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British values?

I’m late to this particular party because I’ve been distracted by other commitments and events including a couple of deaths in my wider family. That’s to the good, though, because I’ve had some time to read, reflect and research.

What follows is a commentary on the idea of ‘British values’. It’s prompted by the ‘Trojan horse’ episode a couple of months ago, in which it was alleged that four schools in Birmingham (and ultimately 21 schools in total) that already had substantial proportions of Muslim students had been targeted by radical Muslims who were planning to gain majority representation on the schools’ boards of governors, and put pressure on the schools to adopt a range of Islamic values and practices.

A subsequent investigation concluded that the evidence for this allegation was fabricated; but also that there were other cases in which such plots had occurred. It also concluded that some schools had already and willingly gone down this route – to the point that some schools with a majority of Muslim students had expunged almost all traces of Christian influence; they were for example unable to provide teaching of religious education to Christian students.

All this led to a more widespread debate about ‘extremist’ influence in schools, the extent to which it’s appropriate for any school to be operated on the basis of religious rather than secular values, and other matters I don’t particularly want to comment on here.

However it also prompted the Education Secretary, Michael Gove, and then the prime minister, David Cameron, to fulminate about the need to ensure that schools promote ‘British values’. Policy proposals followed quickly – there’s a story on the BBC website about this and one in The Guardian (19 June 2014) that will get you somewhat up to speed on these. I don’t particularly want to to comment on the policy issues either, but they do give me a point of departure for the post.

What exactly do we mean by ‘British values’? Because my instinct says that:

(1) like other terms such as ‘popular culture’, the idea of ‘British values’ only looks coherent from a distance. As soon as you start to investigate it close up, it’s suddenly a lot more messy.

(2) any ‘officially approved’ list of British values is going to be as complete and coherent as the idea of ‘officially approved’ art, or ‘officially approved’ pop songs. In other words the idea of a government telling us what British values are is inherently idiotic.

It’s a long discussion and, unusually for me, hits on quite a few political themes. So if you’re interested hit the ‘read more’ tag.

In the wake of the Trojan horse thing, the government did indeed rush to tell us what ‘British values’ are. David Cameron wrote a short essay on the subject, published on 15 July 2014 on the 10 Downing Street website and in the Mail on Sunday. It was intended to ‘mark the 799th anniversary of the Magna Carta’ and the values it identified were:

– a belief in freedom,

– tolerance of others,

– accepting personal and social responsibility, and

– respecting and upholding the rule of law.

Cameron continued by stating that ‘what sets Britain apart are the traditions and history that anchors them and allows them to continue to flourish and develop’. He illustrated these traditions and history by referring to parliamentary democracy and free press, the rule of law, courts and the independent judiciary, and the ‘various churches and faith groups that have come to call Britain home’.

And he argues that these values and traditions are important to us economically, because they enable free enterprise and deliver prosperity, and socially because they provide the basis for social integration.

Liberalism as a social value, he argues, needs to be actively promoted; and it should stake out boundaries that define levels of illiberalism and intolerance that are not considered acceptable (this is, incidentally, used to justify decisions such as requiring new immigrants to be able to speak English – I’d say that’s just a bit problematic, but let’s pass over that quickly).

The Magna Carta issue

Cameron also spends part of his essay discussing the Magna Carta of 1215 (a translation from the original Latin is at the British Library website). This was a significant statement of constitutional law for several reasons. It was imposed on King John by the feudal barons, and so is an example of a successful ‘popular’ (more or less!) protest against the king. It was designed to limit the king’s rights and protect the liberties of ‘freemen’ (that is, men who were not serfs and therefore were not bound to the control of the lord of their manor). It established a rule of law and political representation for freemen.

It was not the first such document – there had been a Charter of Liberties in 1100, at the beginning of the rule of King Henry I. However the Magna Carta is notable for having been the result of an open rebellion against the king that had run for around six years.

It was not wholly a success. The barons’ agenda was the overthrow of the king and this was simply one step along the way, a form of negotiation that prevented outright civil war. The barons were not wholly committed to it as an end to their own grievances; King John renounced key parts of it just months after the agreement was signed, and civil war followed (the First Barons’ War, 1215-17). However after King John died in 1216, the basic framework it set out did become a model for the governance of the state from that point onwards. A later, revised version of the Magna Carta from 1297 still remains on the English statute books though almost all its provisions have been repealed in their original form.

For what it’s worth, of the 61 clauses in the original Magna Carta, those remaining in force state that the ‘English Church’ shall be free and have its rights undiminished ; that the City of London shall enjoy all its ancient liberties and free customs; that no free man shall be imprisoned or stripped of rights or possessions except by lawful judgement; and that justice should never be denied, delayed or sold.

So what are we supposed to learn from the Magna Carta? I somehow suspect that Cameron expects us to read the Magna Carta as an important historical document that gives us the civil rights we have today. And there’s an element of truth in this, although though those rights took decades to be established and have been, centuries later, greatly eroded (almost all its provisions were repealed in the 1800s and 1900s).

But there are counter-interpretations. For example, that freedom is something that can only be won after a long struggle against government. That it might only be achieved on the back of mass protests and, potentially, civil war. Or should we equate the barons of 1215 with contemporary barons – multinational companies – who fight for their own interests and freedoms rather than those of the ‘serfs’?

Cameron should take note, in case he ends up positioning himself as ‘face of absolute despotism’ that the Magna Carta was intended to prevent…

Values in close-up

To return to my main theme: core British values are apparently a belief in freedom, tolerance of others, accepting personal and social responsibility, and respecting and upholding the rule of law.

All of these are good things – to borrow the American phrase, not believing in them is like not believing in Mom and apple pie. But as I’ve suggested, once you start looking at them close up they all appear to be rather messy concepts. In part, that’s because they’re all moving targets whose meaning has evolved over time; because how the government has defined them in its laws has tended to erode our substantive freedoms; and because the actions of individual members of parliament has shown that an unhealthy proportion of those in power don’t appear to have a particularly high regard for concepts such as personal and social responsibility and respect for rule of law.

Without wanting to labour these points, I’ll refer you to the discussion at Scriptonite Daily that details matters such as the increase in the period the police can detain someone without charge (24 hours prior to 1984, now 14 days); the advent of ASBOs in 1998, which enable a wide range of controls to be placed on an individual as a civil rather than criminal matter; moves to increase the range of matters that can be reserved to a closed court rather than proceedings being held in public; increasing restrictions on the right to protest (and the use of controversial police tactics to break up protests); and the rise in intelligence-gathering against ordinary citizens following the Regulation of Investigatory Powers Act 2000, and revelations about the extent of surveillance carried out by GCHQ. You might also find the discussion at politics.co.uk interesting.

As to MPs’ personal ideas of responsibility and the rule of law, we’ve had ‘cash for questions’ scandals (MPs asking questions in parliament in return for payment by lobby groups and others), expenses scandals (rather a lot of MPs claiming expenses illegitimately – a lot had to repay money and a couple were convicted of criminal offences), the involvement of Andrew Coulson, when he was a journalist, in hacking the phones of celebrities and others (an offence he’s now been jailed for, but while the scandal was unfolding he moved from journalism to PR work for the prime minister), and in the last few days, (a) allegations that several government figures were involved in a paedohpile ring and (b) the admission that information presented to the Home Secretary in the 1980s detailing these allegations was not investigated and the papers in which they were detailed were ‘lost’.

So one proposition we could debate is that the very values Cameron has declared ‘British’ are also the ones the government itself has been undermining.

That doesn’t mean the government has been deliberately setting out to undermine them. There’s probably a combination of individual and subcultural acceptance that rules are there to be exploited (expenses). And there are probably several different factors that have caused ‘mission creep’ in relation to curtailing other freedoms. Typical explanations include pressure from the police and other agencies such as the intelligence services to ‘get the tools to do the job properly’ (summarised in a BBC article reporting the Home Secretary replying to her critics and denying that Britain has become a ‘surveillance state’ – though the next day she called for more surveillance powers; see also the article detailing intelligence interception of social media); pressure from business and industrial interests to change the situation in ways that reduce the uncertainties they face; the complexity of modern life, where governments are expected to address issues such as extremism (and we’d be pretty concerned if they didn’t); and the compromises that have to be made in backroom agreements between politicians in order to get pretty much anything done.

British values, take 2

So now let’s have a second go at considering ‘British values’. And let’s acknowledge from the beginning that: they probably don’t make a coherent framework, and not everyone will support precisely the same values in the same way.

I’m not unhappy with the idea that ‘British’ values, in the sense of values that most people in Britain would subscribe to, include a belief in freedom. However this comes with two qualifications. Firstly, I suspect most people who don’t deal with the police on an everyday basis don’t actually realise how much freedom has been lost in the last few decades and how far we’ve gone towards being a ‘police state’. Secondly, there’s a NIMBYism about this. I’d guess that a good proportion of the population would like to see stronger sanctions against people like dog-walkers who let dogs shit on pavements and in parks and don’t pick it up; and yet many good middle-class people have recently been blindsided by the restrictions placed on their own ability to protest against things like new developments and infrastructure projects that directly affect them. A lot of people, it seems to me, simply assume they have freedoms they now don’t in fact have, but they’re only rarely placed in situations where the lack of those freedoms actually matters to them. Ignorance is bliss, until suddenly you find out it’s being used against you.

As to respecting and upholding the rule of law – yes, there is a ‘British value’ that there should be a rule of law that prevents arbitrary or dictatorial decision-making by anyone in authority. The irony, of course, is that increasingly we have laws that enable decision-making by those in authority that may be rule-bound, but feels to those on the sharp end of it to be arbitrary or dictatorial. The respect people have for the law is qualified – people won’t respect laws they perceive to be unfair, or that can be applied arbitrarily or capriciously. And that seems to be the way things have been going.

As to personal and social responsibility – again, that exists in some respects but is also qualified. There’s a streak of unbridled mercenary greed among our other values – the kind of attitude that led to the British Empire and the development of the East India Company, exploiting others because it was good for them… I could go on about the Opium Wars from the 1830s to the 1860s, the transatlantic ‘triangular trade’ of slaves, sugar and rum earlier than that, and the way that buccaneering spirit has informed business practice since those times. It’s more sophisticated now, but as the banking and debt crisis over the last few years has shown us, perhaps no less manipulative and exploitative.

Tolerance for others – this again is a mixed bag. On the one hand Britain has a long history of accepting refugees from civil unrest and war, and from persecution. It’s a history that goes back over a thousand years. At the same time it has a long tradition of discrimination, with each new group finding that discrimination against them persists for two or three generations.

More recently, and fuelled by discussions in some parts of the media, we’ve seen hugely negative attitudes towards an influx of people from the ‘new’ EU states such as Bulgaria and Romania. This has tended to focus on the more visible aspects of this (begging and petty crime) and on statements culled from interviews with some new arrivals about how they expect to be able to exploit the welfare state.

Now, the EU is a slightly bizarre institution. It isn’t as wholly democratic as most people would like; it spends a lot of its time garnering more powers from states that themselves are involved in debates about devolution; and a good proportion of its elected representatives are Eurosceptics who want to see the whole European project scaled back, and/or their own country to consider leaving. At the same time, it’s accepted several new members from among the poorest European countries and it’s hardly surprising that this has led to some level of economic migrancy (which some corporations have seen as an opportunity to get rid of ‘expensive’ UK workers and replace them with cheaper immigrant ones – but is that the fault of the EU or the lack of social responsibility of the corporations?).

As you might expect, looking at the latest British Social Attitudes survey reveals a mixed bag of attitudes about tolerance, though most of it is couched in quite specific terms that relate to the EU and immigration. But it also hints at the values that underlie those attitudes.

One is a value that speaks to the idea of hard-won social benefits. On one side, this is expressed through an increasingly negative view of immigrants, and a majority view that recent immigrants should not be able to access the welfare system quickly or easily. The majority (56%) of the population see the creation of the welfare state as ‘one of Britain’s proudest achievements’. There is a value that can be expressed in terms of the importance of welfare provision for those in need – but this is tempered by the feeling that this provision should not be open to people who aren’t already British and/or haven’t somehow contributed to the welfare state.

There’s also an increasingly wide acceptance of a more neoliberal view of tolerance and personal responsibility, with a growing proportion of people feeling that the system is abused by people who ‘could find a job if they really wanted one’.

Unsurprisingly there is some disconnect between those who are more advantaged, who see the prospect of immigants forming a pool of cheap labour, and the disadvantaged who directly compete with immigrants for jobs – or, as some people in my own neighbourhood have experienced, have been made redundant so that firms can recruit cheaper immigrant labour.

Part of this debate is also about the value placed on self-determination, at least at a national level. This is expressed, as I’ve indicated above, in the negative sense of opposition to the European Union – which is an easy target often criticised by the media, though critics tend to ignore the possibility that a Britain (or an England) that stands alone is likely to be more, not less, subject to influence from the economic power of multinational corporations, currency speculators and global markets.

A third value might be expressed as ‘not trusting those who seek trust’. I’ve already mentioned an increasing level of cynicism about those in positions of power. As the BSA 31 says:

‘In 2013, a third (32 per cent) say that they “almost never” trust “British governments of any party to place the needs of the nation above the interests of their own political party”, three times as many as took this view in 1986 (11 per cent). At the same time, the proportion who trust government “just about always” or “most of the time” has more than halved (17 per cent in 2013, down from 38 per cent in 1986). Politics and politicians are not alone in having seen their reputations harmed. Banks and bankers have suffered even more, as has the press (Park et al., 2013).’

This can also be characterised as one of the lessons of Orwell’s 1984; what official bodies actually do is the opposite of what their title suggests. In Orwell’s case, the ‘Ministry of Truth’ was responsible for propaganda and historical revisionism. A more contemporary take on this would be that the government and major social institutions can no longer be trusted to accept and act on ‘British values’, and that these institutions are working to undermine the values they claim to support.

Finally and somewhat randomly, I’ve been reading about the history of folk music (Rob Young’s Electric Eden) which is a rather fine account of how our definitions of folk music have shifted over a priod of about a century. It takes folk music to be indicative of popular values and attitudes, and notes the shifts that took place in the 1960s and 1970s to many more ‘countercultural’ forms of folk music that protested the decline in civil liberties and the development of a police state, along with dystopian visions of the future.

Young brings several themes through this. One is the vision of Albion – an old term for ‘England’, but also a reference to a mythical England in which freedoms are protected, the countryside is valued and prosperity is widespread. This is a vision that is both idealistic and backward-looking to a mythical past, but it informs a certain sense of care and protection for the environment balanced with a sense that those who own land are merely its stewards, and that ownership should not preclude a right to roam (hence, for example, the ‘mass trespass’ of Kinder Scout in 1932 – an event that is remembered as seminal even today).

Another is a theme that might have followed through from pre-Christian pagan practices, the maxim of ‘do as you will and harm ye none’. This can be seen in the permissive atmosphere of music festivals since the late 1960s – the first generation to experience a combination of rising standards of living, the benefits of a walfare state, but at the same time the uncertainties associated with the Cold War and Mutual Assured Destruction. The mindset of the time was one of liberal permissiveness both as a hedonistic end in itself, and as an instinctive reaction to the increasing controls being placed on society as it drew towards what we retrospectively call postmodernism, and because – well, why not, in four minutes we might all be looking at a mushroom cloud.

Those festivals were anarchic and the anarchy wasn’t always comfortable – not just in terms of mud and toilet facilities, but also in terms of the role played by some groups such as Hells Angels. But something of the spirit survives in terms of the later appearance of raves, and the persistence of festivals (even though many of them today place detailed restrictions on people in terms such as the food they can bring in, the prohibition of glass bottles, searches of bags and vehicles, and so on).

A personal conclusion

I was brought up in an age where libertarianism and left-wing leanings were the norm among large swathes of young people. These days it’s different, with a greater enthusiasm among the young for economic self-reliance and and more conservative political outlook. They face a tougher economic climate than we did in the 1970s, though certain of the values I’ve mentioned are probably still widespread; the importance of the NHS if not the rest of the welfare state, and the distrust of authority. There are still young people out there who see environmentalism as important and as a defining characteristic of British values. However in general I suspect people have increasingly come to see their own values and desires as matters of personal, not social, significance. There’s more of a view that people have to find their own way as individuals, not through the collective expression of values. Where values are expressed collectively it’s increasing done in terms of single-issue campaigns.

Whatever interpretations we might want to place on this, I think one core conclusion would be that the term ‘British values’ has a symbolic value, but remains one that many people now regard as having little substance. Moreover, people are cynical and distrustful of government and don’t believe that it’s delivering, or perhaps is even capable of delivering, on the values it claims to support. I suspect the basic principles many people would support are along the lines of ‘keep the NHS, don’t claim to be able to speak on my behalf and leave me alone to make my own way’.

In short, my suspicion is that if the government is trying to appeal to a version of ‘British values’, many people will accept the ‘headline’ slogans but few will believe either that the government believes in them, or that the way the government expresses them is an acceptable articulation of them. My suspicion is that if the government has to rush to explain ‘British values’, it’s an indication that it’s in a hell of a lot of trouble. And, of course, it’s made a rod for its own back that is likely to cause it a lot of pain.

I’ve been wrong before. But watch this space.

  1. August 3, 2014 at 8:24 am

    British Values have never been so shaky. Perhaps it’s time we started talking about human values, and why our Governments seem to ignore basic human rights to freedom, choice, the right to HAVE values that matter. Governments and, leaders are corrupt, greedy and out of touch with ordinary human beings. They appear to want only control, whatever toll that takes on values. It’s time WE evaluated what is important today.

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