Is there any value in talking about British values?

This post was contributed by Dr William Ackah, Lecturer in Community and Voluntary Sector Studies in Birkbeck’s Department of Geography, Environment and Development Studies

The controversy over the allegations of ‘extremism’ in a number of Birmingham schools has led to a wider discussion on what constitutes ‘British values’. Michael Gove the Secretary of State for Education and David Cameron the Prime Minister have both responded to the situation in Birmingham by announcing that schools should teach ‘British values’. At a press conference in Sweden on 10 June, Cameron stated that these values should include “freedom, tolerance, respect for the law, belief in personal and social responsibility and respect for British institutions.” One of the questions I would like to explore here is whether an understanding of these ideas of Britishness would really resolve issues of social inclusion and equality in deprived communities or whether the appeal to ‘British values’ is a smokescreen that hides a multitude of equality and diversity issues not dealt with by British public institutions?

There is value in having a public debate about ‘British values’. Political theorists and others have long debated what values and mechanisms are required for arriving at the common good when you have a diversity of competing interests operating in society. Theologians speak of the ‘beloved community’ and explore what are the values, principles and ways of belonging that are required to create and sustain an ideal community. So it is legitimate to ask what type of communities we want to live in. What kinds of schools do we want our children to be educated in? The problem with the current debate is the context in which these questions are being framed.

The current debate is being framed by powerful white male politicians who in talking about ‘British values’ in relation to British Muslim minority communities, turn ‘British values’ into a racial marker or label of racial differentiation. The unspoken assumption being that certain behaviours are labelled as Muslim and that these are not compatible with being British. Hence it is not your passport or the taxes that you pay, but your ‘values’ and specifically ‘Muslim values’ that determine how British you are and the degree to which can legitimately participate in British public life.

It is striking that when other public and private institutions experience a crisis of governance they are not dealt with in this way. Recent crises have beset the newspaper industry, the Metropolitan Police, the National Health Service, the British Broadcasting Corporation, banks and last, but by no means least, MPs and Parliament. Weak governance, lack of due diligence, poor ethical standards, cultures of fear and intimidation can all have been said to have played some role in accounting for their institutional failings. These failings – not exclusively, but in the overwhelming majority of cases – have been perpetrated by members of white, mono-cultural, middle-class communities. They are failings that, in substantive terms, are similar to those attributed to the schools in Birmingham. Are these institutions deemed to be suffering from a lack of ‘British values’? No they are not, hence my contention that the current debate on ‘British values’ is not a genuine attempt to construct a political ethical framework for thinking about the common good, but rather it is a misguided attempt to re-racialise what it means to be British.

There is a need for a genuine discussion and debate to be had on values but the context needs to be reframed. Britain needs a discussion on whether its public institutions are genuine purveyors and defenders of equality and justice for all. Britain needs an honest and genuine reflection on whether its institutional and policy mechanisms are capable of delivering genuine justice and equality in a 21st-century, multicultural, multi-layered and multi-faceted society that incorporates Muslims rather than racialises them as an ‘other’ to be dealt with differently. The discussion needs to be reframed to talk about British institutions and the degree to which these institutions, to which we all contribute, genuinely reflect and represent the diversity of the country. Too many British institutions are woefully unrepresentative of the communities that they serve and too many members of minority communities bear the scars of discrimination, poor service delivery and injustice that they have received from these institutions. Where is the outcry over the lack of British values being put into practice on behalf of these citizens?  It is a long-standing scandal, where no one seems to be being held accountable for the startling lack of progress.  So yes, let us talk about ‘British values’, but more importantly let us see them concretised and realised for everyone and not used as a metaphorical stick with which to beat marginalized minority communities.

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