British values are back in fashion. They were introduced by Gordon Brown during Tony Blair’s Labour government:
We can find common qualities and common values that have made Britain the country it is. Our belief in tolerance and liberty which shines through British history. Our commitment to fairness, fair play and civic duty’.
They surfaced again in 2011, in the Coalition government’s Prevent strategy, intended to counter the attractions of ‘unBritish values’ such as Islamist jihadism. Then they bobbed up again late in 2014, when the same government issued advice to maintained schools in England (private schools didn’t seem to need it) on how to include such values in their SMSC (spiritual, moral, social and cultural) curriculum.
Now David Cameron is back on the warpath. The Conservative government’s first Queen’s Speech proposes easier ways of banning ‘extremist’ groups and individuals – whether or not they they’ve broken the law. Theresa May, the Home Secretary, explained that this was part of a programme to ‘actively promote British values’, which include, according to her, ‘things like democracy, a belief in democracy, a belief in the rule of law, a belief in tolerance for other people, equality, an acceptance of other people’s faiths and religions’.
On last Sunday’s Broadcasting House (Radio 4) Jonny Dymond took a train south from Glasgow, asking ordinary people what they thought British values were. In his questioning he continually confused British values and British identity, and his questions were often leading ones (he seemed to have race on the brain). Not surprisingly, he received mostly confused and confusing responses. In Darlington (‘how white!’, commented Jonny) and places south a long list of words was offered to him, including fairness, the judicial system, queuing, accepting of others’ values, friendliness, stiff upper lip, humour, democracy, monarchy, honesty, Christianity, tolerance and understanding. It was left to Prof. John Curtice at the end of the item to dispel the muddle and make the critical distinction between fundamental moral principles affecting behaviour (values) and perceived or self-perceived ‘national’ traits or identifications (identity).
Fortunately Dymond did come across one person, in Glasgow, who cut through to the truth about ‘British values’. He was a retired engineer, an Egyptian who’s lived for 25 years in Britain. He spoke more eloquently and truthfully than any of the ‘true British’ (mostly English) speakers interviewed later. ‘Don’t ask me!’, said the engineer, I can’t tell you what they are, because the values I hold dear – care, compassion, living together, peacefulness, justice – are not British but human values, shared by most people of humanity and fellow-feeling around the world. Values, too, he continued, that were embraced by mainstream Islam (and by extension other religions). Dymond seemed to find the man’s views surprising, and journalistically deflating, but perhaps he’s shares a belief in ‘British exceptionalism’ with most of his other interlocutors.
It’s one thing to point out the fallacy behind ‘British values’, as did John Curtice and the Glasgow engineer, but another thing to prevent it being reproduced and believed. The sad truth is that we’re likely to hear a great deal more about British values, whether we like it or not. The reason is that it’s simply far too politically convenient and advantageous a formula to be abandoned so easily – despite the contradictions and difficulties it brings with it.
Let’s take a couple of these contradictions and difficulties first. The problem for a government advocating specific values is that it’s easy to show that the government itself consistently fails to be true to them. Take Theresa May’s ‘things like democracy, a belief in democracy’. The current Westminster government, like its predecessors, has been content to leave a wholly undemocratic institution, the House of Lords, at the heart of our constitution. It’s also happy to perpetuate a voting system, first-past-the-post, that has grossly unrepresentative, and therefore undemocratic, outcomes. And it gladly supports, with diplomacy, trade deals and arms, regimes like those in Saudi Arabia and China that are unashamedly antidemocratic.
Close friendship with Saudi Arabia, the exporter of Wahhabi fundamentalism, is a similar embarrassment for a government trying to tout ‘tolerance for other people’ as a British value. Another of May’s ingredients, equality, is even harder to square with the fact that economic equality in the UK has widened dramatically since the late 1970s, with the collusion and indeed encouragement of successive governments. Even ‘a belief in the rule of law’ has its difficulties for a government that has deliberately reduced the ability of poor people to have recourse to the law, through the emasculation of the legal aid system and the introduction of the criminal courts charge.
There’s a further problem, ignored in the Broadcasting House piece. People who use the term ‘British values’ generally treat the word ‘British’ as if it’s unproblematic. These tend to be English people who conflate ‘British’ with ‘English’. But you only have to turn to Northern Ireland to be thrown into a centuries-old conflict between two communities about the relevance of that word to their entire world view, let alone their values. Could ‘Scottish values’ be rather different from ‘British values’? Its recent history suggests that some at least of the prevailing political beliefs of Scotland differ from those of England. The Scottish Social Attitudes surveys suggest that Scots tend to be rather less tolerant of inequality, privilege and the erosion of social security. Wales, too, though to a lesser extent, might share some of these misgivings about ‘British’ values.
Suspicions about ‘British values’ and their threats to our liberties are not confined to the left. Here’s a conservative writer in the Catholic Herald:
Talk of defending British values is a smokescreen. It makes the unsustainable assumption that all values are reconcilable in the public sphere, which is true only in so far as we are allowed to espouse them. If the ‘‘right’’ to gay marriage trumps the right of the Church to teach its values on the subject, and a ‘‘woman’s right to choose’’ does the same against the right to argue the pro-life case, then we are really arguing that only one set of values is “British”. If the right not to hear street preachers call sin by its name is valued above the right to proclaim the Gospel, then Christians – and others – might well wonder about whether the values at play here are ones they share. The idea of trusting a religiously illiterate state to make these fine distinctions in the name of its definition of “British values” should concern us all.
All these doubts about ‘British values’, rational though they may be, aren’t likely to bury the phrase in its deserved grave. Like Dracula it will be back with the darkness. In many of the big constitutional debates on the horizon there’ll be many who won’t be able to resist reaching for it and exploiting it.
In the battles preceding the referendum on Britain’s membership of the European Union both sides – not just the Faragistes – will claim that they’re defending core British values, against wicked or misguided continentals, or against insular and reactionary chauvinists.
For all the caution on display in SNP circles it seems almost inevitable that a second referendum on Scottish independence will be held within the next ten years, especially if the current London government remains in place and holds to its radical-right direction. If so, expect still more ‘British values’ talk, alongside more materialistic arguments for retaining the union.
A possible conflict that will add most fuel to the values fire is the one over the Human Rights Act. Despite strong opposition from some its supporters the Westminster government, according to the Queen’s Speech, is intent on finding a way of abolishing the Act and probably withdrawing Britain from the jurisdiction of the European Court of Human Rights. Its preferred replacement, a ‘British Bill of Rights‘, immediately raises questions about whether there are such things as distinctively ‘British’ rights – and presumably the values that underlie them. If the Government has its way, rights that are perfectly British – because incorporated in international as well as European law shared by Britain since the Second World War – will be abolished or diluted, all in the name of those chimerical ‘British values’.