: women such as Johanna Ferrour played a key role (court documents damn her as "chief perpetrator and leader of rebellious evildoers from Kent"). Tens of thousands of people – ranging from roofers and bakers to millers and parish priests – marched on Blackheath, where the Lollardpriest John Ball publicly questioned the class system: "When Adam delved and Eve span, who was then the gentleman?" Widespread defiance against the ruling elite would re-emerge in the 17th century: we had our own revolution a century-and-a-half before the French stormed the Bastille. The king was deposed, and radical movements like the democratic Levellers and socialistic Diggers flourished.
Resistance to authority is a value threaded through our history. When six Dorset labourers were transported to Australia in the 1830s for organising a primitive trade union, 800,000 signed a petition demanding freedom for the Tolpuddle Martyrs. In the following years, the Chartists emerged – the world's first great working-class political movement. Today the suffragettes are treated as vindicated heroes, but they were force-fed in prisons and demonised as terrorists and anarchists in the early 20th century. Those who fought sexism, racism and homophobia – like the first LGBT demonstration in London in 1970, when 150 protesters were outnumbered by police officers – were demonised and persecuted in their time.
The welfare state, the NHS, workers' rights: these were the culmination of generations of struggle, not least by a labour movement that had set up the Labour party – controversially at the time – to give working people a voice. The values and interests of Britons have always been pitted against each other.
It is this history – of a very different Britain to that championed by this government – that underpins my values. It helps drive me to oppose the values underpinning Cameron's administration, which justify policies that kick the poor – such as the bedroom tax – while shovelling even more wealth into the hands of the richest, through tax cuts and privatisation. It's also why I think people should be inspired by the values and traditions of our ancestors who fought back, and emulate their example.
So if the coalition wants a divisive struggle over "values", fine – bring it on. But if the government's rationale is that "values" will unite the nation, it had better think again.