Over the course of the past 18 months or so, the phrase “British values” has been increasingly featuring in political speeches and interviews. It’s pretty clear what the main cause of this has been, the rise of UKIP.
UKIP’s rise has scared the three main parties so much that they seem to be in a competition to out British one another. This might seem a smart political move to out manoeuvre a fringe party that has the luxury of spouting populist dogma without the burden of having to actually implement any policy. However, the mainstream parties do not have this luxury and the nationalistic fervour that accompanies this phrase has begun to influence policy.
So why is this such a big deal?
Well, because the phrase “British values” is essentially meaningless and has the side effect of dumbing down political discourse.
Whenever politicians talk of British values, in speeches and interviews, they seem to suggest that they are some unique established set of codes that have guided Britain through the ages.
This clearly isn’t true. British values on pretty much every issue have evolved over time and continue to evolve to this day.
For a long part of our nation’s history, British values included taking land from indigenous peoples and “civilising” them.
Slavery was another traditional British value without which the British empire would not have been possible.
Many would argue that these are archaic issues that have no relevance today. Well, if you want to totally discount the period that gave this tiny island the prominent role it now has on the world stage, let’s try and establish what modern British values are.
Michael Gove argues that British values are “democracy, rule of law, individual liberty and mutual respect and tolerance of those with different faiths and beliefs“.
This suggests that democracy, law and order, freedom and tolerance are uniquely British qualities, not shared by any other nation.
Clearly, this is not the case. These values are accepted by liberal minded individuals across the globe and to suggest otherwise is nonsense.
Claiming these beliefs as uniquely your own isn’t even uniquely our own, as a brief glimpse at politics across the pond will illustrate. In the land of the free and home of brave, the belief in the greatness and uniqueness of America and its values verges on the pathological. The TEA Party is able to exploit this and label any left of centre policy as against traditional American values. As a result, Obama’s attempts to improve America’s healthcare service (currently ranked as worst in the developed world) by extending coverage to the 48 million Americans who had no health insurance, was met with bizarre accusations from the American right of a plot to implement communism, establish death panels and destroy America.
This kind of blind nationalism is removed from reality and as a result, hinders the ability to make progress.
It also enables politicians to limit people’s freedoms and rights, with the justification of protecting them. The NSA’s Prism programme is a massive invasion of personal privacy, but few raise any serious objections to it as it is justified as a defence of freedoms. Theresa May’s planned “snooper’s charter” is arguably another example of limiting freedom with the justification of protecting freedom.
We’re not quite at the TEA Party stage yet, but wouldn’t it be nice if our politicians stopped being bullied by a fringe party without even a single MP? One value that is particularly embraced in Britain, potentially more than in any other country, is multiculturalism. We are a tiny island nation whose culture has been shaped by those who came to it. Music, food, literature, art, every aspect of British culture has been shaped by the tremendous variety of people who have come here. Why don’t the major parties defend that value, rather than cower to the party that is actively against it.