Britology Watch: Deconstructing \’British Values\’

14 April 2008

What can the Internet tell us about British values?

This is my somewhat belated contribution to a request for views made by the OpenDemocracy blogsite on the possible role Internet discussions might play in a putative ‘national conversation’ or debate on ‘British values’, leading towards the formulation of an official Statement of British Values. In addition to this specific debate, OpenDemocracy are seeking to open out the discussion to a consideration of the wider role the Internet might play in encouraging greater participation by citizens in debating and taking decisions on important national issues, such as constitutional or electoral reform.

As one might expect, I take the whole topic of a national conversation towards a Statement of British Values with a considerable dose of salt. In the first place, which nation is holding this conversation, and who is it supposed to be engaging – Britain, the UK or England? And then, can there ever really be a representative, definitive formal Statement of British Values – a sort of meta-statement encapsulating and distilling the essence of all the particular, relative statements (lower-case ‘s’) – because, precisely, it may be in all those particularities and peculiarities that the distinctive characteristics, mentalities and cultures of the different nations and peoples of ‘Britain’ are to be found. The abstract summation of that diversity within a single formal document might then be about as representative of real British values as the current House of Commons is of British people’s actual opinions and concerns: not very.

This touches upon one of the main problems with the idea of establishing some formal processes whereby the Internet could enable a much broader cross-section of society to participate in important debates and re-engage in politics more generally: is this being used as a substitute for a genuinely representative, participative politics? And this question in turn can perhaps be taken in two different ways. Firstly, the Westminster government knows that its legitimacy as a body that is representative of, and accountable to, the British people is extremely flimsy. But instead of carrying out thoroughgoing reforms so that parliament actually expresses public opinion more accurately, the government institutes a process that merely appears to extend the procedures and subject matters of parliamentary debate to the people (Internet consultations); while all the time the government reserves, and in 99% of cases exercises, its prerogative to ignore what appears to be the will of the people and take the decisions in exactly the same manner as before: in whipped votes that simply replicate time after time the disproportionality of the results of British general elections.

The second, related way in which Internet debates – at least, in the UK context – might be only a poor substitute for true open democracy (open and responsive, while not subservient, to public opinion), is that they require a certain level of trust and belief to already exist that the political process as such is a forum in which ‘the nation’ can meet and thrash things out, in the knowledge that any eventual conclusions and decisions will adequately reflect and respect the will of the people. In other words, Internet consultations will work effectively only within a political culture where people believe that politicians are genuinely seeking to work for the good of the whole country – as such – and want their decisions on our behalf to be based on consensus and clear majority backing.

UK politics is so far removed from this sort of situation that it can be hard for us to imagine what that might mean or have any confidence that it could exist in the UK. One thing that brought this home to me was something in France that I recently had the opportunity to learn about through my day job. This was a major summit on environmental policy (called the ‘Grenelle de l’environnement’) that took place in autumn last year, which involved the participation of an impressive collection of industry representatives, unions, NGOs, civil servants, politicians and other interested groups really trying to think through the environmental and economic challenges faced by France in the context of the need to reduce greenhouse-gas emissions. You could never imagine any process like that happening in the UK; a) because you could never get such a diverse set of conflicting interest groups to sit down intensively over several weeks to thrash out shared, innovative policy ideas that the government was actually obliged to work into legislative and policy proposals; and b) you couldn’t imagine, in the UK, the kind of acceptance of, and commitment to, the process as belonging to and representing the whole nation as there appeared to be in France. Michael Wills’ ‘representative’ body of citizens trying to agree on British Values just wouldn’t carry the same conviction that it did represent ‘the nation’. In other words, national Internet debates could be a valuable part of the overall political process, but only if people had confidence that the political process as a whole constituted a national debate leading towards consensus and decisions that were in the best interests of the whole nation.

But then again, which nation? And that’s another difference from France and many of our European neighbours. In addition to the fact that most other European countries have electoral systems that produce much more proportionate parliaments, another reason why people in those countries respect the political process and believe in it as a national forum is that people believe in their nations as their nations: only in a proper, united nation can a national political process – parliamentary or Internet debates, for instance – adequately serve as a forum for the whole nation. There’s got to be a ‘nation of Britain’ for a ‘British national conversation’ as such to have any meaning: both an ongoing national conversation in general, and particularly a discussion on ‘national values’. You can’t answer the question ‘what are British values?’ till you’ve answered the question ‘who are British values for?’, i.e. is there a British nation as such for whom a representative set of values can be put together? Similarly, you can’t use the Internet to create a consensus politics around which the nation can unite and through which its views can be heard, if the nation as such is so divided, and has so little faith that politicians are anything more than partisan creatures seeking to push through their own ideological agendas and personal self-interest over and above the interests of ‘the nation’ however defined. The Internet cannot create the new politics; but if that new politics existed, the Internet could become one means among many for the views of ‘the nation’ to be heard. And people would believe in the Internet process because they would believe in the process per se.

As has been stated by other respondents to OpenDemocracy’s consultation, Internet debates can provide meaningful answers only if the right questions are asked. And this, along with the lack of a respected national political process, is the fatal flaw with the present debate on British values. In reality, the answer to the real question that is at work here, ‘who are British values for?’, is the English: the whole exercise is designed to re-engage English people in seeing their national identity and political status as British in the first instance, rather than English. In this sense, it’s just part of the whole Britology thing, as I call it, which precisely is the cultural and political attempt to define, as it were, almost a timeless set of ‘quintessentially British’ values: an ‘essence of Britishness’ that is so abstract and universal that people can accept it and embrace it without any reference, precisely, to the national question as such – the question whether, as well as expressing universal philosophical convictions and values, ‘British values’ in their particularity are also the expression of a nation – i.e. the English nation. If, on the other hand, you limit the discussion to a debate on the value system that should constitute the guiding principles of the British political system, this means you can avoid the real question: which nation are those values and that politics supposed to represent?

The whole British Values roadshow in general – not just the discussions around the formal Statement but the bigger ‘national conversation’ – is in my view primarily a means through which a political establishment that does not represent England is trying to channel a quest on the part of the English to redefine their national identity and representative politics into a new, and indeed, definitive statement of a Britishness with which that nascent English civic identity has hitherto been merged. In other words, it’s a last-ditch effort on the part of an unrepresentative British establishment to regain English assent to still be governed by it – but that ‘assent’ and participation can be elicited and enlisted only by excluding the real, English question: should the English now be English or British? And is there a ‘British nation’ at all for which a ‘Statement of British Values’ can be the basis for a new representative politics – one of whose channels for national debate could be the Internet?

The more general question about the role of the Internet as a forum for national political debate is an important one, and OpenDemocracy is to be commended for its efforts in articulating the parameters of the issue: how a medium as diverse and individualistic as the Internet could yet provide the basis of, what shall we call it, ‘e-governance’. I would like to have engaged in the technicalities of that discussion in more detail, as I’m naturally interested in the Internet as a medium for political debate. But in the terms with which the present debate is framed – a British national conversation on British values – there just didn’t seem much point.

The relationship between the British political establishment and the English people is like that of a troubled marriage: Mars and Venus – two conflicting ways of seeing things that just can’t find a common language and purpose any more. But instead of trying to patch things up and keep up a false façade of (national) unity for the neighbours, perhaps it’s better to start negotiating the terms of an amicable divorce – one that allows England to establish a new sort of relationship and partnership with the other members of the British family who’ve already flown the British nest and begun to establish their own separate lives and identities: a grown-up, adult relationship as an equal, not as the domineering British husband or parent patronising his wife and children, and making decisions for them without listening to their views.

Now that sounds like a modern, pragmatic, English answer to the ‘British question’!



  1. Once again David ‘in a nutshell’. Great. I think your phrase ”British’ values in their particularity’ sums it up. These of course are ENGLISH and it is just these particularities that we have affection for. The abstract ideal ‘concepts’, beautiful as they are to any compassionate human being, have more to do with the French enlightenment than with English tradition. It just so happens that some (by no means all!) of our historical particularities (fortunately for us) have coincided with these admirable philosophical values. But your key point remains: it is the particulars that are held in affection by a people and a nation. That is precisely why the government struggles to find ‘core British values’ that are held in affection by anyone. The fact that Brown is well aware of this is illustrated by his attempt on several occasions to label the Magna Carta as ‘British’. What a sad joke. Your point about a haemorrage of faith in the UK democratic process is probably the most important. Having an internet debate in the name of ‘consultation’ looks exactly the same to me as the numerous ‘consultations’ about development and planning. Result: delay by 1-2 years then original plan goes ahead.

    Comment by K2 — 14 April 2008 @ 9.40 am | Reply

  2. Thanks, K2.

    Comment by David — 14 April 2008 @ 10.14 am | Reply

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