Secretary of State for Communities & Local Government, Sajid Javid, recently agreed with Louise Casey’s recommendations of an oath of integration being introduced not just for arriving migrants,but it should also be taken by all those in public office . However, Dr Bridget Byrne questions what exactly is meant by ‘British values’ and argues that the promotion of them may risk ahistorical jingoism.
- There is no shared agreement as to the meaning of ‘British values’
- An example of their promotion is through the SMSC strategy rolled out by educational providers, however this needs rethinking, especially to accommodate those who have experienced racial abuse
- It might be better for these values to be proposed as aspirational rather than achieved, but this would be to introduce hesitancy and humility which the very idea of British values seeks to overcome
An Oath of Integration
Sajid Javid has explained how he is ‘drawn’ to a particular aspect of the Casey Review which came out in December and was examined by the Communities and Local Government Parliamentary committee this week. Louise Casey suggested that an ‘Oath of Integration with British Values and Society’ should be introduced for migrants arriving in the UK.
Sajid Javid has taken up this baton and run with it. He suggested that not only should all migrants swear a ‘British values oath’, but it should also be taken by all those in public office, including elected officials, civil servants, and council workers. This has the advantage of dealing with one possible objection to the oath – that it is only required by migrants: ‘we can’t expect new arrivals to embrace British values if those of us who are already here don’t do so ourselves, and such an oath would go a long way to making that happen’ he was reported as saying. However this still leaves unanswered the question of what are ‘British values’, and what is gained by requiring people to ‘swear an oath’ to them?
Schools as an example?
Despite British values being a topic of discussion for many years, we are no nearer to clarifying what it means. If we want to understand the government’s turn to British values, one place to look is schools.
Since 2014 it has been a government requirement that state funded schools promote ‘fundamental British values’. This was explicitly introduced with the Prevent Strategy in mind, which seeks to ‘prevent violent extremism’ which although purporting to combat varied forms of extremism, is largely in fact directed towards Muslims deemed to be ‘at risk’ of religiously-motivated extremism.
Education has always been about instilling values in children, and this has long been promoted through the SMSC (spiritual, moral, social and cultural development ) curriculum, however the requirement to promote ‘British values’ raises a new set of quandaries for teachers from nursery level to graduation. A primary school teacher at a recent training course on British values described it as this:
‘How do you teach a child who sees their mother being shouted at and abused for wearing a hijab that ‘tolerance’ and ‘respect for other people’s religion and beliefs’ is a Fundamental British value?’
In an increasingly familiar litany, British values are said to be: democracy; rule of law; individual liberty; equality; freedom of speech; mutual respect, tolerance and understanding of different faiths and beliefs.
The notion that these values are ‘fundamental’ is somewhat surprising given the usual contemporary opposition to other kinds of fundamentalism. In fact, at some points in the Casey Review they are referred to as ‘21st Century British values’ signalling a somewhat rare recognition that these values have a chequered history in Britain. At what point in British history was mutual respect and tolerance towards others enshrined and practiced in British institutions and culture? How far have we really got on the road towards equality?
How do you define British values?
The idea of British values is beset with problems of definition, a critical one being: ‘what is British about ‘British values?’’. This question has two angles to it. The first is that surely many countries would espouse the values of democracy, rule of law etc, so what makes these values peculiarly British? Are we claiming they are unique to Britain? Or that they somehow have their origin in Britain?
It might lead to the question that, if these values are so British, how do we understand their weak hold over some areas of British life? Why does intolerance against others, particularly those who are not white, remain rife (and potentially growing) in Britain? How well does democracy function in British politics and what is so democratic about have a Head of State who inherits the role through an accident of birth? How do we understand equality, when there continue to be such entrenched inequalities of outcome for different genders, classes and ethnic groups?
A different approach needed
It might be better for these values to be proposed as aspirational rather than achieved, but this would be to introduce hesitancy and humility which the very idea of British values seeks to overcome. The government is trying to ensure that, as a country, we overcome what they see as a national trait. As Nicky Morgan, when she was Secretary of State for Education explained to an education select committee in 2014.
‘That is one of the reasons why we have not, perhaps, talked about them so much as a country—because we think it is not terribly British to talk about our values; we assume that everybody knows them and they have them in their back pocket.’
However, the risk is that the injunction to ‘promote’ British values will lead to a jingoistic or simplistic characterisation of Britishness that excludes a fuller more balanced understanding of our history and current society.
British values are not stable or solid enough concepts to require public officials to swear an oath to, with no consensus on what they mean or whether they are actually realised. Yet the Casey Review also suggests that new migrants to Britain, who will necessarily have a limited understanding of British culture, should also take an oath to British values. If this happens, perhaps all British citizens should also take a parallel oath to resist racism and hostility to migrants – then at least we would be further on the road to upholding democracy and equality which are claimed as British values.