British values?

Whenever I hear the words ‘British values’ it sends shivers down my spine – and gives me a deep sense of suspicion as to the motives of those using the words. Michael Gove’s evocation is the latest but he’s far from alone – a good deal of UKIP’s ‘appeal’ rests on some kind of a sense of ‘British values’, while Labour are just as guilty of it as the Tories.

Perhaps I’m jaundiced – and perhaps it’s something about my age – but I’m also always reminded of the excellent Tom Robinson song ‘Power in the Darkness’, which sums it up for me. The key part is this:

“Today, institutions fundamental
To the British system of government are under attack
The public schools, the house of lords
The church of England, the holy institution of marriage
Even our magnificent police force are no longer safe
From those who would undermine our society

And it’s about time we said ‘Enough is enough’
And saw a return to the traditional British values of discipline
Obedience, morality and freedom
What we want is

Freedom from the reds and the blacks and the criminals
Prostitutes, pansies and punks
Football hooligans, juvenile delinquents
Lesbians and left wing scum

Freedom from the niggers and the Pakis and the unions
Freedom from the gypsies and the Jews
Freedom from left wing layabouts and liberals
Freedom from the likes of you”

I’m sure I’m being a bit unfair on Michael Gove, but this is what springs to mind. The values specifically mentioned by Gove – gender equality, tolerance etc – are not things that I would disagree with at all. Indeed, quite the opposite, they’re very much the sort of thing I agree with. What I disagree with is labelling them as British. These are values that are held dear all over the world, and by labelling them British it feels as though they’re something that marks us out from the rest of the ‘uncivilised’ world. It feels a lot like imperialism, like our old colonial history – our belief that our empire, unlike all other empires, was actually about bringing values and civilisation to the barbarians. Teaching them how to be civilised.

Why was there any need to label them ‘British’ values at all? Michael Gove could have made exactly the same point – indeed, a stronger point – without using the word British. I know Tories don’t like the term ‘human rights’ very much, but all of those values are enshrined in the major human rights documents. In exactly that European Convention on Human Rights that the Tories appear to be planning to withdraw the UK from if they’re elected in 2015. These values are in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights – a UN document. There’s nothing specifically British about them at all. We Brits played a key part in ensuring these values were included in both the European Convention and the Universal Declaration, but not because we were claiming them as British. The opposite – because we believe (or at least I do) that these are fundamentally valuable. That’s the point of human rights….

Sadly we don’t seem to be living in an environment where that sort of thing can be accepted. We have to be patriotic. Gove has to compete with UKIP in staking a claim to the patriotic vote. That, to me, is very sad.

14 thoughts on “British values?

  1. I understand your point, but I think that using the word “British” has value in this context.

    If, instead, we were to call them, say, “Civilised values”, or some such non-nationalistic label, then the implication is that people who don’t hold them are not, in some way, civilised. Now, that may possibly be true, at least in some cases, but it’s not particularly diplomatic. It also runs the risk of cultural imperialism – who are we to say that the values we hold are more civilised than others?

    By contrast, “British values” doesn’t necessarily imply that other values are bad. They’re just different – British, as opposed to Dutch, or German, or American, as well as opposed to those of other parts of the world. British values are not necessarily something that should apply universally, but they are something that we apply here.

    The real problem is that the word “British” has managed to acquire negative connotations due to its misuse by extremist groups such as the BNP and Britain First. But I don’t think that avoiding the term solves that problem.

    • Couldn’t we use ‘liberal’ values, or just ‘values’? Why do we need to label them at all? He could have just said ‘key values like gender equality, tolerance’ and so forth. I do understand your point, but in the context I don’t think it holds as strongly as it might.

      • As you say, they are self evident, as the US Constitution puts it. A constitution that, arguably, was as product of the English (not) Civil (hardly) War (actually wars) of the 17th Century as it was of the Age of Enlightenment.

  2. I think the problem with using the term liberal values is that we have a Conservative administration- okay its half Lib Dem so its a bit liberal ( though not that you would know it). I think the British approach traditionally has been that people should be able to live as they want provided this does not infringe on other people’s rights. I think the ‘other people’ ought to include children ( who should not have to endure practices such as FGM) and vulnerable people ( eg women who are not allowed to have the freedom to choose who they want to get maried to).
    The problem is that right get hung up on preserving elements of British culture like celebration of Christmas and the left are too worried about challenging elements of some people’s cultural expression which can be oppressive in case they are seen as racist or intolerent.
    Gove is in a complete mess because these allegedly extremist schools are just doing what he said they could do and that is introducing their one values outside of local authority control.
    I think people need to start focussing on what elements of being British are actully important. I think they are freedom of speech and rights for girls and women to be educated and have equal opportunities. If the left really care about these issues they need to stop being coy about them and speak up whenever they are infringed. Meanwhile the right need to stop being obsessed with their little Englander mentality and accept that if you want schools to go off piste then they will get some results that they are not happy with.

    • If you are referring to Birmingham, we have never banned Christmas. Winterval, a poor marketing decision perhaps, covered the period from Diwali up until New Year’s Eve, inclusive:

      http://www.theguardian.com/commentisfree/2011/nov/08/winterval-modern-myth-christmas

      And all this talk about banning Christmas in schools is more medi myth making. There have been attempts, but they have been stamped on, often by Muslims. Kids like presents at the end of the day!

      As for the ‘extremist’ schools here in Birmingham, even Ofsted could not find any evidence of a plot. Yes, there was evidence of poor governance, incompetence and pushy parents, but they are not unique to East Birmingham. None of the schools in question are faith schools, but at least one has 98% of its students whose parents say they are Muslim. Hardly surprising that that affects the nature in which the schools operate. Ultimately, the issue for these students is how their life chances in an area of great poverty and deprivation have been further reduced by the ill informed debate between the right and left.

      I am fairly confident that I know that of which I speak, because a large part of my career was spent in and around East Birmingham doing my bit to improve the lot of those who live there. As an aside, if the usual suspects were involved then they would be unable to find the drinks factory, let alone organise a party there and I do speak with affection.

      As for offending groups, including Catholics and the like, well if you approach issues sensitively then you will rarely cause offence. It would help, if some took the trouble, as I was required so to do, to learn about other cultures and religions. Arranged marriages were common in this country not so long ago and are becoming less generally. Also, some people exercise their freedom of choice by participating in arranged marriages.

      By the way, David Cameron seems to have a marriage along arranged lines. It is how his class keep hold of their wealth and privilege.

  3. RedGrouper has got straight to the point here: ‘… a complete mess because these allegedly extremist schools are just doing what he said they could do and that is introducing their own values outside of local authority control.’ According to Wilshaw et al, all that is needed is better school governors. As an ex-school governor of many weary years, I know that the idea of broad-minded, altruistic, neutral, strategic-minded people with loads of time on their hands, queuing up to joyfully take on managing a school is fiction. (There are some heros, of course, but it’s a pretty thankless task.)

    • There certainly aren’t easy answers…. but it does make the idea of ‘freeing’ schools from control seem distinctly dangerous. And I wouldn’t be a school governor even if you paid me….

      • I was for over 15 years and finished as the chair of governors. A big issue for me, latterly, was getting information independent of the head. Only when this person moved on did we discover she had been economical with the truth.

        I tried to sort out, unsuccessfully, the division of responsibilities between the next head, the governing body and myself so all knew their remits and would act accordingly.

        I do agree with Julie. Some of the parent governors were frightening. They seemed unaware, in particular, of collective responsibility and confidentiality. Also, that they were there to represent the concerns of all parents not just those with whom they chatted at the school gates.

  4. I like the views of writers like PG Wodehouse, Winston Churchill, John Betjeman and many others. Britishness is a melange.

    I understood why Gordon Brown thought it a subject to tackle in the interests of inclusion, but that aim easily leads to Norman Tebbit’s cricket test and yesterday’s Sun football test. I think I may have e-mailed Gordon on that very point!

  5. British values are not the values of our feudal aristocratic elite. We have a culture of our own in our nation quite apart from nationalism.

    English and Celt cultures have brought an evolution of values of equality and lack of discrimination to the present age.

    No other nation on earth thinks a nation and a culture is something odd.

    England and Celt cultural viewpoints gave us our specific type of socialism we have today.

    Our ruling elite are neither English nor Celt but in a mindset of the Normans who came after 1066 AD. They have never really understood the people of this nation.

    Foreigners have an ability the English and Celt lack.

    Foreigners can be 100 per cent English or local Celt and 100 per cent themselves.

    There is no problem in integration into English ways at all and facilitates communication between the 400 and more cultures who have migrated to England.

    So the word values is wrong in this context. We are talking about a common culture amongst the public so as to make community cohesion.

    English language is also a culture. Americans, Canadians, Australians and New Zealanders speak English (evolved differently to England and Celt English) but each are a different culture from each other and from that of England and the Celt nations.

    So what is being English or Celt about?

    You cannot see your own culture, because you are within it. Every tone of voice, gesture and facial expression is ruled by culture. We could not communicate at all by body language, tone of voice or language if we did not share a cultural viewpoint to comprehend one another.

    So what is culture? It is a world view taught from parent to child so that our brain can make sense of the world around us and so people could communicate between each other.

    Culture specific ads, what one culture finds funny others don’t as found out by comedians, counselling needing to be same culture and even how emotionally react to colour is culture bound.

    The English phrases – World’s Apart – On a different wavelength – pole’s apart – speaking a different language – all show how difficult communication is between people without a knowledge of each other’s cultures.

    Business cultural etiquette is important for sales abroad, which is why firms pay for such courses.

    When we had the British Empire, the men had a 3 month full-time course on the local culture and language from native speakers before going to do the admin. The wives and children lived within the compound and had no contact with the locals. Ex-empire nations are surprised we still do not do this cultural etiquette training for businessmen and those coming to work abroad.

    No language course, for example, has pronouncing classes, taking words apart syllable by syllable. Because if cannot say a word in a way familiar to the locals, the language is not understood. Actually the locals are happy to speak English to you, as it is a world language.

    I watched a full 60 second ad made culturally specific abroad, about a village trying to comprehend a German saying a Greek word. After that an Austrian tried to say a Greek place name to me, when I was holiday in Greece, and the whole neighbourhood were foxed. We could not help him, with my little German trying to understand the Austrian German dialect and the Greeks unable to comprehend the German pronounced Greek word.

    It is just like me trying to comprehend the Black Country or Potteries accent, if don’t first say the words slowly to get the gist. We have about 20 odd dialects just in England alone. Potteries are friendly and chatty but the different London accents are more stand-offish.

    So we even have variations within the culture in England and the Celt nations.

    As the saying goes. It wouldn’t do if we were all the same.

    Our cultures have evolved out of experience of place.

    In Englisha nd Celt’s case of rain, damp forest, moaning, talking about the weather, it’ll be alright and come out in the wash and mild manners, not being loud and show-off and definitely likely bland colours. A love of queues. Fair mindness. Oh Ar look whose being clever. Want does not get. Wait your turn. Lots of please and thank yous. Pardon mes and excuse mes. Looking down at pavement as walk along, as English keep people at arm’s length. Shy. Keep yourself to yourself (do you know your neighbour’s names?).

    Look at the Asian owned local food shop. Plastered in English or Celt flags I bet.

    There is an Asian contigent to the Yes Campaign for Scottish Independence, proudly flying the Saltire flag.

    Integration does not mean losing the other culture. That is psychologically impossible anyway.

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