Squaring the circle: national claims to international values

And so the debate on British values continues. Today the UK Communities Secretary Sajid Javid has proposed that public office holders, such as civil servants and councillors, swear an oath to British values. Responding to concerns in the Casey Review of rising ethnic segregation in Britain, Javid writes that ‘civic and political leaders have to lead by example,’ by pledging allegiance to the ‘building blocks of our society.’

There is nothing particularly new about all this. In 2014, Prime Minister David Cameron was calling for greater confidence in British values to combat perceived Islamification in Britain’s schools. ‘A belief in freedom, tolerance of others, accepting personal and social responsibility [and] respecting and upholding the rule of law’ were, he claimed, ‘as British as the Union flag, as football, as fish and chips.’

And in 2009, his predecessor Gordon Brown hoped for ‘a strong sense of shared patriotism … that relies not on race or on ancient and unchanging institutions, but rather on a foundation of values that can be shared by all of us, regardless of race, region or religion.’

There’s nothing wrong with the values suggested by Javid, Cameron or Brown, or the many others who have also offered their own interpretation of British citizenship. Few would doubt the moral worth of tolerance, freedom of speech, equality and democracy – to name some of the contenders for inclusion in the oath – or question their importance to a civil society. (Though it’s interesting to note that honour, regularly touted as the foremost British value less than a hundred years ago, no longer makes it onto these lists.)

Nor is there anything wrong in acknowledging that the United Kingdom is one of the more liberal, democratic and tolerant countries in the world, and that these values it safeguards should be promoted and defended.

But there is something narrow-minded in insisting such ideas must have a nationality. Freedom of speech, equality and democracy exist outside of the British Isles after all – indeed, some places may even be better at them. Even by their Javid’s own admission, ‘such values are not unique to this country.’ Other proponants of ‘British’ values also accept this: ‘these values are vital to other people in other countries,’ conceded Cameron; ‘our British values are internationalist and universal,’ agreed Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn in 2015. ‘They are not limited by borders.’

So why call them British?

It’s clear that the logic behind these claims to national values is a little weak. If Cameron asks us to be proud of the United Kingdom because it is a tolerant nation, then surely we must also feel proud of Canada, Norway and New Zealand, all of which came out as more tolerant than the UK in a recent study by Legatum? And if Javid wants our national allegiance to be fuelled by our commitment to democracy, then shouldn’t we also owe at least some allegiance to Senegal, with its near-unparalleled history of peaceful democratic transitions?

To argue that values as important as equality and tolerance suddenly lose their potency once they reach lines on a map is to undermine the power of the values themselves. It could also, if we’re not careful, suggest universal ideals and values can only be appreciated, respected and loved if they are tied to one’s own country. As political theorist George Kateb warns, the endless association of universal principles with nations risks muddying the two (very separate) ideas. The danger for us in the UK is that Britain will stop being respected because it promotes democracy and freedom, and instead democracy and freedom will be respected because they are British.

To be fair, Sajid Javid has made it clear that he does not want a ‘government-approved, one-size-fits-all identity.’ And in trying to promote community integration through allegiance to universal values, his aim is understandable and, in some ways, laudable.

Except he doesn’t call them universal values. The real power and beauty of ideas such as tolerance, freedom and equality is not their relevance to this patch of land or to that group of people. Instead, it is the very virtue of their universality – the hope, inspiration and determination they have instilled in people all over the world, regardless of their nationality – that makes them special. It is this which the British values oath, with its rather coercive assertion that people ‘need to feel more British,’ looks set to ignore in place of a more thoughtless, uncritical and short-sighted patriotism.

Photo credit: Matthew Hunt

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