‘British Values’

With a lot of talk about teaching ‘British values’ here’s the chapter, ‘British Values’, from the is The Diversity Illusion (now on special offer – just 99p). (It’s long by the way.)

British Values
After multiculturalism

The Onion’s spoof headline about the Axis alliance, ‘Japanese sign pact with white supremacists in well-thought out scheme’, could equally have applied to the liberal alliance with religious minorities. Ultra-conservative immigrants were allies in the culture war against native conservatives, and like many victorious allies, the two fell out badly in victory.

And after the fall out over a multiculturalism that claimed no culture was better than any other, what next? Many argue that the best way to integrate minorities is by promoting British values for everyone. But what are those values? It is a problem that many European countries have struggled with.

In the Netherlands immigration rules were toughened after the murder of Theo Van Gogh in 2005; imported spouses would have to be 21, and the partner already in Holland would have to fulfil a minimum income requirement. Germany and Denmark also raised the required age and brought in civic examinations and language tests. On top of this non-Western applicants for residency would be assessed on their understanding of Dutch life and culture, which included being shown images of gay men expressing affection and bare-breasted women on beach. This was in line with the Europe-wide attitude expressed by German politician Wolfgang Schauble, who said of public sexuality that ‘Someone who doesn’t want to see these kinds of things shouldn’t move to a country where they’re reality’.

But most natives do not want to see them either; British public surveys show that over half of both Muslims and non-Muslims are offended by public drunkenness, while Muslims and non-Muslims alike are affronted by public sexuality. Yet where whites and minorities do share common values, they are at odds with metropolitan ones. The secular-Left response to Islam is to tear down the native Christian culture, rather like a man setting fire to his own house to get rid of an unwanted visitor. Yet is de-Christianisation going to make integration easier? Most Muslims, when polled, express favourable views towards Christianity, and respect for Christian institutions, but the ‘European values’ politicians talk about are often alien both to European natives and to Muslims.

When protesters against the visit of Pope Benedict XVI to Britain accused the Pontiff of opposing ‘British values’, they were primarily talking of the right to contraception, abortion and gay marriage, yet all of these are novelties, and to millions of Britons they are questionable ones. In contrast conservatives who admire Islam’s strong family values, modesty and respect for the elderly compare it with British society’s increasing consumerism, sexualisation and child abandonment. Anyone who compares the behaviour of people buying curry on a Friday night in a typical British city with those serving it might have slightly mixed feelings about imposing ‘British values’. If a culture is defined by its decadence, is integration a triumph or a failure? When Muslim girls catch chlamydia at school and Muslim boys are being treated for cirrhosis of the liver in their 20s will we celebrate the victory of Britishness?

Sometimes it is hard to see who better reflects British culture. When a Muslim group in January 2005 persuaded the Advertising Standards Agency to ban an underwear ad near a mosque, many natives would have agreed with them (and these ads were far less racy than many seen on billboards). Many people in Britain feel uncomfortable about the over-sexualisation of public life, in advertising, television and other forms of media, which they view as a form of aggression, and yet there are no bodies, including religious groups, which have the power to speak up for them; Islam is sometimes the only authority strong enough to fill a moral vacuum. As Saul Bellow wrote, when public virtue becomes a kind of ghost town… ‘anyone can move and declare himself sheriff’. This is indeed what happened in a country that threw off the shackles of religiously-inspired moral regulation and immigration controls at the same time.

Critics might counter that we do not have a clear, fixed notion of what being British means, and that that’s a sign of maturity and liberation. Today a school teaching the children of Russian immigrants to become ‘English gentlemen’, as it was understood in 1900, would be laughed at and condemned, and its teachers would be blacklisted, and yet who has gained from this decon- struction – the comfortable, well-educated graduates who deride such outdated ideas, or the children who do not know what to aspire to or what norms to live by? Scorn for ‘British values’ is easy when one is cushioned by education, wealth and social exclusivity, and living off the social capital of generations. Further down the social ladder, and in the chaos of communities where dozens of languages are spoken and where various social pathologies are rife, such norms are more necessary. Cultural values are forms of social pressure, as well as instructions; and while PhD students do not need external discipline, fourth years in inner-city schools certainly do. Where immigrants do have money and therefore choice, such as the Russian or Arab multimillionaires of west London, they opt overwhelmingly to embrace the most obvious facet of Christian, conservative British values – the public school.

The problem is that outside of these sub-cultures much of British society feels uncomfortable with this boarding school idea of England, and has steadily abandoned it. Yet this surely makes the process of integration harder, by making the rules of integration less clear. And the more relaxed a club or institution is about behaviour, the stricter its membership rules have to be, or the more expensive and exclusive. Likewise the more open an organisation, the more rigid its rules and norms tend to be; otherwise chaos and disorder soon rule. In the words of the Canadian novelist Yann Martel the nation is either a ‘great hotel’ or ‘the collective accumulated wisdom of a shared past’. Multiculturalists take the former view, yet an open immigration policy and a society with unclear values is not a combination that will last very long.

In 1955 a Colonial Office report stated that: ‘A large coloured community as a noticeable feature of our social life would weaken… the concept of England or Britain to which people of British stock throughout the Commonwealth are attached.’ After 7/7 it became clear that segregation was intensifying and that mul- ticulturalism had been an abject failure. Yet in one sense national identity has only been weakened at the intellectual level. At a popular level people in England are aware of what Englishness means and what it stands for. But the intellectual abandonment of English identity and patriotism has left it proletarianised, characterised by football fans and the St George’s Cross. This, in turn, further stigmatises such attachments.

Some thinkers believe that we can overcome the problems of diversity by forging a new British identity that could appeal to all cultures. France and the United States provide the two most obvious models, but can a traditionally ethno-centric national identity (albeit an understated one) be replaced with an allegiance to a British constitution based on universal values?

Labour began seriously looking into British identity at the turn of the century. In 2002 Tony Blair appointed Michael Willis as the ‘minister of patriotism’, to explore national identity. The Home Office panel proposed a citizen programme for immigrants, which would inform new arrivals of the country’s values. And yet this is a paradox. As Professor Robert Colls of Leicester University wrote: ‘The British government proposes a “statement of values” setting out what binds us together. But if the values do bind us, why do we need a statement? And if they don’t bind us, in what sense are they our values?’ National identities, he pointed out, ‘happen when nations see themselves as one, regardless of all that divides them, which can include the state’.

National identity is a historical relationship that binds an extended family (even if it is one that adopts) with a shared history, not a set of values. David Cameron, in a speech in Munich in February 2011 in which he condemned multiculturalism, said that ‘a genuinely liberal country… believes in certain values and actively promotes them. Freedom of speech, freedom of worship, democracy, the rule of law, equal rights regardless of race, sex or sexuality. It says to its citizens, this is what defines us as a society: to belong here is to believe in these things.’ One might ask – since when? To belong here does not mean necessarily believing in anything, except for an attachment to this country, its history and its laws, through ancestry or adoption. Christian hotel owners who refuse to give same-sex couples double beds fall outside of Cameron’s citizenship; for that matter so does the entire Church of England. Are Anglicans opposed to ‘British values’?

The universalist idea of the nation being a collection of people with ‘similar values’ or interests is itself less liberal than the traditional nation-state. Clubs made up of people sharing similar interests are voluntary associations where membership depends on like-minded views. But most people do not choose their nations any more than they choose their families, and where they do, as in the United States, the society has to exert strong pressure to integrate. England’s self-image as a land of eccentrics may be rather exaggerated, but not entirely so; that being English meant not having to conform along political, cultural and religious lines was a strength derived from its traditional homogeneity. The bond of the nation, irrational though it was, was strong enough to make people submit to the will of the common good without the need for authoritarianism. Vastly diverse countries, in contrast, must force that submission on the people, whether through legislation, illiberal policing or other areas of greater state intervention. Once one takes out the historical relationship that binds a nation and its citizens, and views it as a ‘great hotel’, it becomes easier for some unscrupulous proprietor to start imposing his own vision on the residents.

Contrary to what is often claimed, ‘universal’ ideas about right and wrong and respect for the law are not values on which a nation can be built, precisely because ideas are not always universal, something illustrated by the question of religious offence. People will only respect a system of law framed around their ethical values or one they feel belongs to them; they may fear the law, but that is an altogether different thing. A state without a nation, a patch of land inhabited by people with nothing in common except that they share the same geographic co-ordinates, may function up to a point, but some level of coercion would be needed to keep this society together. Indeed that is what diversity is bringing.

After 7/7 the Government began to think about a ‘British equivalent of the US Fourth of July’. The Fabian Society suggested July 5, the anniversary of the NHS, using this product of the nation-state to symbolise and unite a post-national state. Many of the ideas about national identity mimic American civic patriotism, which is superficially attractive. In fact much of what we associate with Americanism dates to that country’s first great period of mass immigration, and was created following the assas- sination of President William McKinley by a Polish-American radical (who was, like many British Islamist terrorists, native-born and well-educated). In James Bennett’s words: ‘A consensus quickly developed that what was needed was not only more robust cultural assimilation, but also a civic creed of “Americanism” proactively promoted among all Americans, natives and immigrants.’ The Pledge of Allegiance, the flag salute in schools and the religious hymns about the American way of life all date back to this period. Yet the differences are significant: America was a relatively young country, assimilating immigrants from the same continent, the vast majority following the same religion (if different strains), and it still took a 40-year immigration pause to integrate them. The US was everything Europe isn’t – dynamic, culturally confident, highly fertile, thinly populated and economically expanding. It at least had the right ingredients and utensils for a melting pot.

France also has a republican tradition that helps assimilation, but this is a product of its revolution (itself still a divisive issue). For historical reasons Britain never developed such republican institutions, and any attempt to create them now might be seen by white conservatives as proof that their country was slipping away from them. To alter institutions so obviously in the name of uniting a disparate society would rob this new identity of legitimacy in the eyes of many. It would be what the Weimar Republic was to Germans in 1919, and its symbols one more source of resentment. Even a written constitution would be highly contentious, especially as it would inevitably be written in the uninspiring gobbledygook of the day, something along the lines of: ‘We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all people are created equal, that they are endowed by with certain unalienable Human Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness, regardless of race, sexual orientation, religion, belief or non-belief, gender assignment etc etc.’

France’s secularism developed in a monocultural, almost uniformly Catholic country whose citizens felt free to attack Catholicism, without the presence of outsiders who might make them feel culturally defensive (the same thing happened in Turkey under Atatürk). French-style secularism in Britain today would almost certainly be resented even by agnostics who saw attacks on religious tradition as a sop to Muslims (sops that Muslims did not even want). Even small matters, such as the replacing of Christian symbols at Christmas (themselves often 19th-century inventions and created to sell tat), can become a source of division.

The process of forging a new Britishness has begun with citizenship tests and ceremonies that, in the words of the BBC’s Mark Easton, aimed to create ‘a sense of identity that overarches creed, culture or ethnic background… built around the ideas of shared values’ such as ‘tolerance of diversity and cultural difference’. The early signs are not promising. When Home Secretary David Blunkett announced in 2005 that foreigners seeking Indefinite Leave to Remain, or naturalisation, were to be set a written test about ‘Britishness’, there was much amused press speculation about what newcomers would be asked, something along the lines of: ‘What is the correct phrase when starting a fight in a public house?’ or ‘Who has larger breasts – Jordan or Jodie Marsh?’ Yet the real thing is far more farcical than a Right-wing hack’s worst nightmare.

The Government presented the test as a means to creating a British melting pot based on, but obviously morally superior to, the American model. Blunkett’s successor John Reid peers out from the pages of the official handbook, A Journey to Citizenship, telling newcomers that the exams ‘have encouraged people who have decided to make their lives in Britain to learn more about our culture and institutions’. That they have certainly done. In total no fewer than 29 of the 408 potential test questions are about claiming state benefits, and another 65 concern other rights such as free healthcare, education and working hour regulations. Foreign arrivals might be bemused by the idea that British culture should be defined by welfare, as if Shakespeare’s Globe was less culturally significant than the nearby London Bridge JobCentrePlus. But indeed the major advantage to having Indefinite Leave to Remain rather than just Limited Leave is being able to claim Jobseeker’s Allowance, housing benefits and the full buffet of the European welfare state.

And what kind of Britishness are they embracing? As well as questions about quangos, single-parent families, drug use and smoking laws, there are 9 on the EU, and a further 16 questions about women’s rights and the history of female suffrage. There is a reasonable argument that, since many immigrants come from countries where a ‘women’s right to choose’ means opting whether to be beheaded or stoned to death for adultery, newcomers should be informed about the one area of life where liberals feel unem- barrassed moral superiority over immigrants. And one could even justify the 20 questions about the history of immigration, on top of another 11 about the racial and religious diversity of Britain. Yet there are just four questions about all the rest of British history put together – and the test organisers managed to get two of the answers wrong, claiming as false the statement ‘The Church of England is a Catholic church and has existed since the 1530s’ (the C of E is ‘Catholic and Reformed’, just not Roman Catholic) and that ‘the monarch of the UK is not allowed to marry anyone who is not Protestant’ (only Roman Catholics are barred). There is not a single question about Alfred the Great, Magna Carta, the creation of Parliament, the King James Bible, the Civil War, Habeas Corpus, the Glorious Revolution or the Great Reform Act.

A deconstructed national identity makes it easier for leaders to mould a new country around their ideas, and Labour certainly used mass immigration – and the related national identity crisis – as a way of changing Britishness, something that was never the intention of those who first welcomed immigrants in the 1950s and 60s. In 2002 the Government introduced Citizenship classes ‘to teach children about national identity and break down the barriers between different faiths and cultures’, both a symptom of a nation in crisis and a means to further proselytise the faith of multiculturalism, even if that word has been rebranded as ‘diversity’. The curriculum from the website of the Department for Children, Schools and Families, entitled Britain: A Diverse Society? asks children to ‘Build on the class display of individual identities and the local community. Does it reflect the cultural diversity of Britain? Why is it important to recognise and celebrate all identities?’ and ‘Debate issues relating to diversity, e.g. the rights and responsibilities of different communities, what it means to be British, attitudes towards refugees.’

In 2010 a report, Citizenship Established?, found that discussions designed to tackle immigration led some pupils to ‘assert ideas tantamount to racism’. Ofsted, which visited 91 secondary schools as part of the study, called for a rise in the number of specially- trained citizenship teachers. Some might argue that imparting the principles of citizenship would be better achieved by teaching History and English, but these subjects offer fewer opportunities for promoting a multicultural vision of Britain. What those classes are teaching is not citizenship but a Marxist interpretation of race, something which is bound to make pupils assert ‘ideas tantamount to racism’, since any questioning of the official orthodoxy on racism is proof of racism.

Creating a new identity requires creating a new history, too, and one of the assumptions that the education National Curriculum proclaims is that all students should be prepared for ‘life in a mul- ticultural society’. Trevor Philips has even decreed that British schoolchildren should learn ‘race relations and multiculturalism with every subject they study – from Spanish to science’, a common practice of totalitarian states where the values of the ruling party are imbued in every aspect of education. Even church schools, accused of ‘indoctrinating’ pupils, try to at least keep religion confined to Religious Studies.

Just as Benedict Anderson thought that ‘imagined communities’ were invented, so they can be reinvented, and advocates of ‘the nation of immigrants’ theory are doing just that, creating a multicultural British back-story with a very small number of individuals. An entire pseudo-national history has been built on Mary Seacole, a magnificent but historically not very significant Jamaican-born Victorian nurse; her multicultural brand has been attached to numerous awards, university departments and hospitals in the past decade, while a statue opposite Parliament is being planned.

Rather than being used to bring unity under a historical British identity that would be ‘too white’ for many in the teaching establishment, history is also used to address minority grievances. Many educators promote the teaching of trans-Atlantic slavery or the Crusades as a way of making minorities feel more included, but how this is supposed to bring a class together, or forge a common national identity, is anyone’s guess. Black History Month is suggested as an antidote to low self-esteem among black men, and a supposed link between slavery and black-on-black street violence (although low self-esteem is linked to suicide, not homicide). Meanwhile the annual Islamic Awareness Week, which follows Black History Month in November (like Christianity, multiculturalism has a busy calendar of worship), recently focused on the subject ‘Past and Present: 1000 years of Islam in Britain’, which told of ‘the Islam and Britain you never knew’. It went on: ‘Today’s Britain would be very different without Islam!’ Does it matter that this statement is not true? That before the 1960s Islam had an insignificant influence on Britain?

Sometimes well-meaning educators can unwittingly veer off into parody, as when the BBC schools website declared that the ‘Vikings arrived, bringing a distinctive new influence to the cultural pot’. Rape, pillage, slaughter. Many a time a monk in Northumbria or Mercia must have pondered the great vibrancy that the Vikings had brought to the area, before moving to Wessex for the ‘better quality of life’.

If multiculturalism is a faith, then Spitalfields, just to the east of the City of London, is its holy land. The district is often cited as an example of Britain’s rich tapestry because it is one of the very few areas in the country that does have a significant history of immigration, with waves of French, Irish, Russian Jews and Bengalis. It even has a Museum of Immigration and Diversity, a Grade II listed building erected in 1719 by Huguenot silk merchant Peter Abraham Ogier, which became a synagogue in 1869 until falling into disrepair in the 1960s. Across the river Southwark Council portrayed the history of the south bank in a mural: ‘Southwark is a highly cosmopolitan area with a rich mixture of communities going back centuries. German, Dutch and Flemish craftspeople excluded by the City of London settled in Southwark… immigrants from Ireland took up manual jobs… the labour shortage was eased by workers and their families invited from the Caribbean and West Africa… communities from China, Cyprus, Vietnam, Somalia, Ethiopia, Bosnia and Croatia… just under a third of our population is from an ethnic minority and over a hundred languages are spoken by our children.’ As Michael Collins recalled in The Likes of Us, one bemused local looked at the mural and commented: ‘You wouldn’t think us English had ever lived here if you look at this.’

Many British street names have been altered to reflect the change in culture and demographics. There is a Samsara Road in Bromsgrove, a Masjid Lane in Tower Hamlets, which uses the Arabic term for mosque, while in Lewisham there is a Khadija Walk, after the Prophet Mohammed’s first wife, the first person after him to convert to Islam. In Oldham there are roads named after Sir Muhammad Iqbal and Muhammad Ali Jinnah, founders of Pakistan. There is also a Jinnah Road in Redditch, and a Jinnah Court in Bradford, which also has a Qureshi View and a Kinara Close.

Like any faith, it has its martyrs too. Tower Hamlets council named a Whitechapel park in honour of Altab Ali, a 25-year-old Bangladeshi who was murdered in 1978 during a period when racist attacks were common in the area (although the gang was reportedly mixed-race). The killing was commemorated by renaming St Mary’s Park, just off Whitechapel High Street, and the site of the original medieval chapel from which the area gets it name. Yet the borough has never thought it suitable to name anything after William Booth, William Beveridge, Sylvia Pankhurst, Marie Lloyd, Samuel Pepys, Dr Thomas Bernard or any of the other notable people who were born, raised or lived there. Blair Peach, a New Zealand-born anti- racism activist who died at the hands of the police in 1979, has a school in Ealing named after him. In comparison almost no policemen or soldiers killed in the line of duty, nor even that many prime ministers, have had such an honour.

Tower Hamlets Council, like those of Luton and Leicester, has recently taken to lining its streets with banners advertising the unity of its residents, as the whole of London did in the aftermath of the 7/7 bombings, and perhaps it is only a matter of time before some borough takes to proclaiming ‘diversity is strength’ on public billboards.

But all the attempts at defining or redefining British identity will be redundant if the country itself disappears. One of the by-products of diversity is a decline in Britishness in favour of more explicit identities; according to the most recent survey, 51 per cent of ethnic minority members consider themselves British first, but only 29 per cent of whites now do, as opposed to 52 per cent who consider themselves primarily English (something only 11 per cent of non-whites identify as).108 It may be that as Sir Bernard Crick, designer of Britain’s ‘citizenship curriculum’ put it, ‘to the immigrant, Britishness is essentially a legal and political structure… When the immigrant says I am British, he is not saying he wants to be English or Scottish or Welsh.’ Englishness is more explicitly racial, and people from minority groups who call themselves British often still use ‘English’ as interchangeable with ‘white’. Indeed the rise of English identity may be a reaction to the de-racialising of Britishness. After all, if everyone else has their specific identity, why can’t the white British do the same?

Minorities tend to favour super-national states, because it allows for hyphenated identities, and because they are more vulnerable to persecution in smaller break-offs, and yet because Scotland has had very little immigration in recent years, this vastly different experience of life in the two nations may be helping them to diverge. Although the Scottish National Party is keen to court ‘new Scots’, the SNP does not campaign for Scottish independ- ence as such, rather for Scotland to be a part of a European super- state (a Right-of-centre anti-EU Scottish separatist party would probably find little support among minorities, least of all Catholics). And the mother of all super-states, the European Union, is very popular among immigrants and minorities, 85 per cent in some polls favouring it. The EU itself is at the forefront of the campaign against ‘Islamophobia’, knowing it can rely on religious minorities, especially one whose hyper-identity stretches across borders, to support super-national states. Yet Islam, or perhaps a fear of it, is paradoxically the one thing that unites Europeans, the only potential external threat big enough to make the various countries forget their differences. Belgian historian Henri Pirenne, author of Mohammed and Charlemagne, wrote that the Muslim invasions of the first millennium helped to form the con- sciousness of Europe. And opposition to Islam today is increas- ingly creating a pan-European identity stronger than that imposed by Brussels. Indeed the one politician with a continent-wide following is Geert Wilders.

One question remains largely unasked about all this change – did the immigrants who chose to make Britain their home want it? Perhaps not, and certainly few were asked. British Airway’s flag- decoration farce of 1996, when the airline dropped the Union Jack logo from its tailfins, serves as a metaphor. At the height of the multiculturalism craze BA Chief Executive Bob Ayling said that ‘perhaps we need to lose some of our old-fashioned Britishness and take on board some of the new British traits’. These were Britain’s new ‘friendly, diverse and open-to-all cultural image’, and among the new images that graced the fleet were symbols of the Ndebele tribe in Zimbabwe and a type of sari, as well as various animals and trees. The company hoped that the £60m makeover would connect with the 60 per cent of passengers who were not British. The public, British and non-British alike, hated it, and the company soon repainted the tail fins. As a BA spokesman later said. ‘It is not just Britons who like our Britishness.’

So what do foreigners think of the new, diverse Britain, tolerant and open but also rude, unequal, vulgar and violent? Anglophiles sometimes look at the country transformed by multiculturalism and find that, whatever its faults, they rather preferred the old one.

Comments so far

  1. Where immigrants do have money and therefore choice, such as the Russian or Arab multimillionaires of west London, they opt overwhelmingly to embrace the most obvious facet of Christian, conservative British values – the public school.

    This suggests an idea for a novel or movie: in a dystopian England, say 30 years hence – a cross between A Clockwork Orange and Idiocracy – a group of middle aged Arab and Russian former public school chums attempt to reestablish traditional English values.

  2. The BBC’s Mark Easton is a total zealot for open borders. He attends a lot of the conferences on mass immigration with the UCL crowd, Jonathan Portes, Peter Sutherland and various other big business bods.

    I wonder at what point, the neoliberals spotted that the far left desire to use multiculturalism to usher in a coercive state, could be used to police the yawning inequalities resulting from globalisation and the dismantling of the welfare state?

  3. This is the guy who told me with a straight face that there wasn’t a professional network for me as a straight white male at the university. It appears that the arm of the nascent Ottoman state reaches ever further.


  4. Englishness is more explicitly racial, and people from minority groups who call themselves British often still use ‘English’ as interchangeable with ‘white’.

    One reason immigrants see themselves as British is that they often have come here through expressly ‘British’ institutions: British Army, British Empire, BBC, British Airways, Royal Navy, RAF, etc.

    I note that the RC Church is divided into Irish, Scottish and English (and Welsh) Churches in the UK.

    • One reason immigrants see themselves as British is that they often have come here through expressly ‘British’ institutions: British Army, British Empire, BBC, British Airways, Royal Navy, RAF, etc.

      Passing through those British institutions are quite different things. I can see how a Gurkha tribesman who spent 8 years in the British Army might see himself as British in a British Empire sense, but someone who spent 8 hours on a British Airways flight? I don’t see how that works. Similarly, how many Pakistanis or Indians were imbued with British culture in the hinterlands of those countries?


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