And so we see the return of ‘British Values’ to our headlines. It was inevitable, really.
Dame Casey published a report last week into the ever-worsening balkanisation of our communities. She concluded that segregation had reached “worrying levels” in some areas of Britain, and that women in some communities were denied “even their basic rights as British residents”. Despite the enormity of the problem she analysed, her solution – “an oath of integration with British values and society” – appeared helpless in comparison.
But that did not prevent Communities Minister Sajid Javid recommending that very thing.
It is not the first time the modernisers in the Conservative Party have latched onto ‘British values’ as a response to the atomisation of British society. David Cameron was keen on talking up the idea, along with ‘muscular liberalism’: an oxymoron if ever I heard one.
The problem is that there is a crisis of identity in Britain. Every few years a report is commissioned which announces the fact; every time nothing is done. It is to be wondered if anything can be done. But politicians need an answer; and ‘British Values’ serves that role.
But why is there a crisis of identity in Britain? This is a very new and odd phenomenon. This country, like all countries, has had its’ fair share of difficult moments. But never before has it agonised over what it meant to ‘be’ British. Socialist or Capitalist, Republican or Monarchist, Gentry or Proletariat: each may have had different ideas about their country, but they never doubted that it was their county.
The most obvious reason is immigration. It is extremely unfashionable to say this, partly because the change is irreversible, but far from being a nation of immigrants this island has in fact had a long history of demographic stability. A certain amount of immigration is a matter of indifference to any except the racist fringe. But when the white British population of the capital city fell from 86% in the 1971 census, to a minority of 45% in the 2011 census, it is impossible that anxieties about identity will fail to occur,
But the lax immigration controls we have maintained for so long were merely one symptom of our prevailing liberalism. I have written before about the liberal crisis suffice it to say that we have attempted to construct a society on the absence of collective values for decades; and the conclusion to that was state-sponsored multiculturalism. We have actively promoted the creation of segregated communities, with separate value-systems. The Runnymede Trust in 2000 concluded that Britain was now a “community of communities”, though they thought this was a positive description.
The Right has been understandably concerned about this collapse of community. But an oath to British values is not a solution to the problem. In the first place, it is inadequate to the severity of the damage. In the second, it is a positively bad idea, and one which will only exacerbate the problem.
The UK is not an ideological state. Being British is something you are, not something you do or think. It is not contingent on holding the correct opinions. Keir Hardie, and the Marquess of Salisbury were both equally British. We are not North Korea which requires ideological conformity. Rather we have always had a reputation for being a nation of eccentrics.
An oath to British values is a fantastically ‘un-British’ conceit. This is why I so disliked the pressure that was put on Corbyn to sing the national anthem, despite his republicanism. As a Monarchist and anti-Socialist, I could never support Corbyn in an election. But I would not demand that he ignores the dictates of his conscience, and sing professions of support to an institution he does not.
The second objection is that our identity crisis is caused by liberalism, and no mainstream politician can repudiate liberalism sufficiently enough that they could then frame a series of values which belong to a particular community, and which do not belong to others. But this is surely what the purpose of ‘British’ values is: to have something which is ours, and by which we can distinguish ourselves from others. Yet the whole purpose of liberalism, and of multi-culturalism, is to achieve a society from which no-one can be excluded.
We are treated, in Mr Javid’s article, to tolerance, freedom, democracy, respect, and equality, as the British values we ought to swear an oath to. These things are all well and good, but they are rather bland. And they are so clearly attempting to be ‘inclusive’ that they fail to define us or anyone as a particular community.
The third objection is that the values seized on, once any oath is written, will inevitably be those of contemporary secularism.
Britons are a community that have evolved over many centuries; we have a unique political, religious, literary, and musical heritage. Yet whenever the question of ‘British values’ occurs, we first get the bland platitudes about ‘tolerance’ and ‘diversity’, then very recent innovations such as same-sex marriage, which David Cameron used to cite as a British value whenever he could. Same-sex marriage may well be uncontroversial by now, but to restrict ‘Britishness’ to only include those who support a policy inconceivable 30 years ago, and which would certainly exclude Lord Nelson, Clement Atlee, and William of Ockham, does seem a little silly.
It is necessary for people to exist within a community, which for us is Britain. It is inevitable that any definition of community will exclude those who do not belong. But to frame the British community in such a way, and according to certain values, which must exclude those who are in fact British, is probably not a sensible way of proceeding,
Rather than refer back to our supposed values, which insofar as they exist, must have a universal appeal; we would be better served taking pride in our institutions. We have in this country an enviable inheritance: Parliamentary sovereignty; the common law; a free press, and several centuries of constitutional evolution free of violent revolution. These are ours; they are particular to our island; and they are something we can take pride in. Unfortunately, when Sajid Javid had the chance to restore these institutions to their rightful authority in June, he instead abandoned his long-standing objection to EU membership, and recommended a Remain vote.
It seems to me that permanent damage has been done to the very possibility of a British identity. A shared appreciation of our institutions and cultural heritage may form a core for a re-construction of a collective identity. But please, let us hear no more about British Values.