In the last few weeks, as the phrase has floated back and forth, like a cloud over the post-election horizon, I have found myself mulling precisely what “British values” are.
If there are values that are specifically “British” then they must be unique to this nation and different from values anywhere else.
Otherwise, why keep insisting that they are “British” values? And let’s face it, there has been little meat on the bones of that soundbite.
I suspect that most Britons like to think that we’re a fairly tolerant lot, so is tolerance a ‘British value’? In which case, does no other nation share it or, if they do, have they nicked the idea from us because we created it – hence it being a particularly ‘British value’?
Freedom of speech, perhaps? Exactly the same questions apply.
Freedom from illegal imprisonment? I suppose we can go back to Magna Carta on this one – fitting, in the year of its 800th anniversary. Of course, in that document, it was not about the plebs being protected from illegal imprisonment, but rebellious barons having a right to be tried by their peers.
However, let’s not get too pedantic about these things.
This, though, might give you an idea of my problem: I’m looking for a value that is quintessentially British and I can think of not a one – well, certainly not without resorting to sarcasm.
There’s going to be no suggestion here that there are ‘universal’ values, because a glance around the world would show that to be far from the case.
Values have to be developed, and while the West shares many of the same values – not least as a result of western Europe in particular having experienced the Enlightenment at the same time – other parts of the world do not. They may at some point in the future, but they do not now.
And values are not set in stone, they evolve over time: see the changing attitudes toward LGBT people in the UK – and the West in general – over the last 50 years. Which, of course, illustrates that, if tolerance is a value we rate particularly in the UK, why are we only in recent years become tolerant toward such people, both in terms of most of the populace and the country’s institutions?
But David Cameron’s post-election statement that our society has been ‘passively tolerant’ for too long, allowing things if they were within the law, is perhaps the most sinister uttering from a UK politician in a very long time.
Nobody will be in doubt as to which group are the main targets of this pumped-up rhetoric. This is about Muslims, radicalisation and extremism, and how to avoid the second and third in that list. And few people would object to that aim or fail to understand how important it is.
Last November, the then government released advice to maintained schools on Promoting fundamental British values as part of SMSC in schools.
The document is quite clear that the main issue it was addressing was situations where teaching of religious law might conflict with law in this UK.
It also states that “fundamental British values” are “democracy, the rule of law, individual liberty, and mutual respect and tolerance of those with different faiths and beliefs”.
Which is all well and good, but brings us right back to the question of what about any of these is so fundamentally ‘British’?
Interestingly, that doesn’t mention ‘free speech’, although one could probably suggest that that would fall within “individual liberty”.
The next question after that, though, is why, if they’re so fundamental, do all schools not have to promote these values and only maintained ones? This actively excludes any religious school, for instance, that is operating in a realm without state funding.
Perhaps one could avoid some issues by having a strictly secular education system where every child, no matter their religious background, has access to thought and debate that can show them a world beyond the strictures of the faith that their parents have decided they belong to?
At present, we have a situation where religious schools, for instance, can opt out of sex education to some degree or other.
Should it not be a fundamental value that all young people, irrespective of the religious beliefs (or lack thereof) of their parents, has the right to a clear and informed education about something like sex?
Ours is the same system where, at present, one particular religious sect can say that it will ban any child from its schools if they are driven to school bytheir mother, because women should not drive – but it’s okay because none of the women want to drive.
Indeed, only yesterday, the school’s leaders have claimed that such a ban is essential to maintaining “religious principles and strong traditional values” and noting that, “as private schools we have the freedom to set our own high standards by which we seek to live and bring up our children.”
Ah yes, “high standards” that include telling girls that it’s ‘immodest’ for a woman to drive a vehicle. And see that bit about being a private school allowing such things.
Let’s be clear: this is no more in tune with ‘British’ values than brainwashing children with any other religious, fundamentalist bigotry and idiocy.
A properly secular education system is far from being the be all and end of dealing with fundamentalist religion, as the situation in France illustrates, but it could help to break down the ghettoising effect of religion in general.
By all means have your places of worship and your religious traditions in the home, but education should be a free space for pupils.
We need to be encouraging young people to be able to think more philosophically – and not to run scared of ideas that may challenge their beliefs.
We need to promote the idea that nobody has a right to be not offended or have their beliefs challenged. We do not need anything that drives us down the same infantilising path as in the US, where students increasingly object when anyone voices a view that challenges their own – and run away to ‘safe rooms’ full of videos of playful puppies and Play Doh.
What can never work, though, is destroying precisely the things we claim to be defending – in the name of defending them.
The censorship and the increased snooping that are being proposed; the replacement of human rights legislation with a bill of rights – with the degree of rights one is afforded dependent on where one is from; the suggestion that simply living within the law will no longer be good enough for some to avoid government intervention … all these are absolutely the opposite of what most people would consider to be ‘our’ values.
In particular, that statement on ‘passive tolerance’ is pernicious. Few people would be actively supportive of terrorists of any ilk, but such vague statements can only give rise to a feeling that we are moving into the realms of an assault on free speech; of thought crime, even.
If someone says, for instance, that ‘the Charlie Hebdo murderers had a point’, will that now be a cue for state intervention?
And if so, how long before saying that the government’s heads should be on spikes for all to see be put on the same level?
Who gets to choose, once the rationale has ceased to be breaking the law? Start down such a route and you’re on a very slippery slope.
And saying that only one group has its capacity for free speech impinged upon is really not a way to defeat the substantial issues of the radicalisation of the young.
Frankly, it’s like handing the extremist groomers an additional recruitment tool, never mind doing one of the sort of things that the very same people would like to do to us, in attacking our way of life.
Double standards and bad laws win no hearts and minds.
And it would be hoped that they were most certainly not what anyone views as ‘British values’.