Britology Watch: Deconstructing \’British Values\’

12 June 2007


I’ve got zero tolerance towards ‘tolerance’! Everyone seems agreed [hyperbole – you’ll find I go in for it] that tolerance is one of the most defining British values, perhaps the most defining one. Needless to say, but I’ll say it anyway, I question this. I’ve written about it extensively elsewhere, so I won’t belabour the point. Essentially, the criticism boils down to: a) what you define as tolerance; b) whether, using that definition, the ‘British’ are any more tolerant than other nations; c) what the limits of tolerance are, which tells us what the supposed tolerance is all about; and d) why tolerance is particularly useful for Britology as a form of ‘unificatory multi-culturalism’: the aim of assimilating all the cultures within the UK to a unitary Britishness without having to achieve this unity at any profound level that really brings people together.

Anyway, the religious correspondent of The Times Clifford Longley was at it yesterday in the Thought For the Day slot on BBC Radio Four’s Today programme. (You’ll find this is a frequent outlet for the Britologists – visions of Saint Tony pontificating on the theme after he finally resigns as PM.) Mr Longley used one of the new metaphors that is circulating to encapsulate fundamental forces within British culture and history: Roundheads (the Puritans that supported the anti-monarchist Cromwell in the English Civil War in the 17th century) and Cavaliers (the monarchists in the said conflict). The Roundheads represent the puritan, earnest, hard-working, thrifty and bourgeois side of the ‘British character’ (exemplified, among others, by the PM in waiting Gordon Brown); while the Cavaliers represent the frivolous, hedonistic, humorous, creative and aristocratic side (illustrated by Tony Blair (really?) and the current opposition leader David Cameron, who actually does have some blue blood coursing through his veins). Map onto this the divide between Protestants and Catholics, and corresponding divisions within other religions (e.g. Shia’s and Sunnis in Islam); and, as the analogy suggests, also the class divisions within British society that work their way through into politics (the egalitarian tradition versus the sovereignty of the individual).

Mr Longley’s point was that Britain has always managed to hold these two traditions together by virtue of its inherent tolerance (er, apart from in the said Civil War itself, the Tolpuddle Martyrs [history, I’m afraid], the General Strike in the 1920s, the miners’ strike in the 1980s, etc., etc.). Through ‘tolerance’ (i.e. individual and collective restraint), all cultures and nations by definition manage to just about hold together their occasionally conflicting values and aspirations. If they didn’t, they wouldn’t be nations: they’d just disintegrate, as we’ve seen numerous examples in recent history (e.g. former Yugoslavia).

So the affirmation of tolerance, while appearing to be a description of a distinctive characteristic of the peoples of these Isles [shorthand: the ‘British’], is in fact just a call to patriotism and an exhortation to display tolerance: it’s a manifestation of a fear that the nation might be falling apart because of a lack of any real consensus or shared vision of where we’re going. Hence, tolerance (refraining from seeking to impose any single vision of the country’s destiny or character over others) is a kind of negative virtue, rather than a positive value: an appeal to accept others as they are, to live and let live, and avoid conflict. But as such, it is not something that builds unity; merely, something that ‘affirms diversity’ in the sense of accepting it de facto and therefore, ultimately, just going along with the status quo.

How very British; or should that be English?


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