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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Britain in the EU

This blog post was written by Dr Dionyssis G. Dimitrakopoulos, Senior Lecturer in Politics and Director of the MSc programme in European Politics and Policy. It summarises parts of the lecture he gave to British diplomats at the Foreign Office on 18 February 2013.

Britain has been described as an ‘awkward partner’ (George, 1994) within the EU but the chequered history of her membership is even more complex. Although it is true that until 1997 there were only two major episodes of positive engagement (the establishment of the single European market in the second half of the 1980s and John Major’s short-lived attempt, upon his arrival at 10 Downing Street, to place the UK ‘at the heart of Europe’) a more thorough understanding of Britain’s 40-year history as a member of the EC/EU ought to be couched not only in contemporary debates on the future of European integration but also Britain’s own past, present and future.

For a start, Britain’s accession to the then European Communities was a sign of an undeclared defeat. As Hugo Young appositely notes,

‘For the makers of the original “Europe”, beginning to fulfil Victor Hugo’s dream, their creation was a triumph.  Out of defeat they produced a new kind of victory.  For Britain, by contrast, the entry into Europe was a kind of defeat: a fate she had resisted, a necessity reluctantly accepted, the last resort of a once great power, never for one moment a climactic or triumphant engagement with the construction of Europe’ (Young, 1998, 2).

Indeed, not only did Britain’s governments shun the opportunity to participate in this process from the beginning – in the 1950s – but their pronouncements were matched by further concrete action: Britain played a major role in the establishment of the European Free Trade Association which was meant to be a counter-weight to the emerging European Communities, and was devoid of a common external tariff and a common trade negotiator vis-à-vis third countries, i.e. two ‘state-building’ features of the EEC. Britain was initially joined by Austria, Denmark, Portugal, Sweden, Norway and Switzerland, nearly all of which [i] subsequently became full members of the EC/EU (as did Finland that became a full member of EFTA in 1986 but joined the EU only nine years later).  In addition, far from its usual position as a leading decision shaper in international affairs, Britain has had to apply three times in order to join the European Communities.

Since then, by and large Britain’s membership has been marked by a number of paradoxes or even contradictions: a sceptical member state but also one whose basic preferences are often (though not always) congruent with key developments in the process of integration as indicated by the single market project, successive enlargements, market-based approaches to a series of policy issues, including employment.

More recently, the terms of the domestic debate on Britain’s membership have not only returned to the themes of the late 1980s and early 1990s but can be seen as evidence of the British political elite beginning to catch up with the continental European debate on the future and the finalité politique of European integration – a debate essentially launched by Joschka Fischer’s famous speech at Humboldt University in May 2000. This involves a struggle between the supporters and opponents of essentially two quite different options for the future of Europe, namely neoliberalism and regulated capitalism. Indeed, on the one hand, David Cameron’s recent speech at Bloomberg and other pronouncements made by senior Tories place them firmly on the side of those who support unfettered markets, a neoliberal Europe – that is arguably the essence of contemporary Tory Euroscepticism for they see the EU as an actual or even just potential source of intervention in the economy. As the emerging debate on the UK’s membership of the EU is bound to reveal, when Mr Cameron refers to ‘flexibility’ he actually has in mind what many on the Continent as well as the UK call ‘social dumping’. In that sense, the recent developments in the debate in the UK mark a return to the early 1990s, when the late John Smith, then Labour leader, was castigating the Major-led government for trying to turn the UK into the sweatshop of Europe, trying to compete with Taiwan on low wages, rather than with Germany on skills, as he put in a speech in the House of Commons. The fact that Mr Cameron has singled out the EU’s Working Time Directive makes him particularly vulnerable to that line of attack because that directive (like others in the socio-economic and environmental domains) actually allows individual member states to pursue higher standards. So, if Mr Cameron wants flexibility, this is bound to mean the dilution of standards, not their improvement.

The Labour Party’s response was largely couched in Ed Miliband and his team’s preference for ‘responsible capitalism’ which has a clear social democratic ‘flavour’. This is good news for those who want to have real choices not only in national electoral contests but also the forthcoming European elections for, ultimately, the kind of Europe that we want is inextricably linked to the kind of Britain we want.

References cited

George, S. (1994) An Awkward Partner.  Britain in the European Community. 2nd edn. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Young, H. (1998) This Blessed Plot: Britain and Europe from Churchill to Blair. London: Macmillan.


[i] Norway and Switzerland are the two exceptions.

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