It’s Time To Talk About ‘British Values’

by Neda Tehrani

Following their election victory, last week, newly appointed cabinet ministers were pressing policies, and future plans. Ultimately, the all-permeating sentiment in Conservative rhetoric, was the notion that British citizens have a duty to uphold British values. With the repetition of this phrase by Cameron and his team, comes the question of which values can be defined as inherently British. Much of the discussion in the media has gotten us no closer to understanding exactly what British Values are, and these elusive shape shifters are beginning to inherit a mythical quality.

I am sure many of us have a natural inclination to align with a set of values. This is often born out of a desire to find a sense of belonging. For many, it appears the most reasonable thing to do is to identify with the values that are a part of the society you in which you live. If living in Britain meant living in a vacuum free of any historical context or understanding, perhaps it would be possible to do so without thinking twice. But the fact of the matter is, we don’t, and conscience tells us that we have a responsibility to ask ourselves what these British values are before we identify with them.

counterextremism_largeBritish values are high on the government’s agenda, but when it comes to the debate on security, this has always been the case. Home Secretary Theresa May, already notorious for her robust approach towards terror control, is responsible for putting forward a new counter-terrorism bill; A corrective approach, to what Cameron argues has been a ‘passively tolerant’ one, to clamping down on extremism and protecting British principles.

But if an important value is fighting against radicalization in a responsible way that seeks to protect all citizens in the long run, I would argue that this is not a value upheld by the British government. In the case of Mohammed Emwazi, otherwise known as ‘Jihadi John’, UK intelligence services had long subjected Emwazi to continued harassment, before he travelled to Syria to join ISIS. This harassment was revealed through a series of case files released by Cage, which showed the extent to which Emwazi had been interrogated, long before having turned to extremism.

I am not in any way suggesting that the government are solely responsible for the radicalization of Emwazi, but I do think that it would be irresponsible of us to ignore information widening our insight on UK terror policy, that we were given access to – especially when we consider the looming restrictions on access of this kind, following the Tories plans to subject the sharing of ‘radical’ information to investigation. The new bill proposed by Theresa May will no doubt function to further demonise members of society who already face discrimination by association, but it will also pose a greater threat to innocent citizens who are living in a society within which extremism is not being dealt with responsibly, due to a government that refuses to dig deeper and gain a more complex understanding on the matter.

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The proposed approach to extremism extends to banning activities that are assigned the ‘purpose of overthrowing democracy’. But for Cameron, anything that clashes with the Tory cause remotely is automatically attributed to this purpose. Organizations and campaigns that fight for environmental, political, religious, LGBTQ rights, alongside many others, could be charged with an accusation of extremism, and consequently, reported to the police, for something as simple as sharing their views on social media. The Tories are turning democratic principles on their head in order to make the public appear fascist. Cameron thinks the public won’t see the irony in his attempts to promote freedom of speech through essentially placing limitations on it. Questioning and challenging the government does not amount to overthrowing democracy; attempting to place restrictions on the right to do so, however, is an inherently fascist mentality, which threatens democracy as a principle.

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Secularism as a principle is often associated with Britain, advocated as an enlightened and progressive way of life for society. But in a recent speech made by the Prime Minister, he described Britain as a ‘Christian country’. When leaders label their countries as Muslim, there is an outcry from Western liberals who suggest that branding a country a particular faith is intolerant. But here stands Cameron, labeling our country Christian, and many secularists are not batting an eyelid or questioning the extent to which this assertion threatens their freedom of belief. This is because society has been taught that only the religion of Islam functions to pose a threat to this. Cameron argues that tolerance is a British value, but in the same vein, he attacks those who are ‘neutral on public matters’, claiming that a lacking Christian presence is detrimental to societal morality. So if one identifies with British values due to a belief that religion shouldn’t be imposed upon the public sphere, I would reconsider this alignment.

It is perhaps easier to identify with British values when living in a UK bubble cordoned off from the rest of the world. These values are not only advocated by Britain in this country, they also extend to Britain’s foreign policy and involvement in non-Western countries. The British government has long been complicit in Israel’s oppression of the Palestinian people, funding Israel’s war crimes, including the ground invasion that took place on the Gaza strip in 2014, leaving more than 1,000 Palestinian deaths. The British government fed its society a narrative of a backwards and barbaric East. It failed to mention its complicity in many of the human rights abuses taking place, with evidence bought to light in recent years of the UK’s encouragement of torture in Pakistan, Egypt, Morocco and Afghanistan.

Whilst this is open to interpretation, many argue that to be British is to be considerably less conservative and more forward thinking in our policies than those we see advocated by the US. It has been argued before that the differences between Republicans and Democrats in the US are much greater than that of the right and the left in the UK, and that even the Tories would fall under the category of Democrat. However, with a new minister for Equalities who voted against allowing same sex couples to marry in 2013, a Justice Secretary who wanted to bring back hanging, and a Health Minister who is ‘personally and principally’ opposed to abortion, it’s safe to say that our government is looking increasingly Republican by nature.

I am aware that there is probably some difference between British values citizens identify with and those promoted by the government. Maybe those who genuinely believe in Tory policy, are beyond help. But for those who misguidedly align themselves with British values due to the automatic association of Freedom of speech, Freedom of worship, Democracy, Equal rights regardless of race, gender, equality or sexuality – as both ironically and falsely promised by Cameron in his speech – with British culture in all its progressive glory, need to consider the notion that Cameron’s actions, most certainly speak louder than his words.

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Neda is a 23-year-old graduate of Religion, Philosophy, Ethics BA from King’s College London. She has written on the subject of politics and current affairs for New Internationalist and Consented, and she is based in London. She has a strong interest in intersectional feminism. Find her on twitter @neda_t92.

This article was edited by Maurice McLeod

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3 replies

  1. The whole idea of assigning ‘values’ to a particular nation state is abhorrent; values such as peace, equality, democracy, secularism and freedom are held and felt and acted upon by people all over the world. And though Henry VIII created The Church of England (for the most disgusting motives) one can’t possibly call Christianity British. In places that are ruled by despots and madmen (they are men are they not?) there are millions who risk their lives to try and uphold those inter and intra-national values.

    Any any attempt to call values ‘British’ is to slip into the rhetoric of the despots we, as supporters of peace, hope to oppose. So we should not attempt to define or impose a set of British Values but we should continue up hold concepts of peace, freedom and equity wherever we are and wherever we live – we are not all brave enough to do it (I doubt I have the requisite resolve to fight tyranny whatever the cost) – but we can be strong about not falling for the crude right-wing nationalism that the phrase ‘British Values’ conjures up.

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  2. The problem the security services have, is that they can’t tell which people in the population will become radicalised.
    By treating everyone as a potential terrorist, more people will become radicalised, and thus make it easier for the security services to find them. Simples!

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