Britology Watch: Deconstructing \’British Values\’

26 January 2008

British Values on ‘The World Tonight’: A Very English Debate

Listened to the debate about British values on BBC Radio Four’s The World Tonight news programme last night. This was framed in the context of the government’s plans to produce a ‘Statement of British Values’ to which everyone in the country is supposed to be able to subscribe.

To begin with, each of the five speakers was given three minutes to set out how they understood British values. First up was Michael Wills, the ‘Constitutional Renewal Minister’ at the (English) Justice Ministry. Essentially, he’s the one overseeing the whole project. He outlined the government’s decision to carry out a truly inclusive process of consulting ordinary people (as embodied by a ‘representative’ panel of citizens) – a process not driven by politicians (yeah, right) – which was expected to result in the said Statement of British Values.

Which might result in such a statement, as one of many possible outcomes; or which would result in such a statement? Surely, if the whole process is orientated towards the production of such a document, this predetermines the course that the supposedly free-ranging discussion will take, and presupposes that sufficient consensus already latently exists in order for agreement on a set of genuine, shared values to be reached and formulated. And whose position is based on this presupposition, and who is driving the whole thing? The government, and GB [Gordon Brown] in particular: not driven by politicians, my a***!

To his credit, Michael Wills did say the word ‘English’ once, under his breath, when he referred to the multiple identities that are subsumed under Britishness, which is a supposedly more inclusive term than any other. I say to his credit, because the next three speakers did not utter the ‘E’ word in their initial monologues; and they also, in their different ways, ended up articulating ‘Brito-centric’ value systems. David Willetts, the Conservative Shadow Secretary of State for Innovation, Universities and Skills, argued that more important than values were the national [British] institutions that safeguarded and gave practical expression to those values, and which were rooted in ‘the nation’s’ history: Britain as establishment and Union. Author and senior member of the Secular Society Joan Smith argued that the whole idea of national values was out of date and tribal, and that we should be formulating a new set of values that were all to do with individual rights and freedom: Britishness as inherently involving a kind of transcendence over ‘narrow’ nationalism (e.g. that of England) and as being at once at the origin and the vanguard of secular-liberal-progressive values per se. And Salma Yacoub, a Muslim Birmingham city councillor, who argued that in multi-ethnic Britain, there was no need for a formal Statement of British Values to which everyone should be expected to assent, as this only marked out ethnic minorities as different; and that one of the most endearing characteristics of Britain was its people’s ability to absorb and accept difference: Britishness as multi-cultural, multi-national pluralism, rather than reduced to a set of fixed ‘core values’.

Which left the fifth participant, Neal Ascherson: the token Scot. He was the only one who talked any sense at this stage of the discussion and hit the nail on the head. For him, the really important constitutional and national issues for debate were the two ‘E’s – Europe and England; a position which, I have to say, was remarkably similar to my own. In the British context, all the debating around British values was a complete waste of time, as far as Ascherson was concerned, so long as it failed to address the right of England (eight-tenths of the Union and essentially its heart) to be recognised and be given an appropriate, democratic form of governance as a nation in its own right, just like Scotland and Wales.

What was then remarkable about the remainder of the discussion, structured around a loose set of questions and answers, was that the three speakers who had put forward less dogmatic points of view than the minister – but nonethless Brito-centric in their conception of the nation and its most important values – gradually shifted around to a more or less implicit concession that, indeed, it was really Englishness that mattered more to them than Britishness. David Willetts stated that, as Englishness had never [well, at least not since 1707 – ed.] been expressed politically through the state, it was more associated with culture and history, something towards which he clearly had a deep devotion. For instance, he repudiated the new-fangled notion of ‘British literature’: NO, it’s English literature.

Or is my memory confusing him with the author Joan Smith [now there’s the female equivalent of almost the archetypal English name: John Smith] who, it transpired, associated the specifically national character of the values she espoused (as opposed to their universal, rational-humanist dimension) with England. She admitted, in fact, that she felt profoundly English, primarily through the medium of the English language, which, as a writer, was not just the tool of her trade but the way in which she expressed her own inner truth.

And then Salma Yacoub went so far as to say that imposition of a formal statement of Britishness could be positively divisive and destructive of the multi-cultural tolerance which, for her, typified the authentic British spirit. As noted above, she’d previously observed that what ethnic minorities cherish the most is just being accepted for what they are in the places where they live by the people already there. In my book, that means being accepted by English, Scottish, Welsh or Northern Irish communities simply as a member of the community, as one of us; rather than being seen as already different (by virtue of ethnicity and culture) and being made to become something different again through the obligation to identify formally with a ‘Britishness of values’ that is other from the Britishness of everyday life that, as David Willett’s put it, is not in fact deliberately chosen but just something to which one becomes emotionally attached.

A Britishness of the English, in other words. Interspersed in the discussion were two vox pops: one with little snippets from Scottish men and women on the street about how they see Britishness, and its relation to Scottish and English identity; and the other, from academics and commentators who have written on these matters, myself not included [immodest – ed.]. From the Scots folk, it emerged that they’re not nearly so hung up about national identity and values as the English; that they have a strong sense of community, national solidarity and belonging; and that they perceive the English as being a bit screwed up about always having (and frequently failing) to be the best at everything: including having the best set of values, it would seem. (Towards the beginning of the debate, one of the participants – I think Joan Smith – had repudiated the notion that British values were about national ‘identity’. Maybe not per se, but they are a metaphor mediating the English search for a national identity which – by virtue of being disseminated across Britishness – is perpetually elusive.)

The academics and commentators included a Scot (whose name now escapes me) who basically expounded the view that British values are identical to English values: that if you asked most English people to list a set of fundamental English values, they’d come up with exactly the same qualities as if you’d asked them to define the core British values. Then the remaining scholarly vox pops seemed to have been chosen to illustrate that point, as they enumerated their versions of British values that were indistinguishable from what one would think of as typically English values – all articulated, it has to be said, in plummy English accents, like those of three of the debaters.

I can’t remember the specifics now; but these English-British values included things like fair play, tolerance of different points of view, liberty, free speech, etc. Neal Ascherson then underscored the assimilation of such values to England, rather than Scotland, by saying that the concept of ‘fair play’ reflected the perspective of the imperial overlord giving his subjects or enemies in battle a sporting chance; whereas the ‘Celts’ could think only of how they could get the better of those damned English, if necessary through sneakiness; i.e. the diametrical opposite of fair play. The same with tolerance: tolerance in debate, for instance – polite respect for the opponent’s point of view and a preference to seek some sort of middle-ground compromise solution – was an English characteristic and totally alien to Scottish politics, where you just try to thrash the opposition.

As if to prove the point, the very English-sounding Constitutional Renewal Minister, Michael Wills, indeed then tried to act as some kind of moderator, saying that each of the debaters had in fact articulated different views about Britishness; that this is what the wider national debate would all be about: a chance to air different perspectives, which, he felt sure, would be able somehow to coalesce into a unified Statement of British Values to which all could assent. And what, he was pushed to say, would happen if people chose not to subscribe to such a credo? Well, they could leave the country. When pressed further on that, he denied that that meant some sort of forcible purge of undesirables but that, merely, people would be free to choose to live elsewhere if they could not live here by the British Code Book (my term).

In other words, if you want to be different, you can’t be truly British. And if you want to be English, you’re not truly British, either. Because Englishness is both different from Britishness and the difference in Britishness. Englishness is what makes ‘British values’ truly distinctive in the way they are actually lived out, rather than just a bland, extra-national set of abstractions. And Englishness is what prevents Britishness from ever being fixed and present to itself (for instance, in a Statement of British Values) because the way in which Britishness is most authentically lived out – for actual English people – is through the diverse culture (and multiple cultures), history, institutions, value systems, religions and language of England (and for Scots, those of Scotland).

That’s true Britishness: the commonality in difference of the English, Scots, Welsh and Irish, and of all those who have come to live with us in our different nations. The government thinks it can converge all those differences into a single national Agreement. I feel that – in a very English way – we may just have to agree to differ.

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