What are British ‘core values’?
A few months ago, Tim Montgomerie initiated a debate about the definition of ‘Mainstream Conservatism’ which was to engross some of the nation’s leading political journalists. In the context of the present Conservative-LibDem coalition, it was a worthwhile exercise if only to attempt to dispel the possibility of ‘coalition candidates’ at the next general election by distilling what Conservatives are supposed to believe in.
But there is a rather more pressing need for a definition of a concept which transcends party politics and political philosophy. David Cameron’s Munich speech ventured into territory where all British prime ministers dare to tread, sometimes with predictable results.
But they dare because they must. And if they do not, their premiership falls into historical oblivion and their name into political obscurity.
Thus, in recent years, we observe that ‘Britishness’ for Margaret Thatcher was about individual responsibility and industry – the Protestant work ethic; the place of the United Kingdom in the world; the maintenance of democracy; the flourishing of liberty; the importance of the family; respect for Parliament, Church and Monarchy; and a patriotism which was not ashamed to fly the Union Flag.
For John Major it was concerned with warm beer and cricket on the village green; ‘back to basics’; traditional values.
For Tony Blair it was about social justice and rebranding for the postmodern era: ‘Cool Britannia’; of standing shoulder-to-shoulder with the United States in support of an interventionist foreign policy to rid the world of evil dictators.
For Gordon Brown it was... well, he never quite got there, but he did talk an awful lot about his varlyooz of tolerance and fairness.
David Cameron has yet to synthesise his views, but in 2007 he observed: “It is mainstream Britain which needs to integrate more with the British Asian way of life, not the other way around.” On social cohesion, he said that ‘integration is a two-way street. If we want to remind ourselves of British values – hospitality, tolerance and generosity to name just three – there are plenty of British Muslims ready to show us what those things really mean’.
He was, of course, on the campaign trail, but he could scarcely have said anything more provocative to the indigenous peoples of these islands than to laud Islam as the paragon of family and community values to which all Christians must aspire.
And yet he was right to observe that many British Asians do value what it means to be British far more than many of those with a genetic heritage going back millennia, and they have achieved an admirable level of integration within just one generation. The British are a mongrel people, with antecedents including inter alia Jutes, Picts, Celts, Romans, Saxons, Vikings and Normans. While they were not always welcomed by the natives, integration has mostly resulted in social cohesion. This history establishes that there is no political or theological reason why those who now immigrate from Asia and other continents of the world should not be capable of the same.
But there are two significant differences: firstly, the sheer numbers of those now immigrating threaten the creation of ‘ghettos’, as Bishop Michael Nazir-Ali has termed them, and others are finding; and, secondly, the desire of some groups to maintain a distinct cultural and religious identity creates resentment which causes social disturbances.
The consensus of all the main political parties is that modern Britain has been enriched by ethnic pluralism and enlightened by theological ecumenism and European political union. But these developments have caused something of an identity crisis in the nation, spawning numerous books and articles which seek to define what is meant by ‘Britishness’. These have tended to evidence a lack of confidence in national identity or express diminishing trust in the foundations of the Christian heritage of the United Kingdom. The reasons have been attributed to a variety of causes, including relativism and multiculturalism, both of which have been exacerbated by the political process of devolution.
The proportion of people who consider themselves to be British has fallen over a decade from 52 per cent in 1997 to 44 per cent in 2007. Significantly, there are considerable variations between the constituent countries of the UK: while 43 per cent of English identify with being ‘British’, only 27 per cent of Welsh consider themselves to be so, and only 18 per cent of Scots. It is perhaps telling and indicative of the extent of the political fragmentation, and sensitivities over devolution and national identity, that this research did not extend to Northern Ireland at all.
First and foremost, Britishness is about tolerance: it is the attribute which has enabled five million immigrants and their descendants to comprise a tenth of the country’s population. This pluralism is a priceless ingredient of the nation’s culture, and it is incumbent upon people of all creeds, philosophies, ethnicities and political ideologies to tolerate those with whom they do not agree.
But British culture cannot be cohesive when there is diversity of language, laws, traditions, customs and religion. Of course, culture can accommodate diversity, but ultimately the systems of governance and jurisprudence in a liberal democracy cannnot produce unity: they must be the manifest foundation of a pre-existing unity. As far as England is concerned, foreign encroachments have been fiercely resisted since the Reformation, yet the accommodation of Roman Catholics has developed incrementally of necessity to the extent that they agreed to abide by the laws of the state. A logical corollary of this is that Asian immigrants to the UK ought now to adapt their cultural traditions and religious expression to accommodate ‘British toleration’ or conform to those aspects of ‘Britishness’ which make society cohesive. And so a Briton has the right to (say) oppose or support British policy in Iraq and may campaign to that effect, write, agitate and stand for election towards the chosen end. But it is also elementary that he does not have the right to stone adulterers to death, hang homosexuals or blow up the underground or an aircraft.
Toleration of the intolerant is distinctly un-British.
Religious practices which conflict with traditional British liberties need an urgent focus. While few would defend such abhorrent practices as forced marriages, ‘honour killings’, female genital mutilation or child abuse, there is emerging an increasing tension between the assertion of individuality over the common good, and ‘human rights’ over community cohesion. Since there are no agreed criteria by which conflicting religious claims can be settled, religion is increasingly relegated to the private sphere: morality thereby becomes largely a matter of taste or opinion, and moral error ceases to exist. We are left with autonomy, equality and rights: the creedal values of liberalism that allow each to be whatever he or she chooses. Left unfettered, the assertion of these leads to anarchy, so a values system has to be imposed for society to function at all. This is perhaps what the Prime Minister meant by ‘muscular liberalism’.
And this ‘benign paternalism’ is thoroughly British, but only when it is consistent with the mores and traditions of the majority.
As society expands to encompass ever larger numbers of religious, ethnic and linguistic groups, rigid social structures are stretched to breaking point. Rather like the Church, society requires either cultural homogeneity or an élite sufficiently powerful to enforce conformity. But this negates the limited degree of Christian religious pluralism which the passing of the 1689 Act of Toleration specifically permitted. ‘Dissenting traditions’ have gained in number and influence and have weakened the grip of state religion. The costs of coercing religious conformity are no longer politically acceptable: the state is not willing to accept the price in social conflict and so adopts a position of ‘neutrality’ on the competing claims of various religious bodies and moral values.
The ultimate source of the state’s values system is the subject of much debate. In order to constrain religious expression in the public sphere, France has legislated to prohibit the display of all religious symbols and articles of clothing from its public buildings. More recently, President Sarkozy has banned the burka altogether because it ‘demeans and debases women’. In the UK, customs to do with dress, food laws or daily prayers have long been considered inoffensive as long as there is no compulsion or imposition. But the advent of shari’a courts, while considered ‘unavoidable’ by the Archbishop of Canterbury, are, according to Bishop Michael Nazir-Ali, perceptibly inconsistent with what have become inalienable values such as equality between men and women in the sight of the law, inheritance rights, the education and employment of women, and the freedom of young people to chose themselves whom they will marry. There have been rabbinical courts (Beth Din) in the UK for three centuries, and the Protestant state has similarly granted to Roman Catholics the right to take account of their own religious sensitivities. But these judicial provisions have always been subject to Statute Law, and appeal has always been possible from their judgements. This settlement is now being challenged by shari’a courts, some proponents of which insist that their dispensations are superior to parliamentary statute.
And so, secondly, we observe that the rule of law and equality under the law are core British values. There is no doubt that some religious practices may coerce some, especially women through such conventions as child marriage or inequitable divorce settlements. But mindful of minority ethnic voting communities, politicians have trod carefully along the via media between religious liberty and cultural prohibition. The Prime Minister has signalled an end to this compromise.
There are many models of ‘Britishness’, but the most enlightened and tolerant one, which is perhaps the most Christian, does not demand assimilation. It does, however, require integration: cultural relativism cannot be justified when the outcome is a moral injustice. But while religion can play a role in promoting moral conduct, there is no longer agreement on which institutions are morally capable of implementing the rules of justice. While some repudiate the idea that the Christian religion can any longer be a unifying force for Britain, it has to be observed that it has bequeathed to us our system of laws, administration of justice and our understanding of liberty.
Over recent centuries, it is Protestantism which has defined the character of Great Britain: from the Armada, through the Act of Union in 1707 to the battle of Waterloo, Britain was involved in successive wars against Roman Catholic nations. It was a shared religious allegiance that permitted a sense of British national identity to emerge, and which has served as a unifying narrative under the aegis of the Established Church through which the common good has traditionally been defined. Of course, this history is peppered with myth, sentiment and flights of fancy – notions that somehow God had chosen England, and the nation is singularly blessed by virtue of the purity of Protestantism over the discredited and sullied Catholicism of continental Europe. This selective sense of religious history and an idealised perception of the moral purpose of the United Kingdom in the world are part of our ‘Britishness’. We have a cohesive religious base, which is intrinsic to the national psyche: essentially, whilst acknowledging the liberties of atheists and rights of secular humanists, to be ‘religious’ is to be British.
The Christian moral social contract which existed (at least through the tinted lens of ‘Britishness’) has now been replaced by a new liberal moral uniformity. While the former was Anglican and benign, the latter is perceived to be increasingly intolerant of the dissident and unorthodox, seeking to impose itself in order to create social cohesion and control. Indeed, although the guiding principles of liberalism are respect for and tolerance of the ‘other’, it is itself increasingly being seen to be disrespectful and intolerant of the illiberal. This is antithetical to our ‘core values’. When we cease to tolerate benign dissent, we cease to act in accordance with the grand harmony of British history: indeed, we cease to be British.
And so, thirdly, to be British is to be free – to believe, to own, to contract and to associate. The state only has authority to the extent granted by Parliament, which is subject to the assent of the people. The foundations of those liberties – Magna Carta, Habeas Corpus, Bill of Rights, Act of Union – guard against state coercion. To abrogate them is to diminish our liberty and to deny our heritage. It is not British to be subject to foreign parliaments or alien courts – temporal or spiritual – especially where they seek to impose a doctrine or creed which is antithetical to that which we have evolved over the centuries. The sovereignty of the Crown in Parliament is inviolable.
To be British is sometimes to tolerate conflicting philosophies, mutually-exclusive theologies and illogical propositions.
But not at any cost.