Wednesday, June 18, 2014

"British Values" - if you can define them you're a better man than me Gunga Din !

I have been struggling to find a good dictionary definition of "Values".  This, from a Business Dictionary, is probably the best I've seen:

"Important and lasting beliefs or ideals shared by the members of a culture about what is good or bad and desirable or undesirable. Values have major influence on a person's behavior and attitude and serve as broad guidelines in all situations."

There is a strong element of culture and community about "values" when defined in this way. It is a collective not an individualistic concept. As individuals we all, to a greater or lesser extent, have values. However the premise of "shared values" suggests that these personal values are part of and subordinate to the values derived from our culture. But there is never a precise overlap. We may have personal values which our culture does not share. Our culture may have values which we personally reject. So when we consider the idea of "British Values" we may mean British norms (what most people believe) but this cannot be prescriptive - other than in some Orwellian nightmare where we are told what to believe!

"You're so British" a foreigner, often an American, might say to you or me. They mean - often quite admiringly - that we exhibit traits in our behaviour that they see as being characteristically British. A warning bell should be sounding when this happens. Behaviour has layers and the actions or words on the outside layer - "good manners" for example - may disguise all sorts of hidden malignancies! We are not known as "perfidious Albion" for nothing and whilst I would not charge that hypocrisy is a British Value, caveat emptor should apply - especially to first meetings.

Most British people believe that having a constitutional Monarchy is desirable - that is a shared belief. Those of us who disagree with this could be judged as being UnBritish, and to an extent we are. This does not make us wrong though - at least from our subjective standpoint. We might say that believing in "Equality of Opportunity" is a British Value. Well how does that square with the extreme privilege of the Royal Family. Not very well. We might also say that Democracy is desirable and as such we have another British Value - the right to choose and dismiss our leaders. And yet we have an appointed not elected second chamber in our Parliament - hypocrisy in spades?

In the definition above there is a description of values being shared by "members of a culture". Clearly whether we find this useful or not depends on what we see as a "culture". Whether a large Nation like Britain has ever been a homogenous culture is doubtful and that it isn't today is self-evident. The cultural mores of the many different, and often large, "ethnic" communities in Britain differ from one another and from the majority white Anglo-Saxon culture. There may be shared values and there is an obligation on us all to obey the Law - but the variations of beliefs and behaviour are wide. Some second, third and fourth generation members of what are often (though inaccurately) described as "Immigrant" communities may choose to shed some or all of their families cultural heritage and become more conventionally "British". But that is their choice and there is no compulsion on them to do so nor necessarily anything commendable in their choice.

Which brings us to David Cameron. Here is what he said recently about "British Values":

"We need to be far more muscular in promoting British Values and the institutions that uphold them. A genuinely liberal country believes in certain values, actively promotes them and says to its citizens: this is what defines us as a society."
Does Cameron here mean "Majority Values" and are the Monarchy and Parliament among the institutions he wants to "uphold"? Does he want those from a different cultural heritage to be more like him and abandon their family culture? It sounds very much as if he does. And does he want people like me to abandon my opposition to the Monarchy and not to argue that our Democracy needs urgent reform to be silent? Must I uphold institutions I deplore just because the majority isn't bovvered about them ? 

If we define "British Values" in an all-embracing way that tolerates wide cultural and belief system variations then the definition becomes so nebulous as to be neither distinctive nor useful. For example even belief in the "Rule of Law" , which all of us irrespective of background might be expected to share, is problematic. Especially for those who believe that "God's Law" is always ascendant over Laws made by man. But this is not a problem unique to Britain and it is not a specific objection to British Laws that the extremists who want (for example) Sharia - or their version of it - to prevail have. The same would apply to any State where the "Rule of Law" is NOT Sharia.

Cameron says that British Values are our  “...belief in freedom, tolerance of others, accepting personal and social responsibility, respecting and upholding the rule of law” . You see what I mean by nebulous? "Freedom" is a motherhood catch-all that means precisely what any of us wants it to mean. "Tolerance" is much the same and highly subjective. There is nothing particularly British about "accepting personal and social responsibility" either and how we define what it means is very dependent on our core cultural mores. I'll give just one example of this. In Chinese cultures there is an inherent acceptance that one generation has an obligation to look after it's parents' generation. Care for the Elderly is not avoided or left to the State. It is a part of an individual's "personal and social responsibility". Many of us would argue that this example is far from the only one where British Values, if that is what they are, lag well behind best practice.

So I conclude that the search for "British Values" is largely a waste of time. That there are behavioural norms which make a Society better to live in, and that these include obeying the law and being tolerant of others, is undoubtedly true. Helping others, especially when they are in trouble, and being considerate are admirable values as well. Being free to choose our leaders and putting constraints on what we can say and do in public, and to some extent in private, are necessary requirements in any civilised society. But these are not uniquely British Values and in some areas we are far from the best around ! 



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