Not for the first time, I’m glad I am a teacher and not a home office civil servant. Because I means I don’t have to make an effort to define stuff like British Values. I’m using the capital letters on purpose, you understand: I’m talking here about an official definition. And this, ladies and gentlemen, is what is meant by British Values:
- The rule of law
- Equality of opportunity
- Freedom of speech
- The rights of all men and women to live free from persecution of any kind.
Normally, I couldn’t care less about this kind of thing except in a pub philosophy kind of way. However, now I have to take a proper, sober interest in such things not only because of the Prevent Duty, which is troublesome at best, but also because of the new common inspection framework, which states that where I work will be assessed in part on how well it “prepares learners for successful life in modern Britain, and promotes the fundamental British values of democracy, the rule of law, individual liberty and mutual respect and tolerance of those with different backgrounds, faiths and beliefs.” https://www.gov.uk/government/publications/further-education-and-skills-inspection-handbook-from-september-2015
It’s interesting, and perhaps heartening, to note that ofsted use the term individual liberty, whereas the Prevent Duty guidance suggests that British values only extend to freedom of speech. But then given that one of the possible consequences of the Prevent Duty could be locking someone up, I guess that makes sense.
In general, however, I’d say that there is nothing particularly unpleasant or exceptional about these things. I’m all up for a bit of democracy: although sometimes in this country it would be nice if there were a bit more demos in the kratos, especially after the last election. Equality of opportunity, and freedom from persecution? yes please, particularly if the British could actually achieve this. Freedom of speech is no bad thing, and I enjoy my individual liberty, thanks: however, there are limits on this freedom of speech and on my individual liberty. This is what the rule of law is about, after all. The concept that we have freedom of speech is an optimistic but probably naive one: after all there are some things I can’t say, and some people I can’t say them to. I’m generally law abiding, although I did once inadvertently steal a biro from WHSmith. Sorry. My respect for officers of the law fluctuates between when they are enforcing laws like “don’t kill people” and a sense of mistrust as a result of stories of racism and prejudice within the police, and their role in enforcing laws which I don’t agree with. There are some (very minor) laws I have been known to consciously break, for example allowing my 7 year old daughter to ride her bicycle on the pavement when the law says she should be on the road. Yes, the rule of law is largely a good thing, but there are bits which are, well, just a bit stupid, and I’m not talking about the weird medieval hangovers about how many geese you can allow to feed on a public green.
There are a couple of problems here. For one, we hardly have a great track record on many of these things, both within the UK and internationally. Before we start preaching about not persecuting people, let’s take a good long hard look at what we have done and still do. Ok, I’m all up for accepting that some of these things are in the past, and we need to move on, learning lessons from them, but to be all high handed and noble about it? I don’t think we are quite there yet. There are significant issues with the British interpretation of democracy, such as the electoral system, which although it would have seen greater numbers of UKIP MPs, could have at least been more representative. Not to mention the entirely undemocratic matter of having a monarch and an upper House of Parliament made up of wealthy people who inherited their status and my favourite bit of House of Lords insanity, the inclusion of several members who are there because they are leaders of the Anglican Church. As for notions of tolerance and equality of opportunity, we have an awfully long way to go on these, especially when these things are being touted in something which while not being visibly anti-Islamic, is a response to a rise in Islamic extremism.
The other problem is that I’d hardly reserve these as specifically British Values. To my mind, most of them are, if not universal, then at least generally recognised by most of the western world and significant chunks of the rest of it. Britain can’t lay claim to any of these in particular. If anything they would seem to be essential human rights, things to which we should be entitled, not Values.
Then there is the agenda here: British or not, why should we be promoting these values? And for what purpose should we be promoting them? I’m sceptical of the claim that this is just about security and safety. As with other forms of unrest which had connections to religious and racial backgrounds, such as the riots in Bradford and Oldham ten years ago, extremism and radicalisation would seem, to my mind be a reaction to socio-economic issues, where religion and ethnicity are used by all parties to excuse and justify action, and indeed by commentators as an explanation. Notions of religion, ethnicity and radicalisation obscure these complex issues, and neat definitions of Britishness are part of this cloud. One of the communities I work has been in the news a lot recently as a place where extremists come from and religion is always the central theme, but these conveniently ignore a whole range of social and economic issues that affect that area. Consider, as well, that we are living in a period where public services and welfare support are being regularly attacked by a wealthy, privately educated political class: is it any wonder that some people may feel alienated from the government and indeed from the rest of the country? By insisting on the promotion of British Values in teaching, and indeed the application of the entire Prevent Duty, are we now being asked to paper over cracks by the same government that started banging holes in the wall?
To be honest, the basic issue that I have here is that I have no need for the concept of “British” Values. Like anyone, I have my own set of values, complex and contradictory as they may be, but I don’t particularly care about being British, English, Welsh, Scottish or whatever. On a personal level, the notion of Britishness is one I associate with bigots and racists. I feel no stirrings of celebration at the national anthem or the waving of the Union flag. The Queen is nothing more than a rich woman in a gold hat. I don’t generally get a kick out of the successes of a national sports team. I don’t have some crackpot half-witted idea that if a movie or similar cultural artefact is British that this somehow makes it better. And don’t get me started on the Britain is a Christian country thing. Really don’t. I have a growing sense of very local identity, perhaps, as my children grow up and I become more closely linked to that community, and that community is as diverse and interesting as any, and to the communities within which I work, but “British”? I have always struggled to understand what anyone means by this, or indeed to care. I make no claim to understand “British” and neither do I claim to understand British Values. So to claim what would appear to be fairly general human rights values as being especially British is simply bizarre, and all too easily read as bigotry and racism. But still, if anyone gets upset about me writing this sort of thing I can claim that I am exercising the British Value of Freedom of Speech.