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.