Values – a word that all manner of people seem to find difficult to define or delineate. “British” values – are defined by our Prime Minister as “a belief in freedom, tolerance of others, accepting personal and social responsibility, respecting and upholding the rule of law”.
These sound reasonable enough (though we question the extent to which we should tolerate bigots, racists and homophobes) but how are they British values – as British as, to quote the Prime Minister, “the Union flag, fish and chips and football”? By his own admission, these values could be held by other nations – which is quite generous of him. But what apparently sets Britain apart “are the traditions and history that anchors them and allows them to continue to flourish and develop.
In an article in the “Daily Mail” in July, he continued:
“Our freedom doesn’t come from thin air. It is rooted in our parliamentary democracy and free press.
Our sense of responsibility and the rule of law is attached to our courts and independent judiciary.
Our belief in tolerance was won through struggle and is linked to the various churches and faith groups that have come to call Britain home.
These are the institutions that help to enforce our values, keep them in check and make sure they apply to everyone equally.”
So we should value a parliamentary system whereby the large majority of the population didn’t vote for the party in power, and we should value the freedom of the press to behave in a manner that effectively ignores and contradicts fundamental human values? Or we should abide by all laws, such as Mrs Thatcher’s infamous Clause 28 that was designed to prevent comprehensive Relationships and Sex Education? And how precisely are these values different from those of the United States, or the Federal Republic of Germany or the Republic of India?
There’s also an unhappy irony in what the Prime Minister is saying about how all children should learn about “British Values”. He has the audacity to say that all young people should learn about accepting personal and social responsibility without enabling and empowering schools to actually concentrate on these fundamental aspects of life through a statutory PSHE programme of work and ethos. He wants our young people to study the contents of the Magna Carta, a document containing many clauses that are no longer part of a statute or law. The only ones remaining concern the freedom of the Church of England, the liberties of the City of London (!!) and the respect of due processes of law.
Well we are all too aware of the liberties that the City of London had and how that has dramatically and detrimentally impacted on all our lives in Austerity Britain. The bankers had their own set of values, but were they ever virtuous?
Recently, the Secretary of State for Education has reiterated her predecessor’s insistence that schools should promote “British Values” and this week the Shadow Secretary of State for Education said we should concentrate on family values – and that the Labour party shouldn’t be afraid of “talking about the importance and significance of the family, and how important stable relationships and stable parenting environments are for children’s attainment. We shouldn’t let the right and the Conservatives have that.”
(We may well discuss this in a later post but values, Mr Hunt, don’t belong to any political party, and neither should they be used as only having value in relation to academic attainment.)
So now we have British values, family values and human values – and can we see the fundamental differences between them all?
British values: tolerance, respect, accepting personal and social responsibility.
Family values: tolerance, respect, accepting personal and social responsibility.
Human values: tolerance, respect, accepting personal and social responsibility.
What exactly are values? Obviously those written above are only examples. There are plenty more.
If we’re going to value the importance of these key values then we have to define the meaning of the word itself. It may sound pedantic but we can’t keep talking about British values as though they are somehow exemplary and “anchored” without really identifying whether there is such a thing as a British value or whether in fact it’s just a value that isn’t limited to one nation, or indeed one faith.
We also need to look at whether a value is virtuous or not. Mrs Thatcher valued the right of the individual but she didn’t value community or recognise the importance of society. Hitler valued the state as long as all its citizens were wholly compliant and looked like an Aryan clone. Genghis Khan and Attila the Hun had values. They just weren’t virtuous ones. So we really ought to be mindful about using the word value without insisting also on the need for virtue.
With regard to British values we have to be extremely careful about labelling something as British when in point of fact, those virtuous values are equally held by other nations and have, in some instances, been in existence for longer than our dear island nation.
Tolerance: “What is tolerance? It is the consequence of humanity. We are all formed of frailty and error; let us pardon reciprocally each other’s folly – that is the first law of nature.” – Voltaire, France
Respect: “Respect yourself and others will respect you.” – Confucius, China
Responsibility: “It takes a whole village to raise a child.” – African proverb
And what of these British values in the context of religion and ancient philosophy?
Tolerance: “We created you from a male and a female and made you into nations and tribes that you may know and honour each other (not that you should despise one another). Indeed the most honourable of you in the sight of God is the most righteous.” – Chapter 49, Verse 13 of the Koran
Equality: “Democracy rises out of the notion that those who are equal in any respect are equal in all respects” – Aristotle
Responsibility: “Failure is an opportunity. If you blame someone else, there is no end to the blame. Therefore the Master fulfils her own obligations and corrects her own mistakes. She does what she needs to do and demands nothing of others”. – Lao Tzu
You could, like us, spend an entire morning searching amongst the millions of quotes on values that you can find on a simple internet search, the origins of which are global. And that is the point.
As British citizens, we might adhere or agree to a virtuous value from Mahatma Gandhi or the Dalai Lama. We may concur with the thoughts of Plato or Epicurus. We may value the most fundamental traits of what makes us human, but none of these are specific to being British.
We’d even challenge anyone to find a virtuous value that is pertinent only to a British Citizen.
Our world is open. We are global citizens and human beings and it’s the virtue of collective values that shape our society, not their Britishness.
We’ve got to stop this nonsense of defining values as belonging to one nation or another. They’re shared. We have to recognise the importance of both values and virtues.
And yes, we need to give our young people opportunities at home and at school to understand the virtues of a range of human values to which we can all aspire, adhere to and live accordingly in a peaceful manner of respect and responsibility to all.
A really good critique of the nonsense that is “British values” and a must read for any teacher who is trying to make sense of the Teaching Standard that makes reference to them.
Thank you for your comments. We fail to see anything that’s a British value rather than a human value. The notion of young people learning British values through the study of the Magna Carta, as espoused by Cameron, shows his total lack of understanding about values and their virtues as well. It’s difficult not to feel despondent.
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