It’s difficult to know quite which is the least enticing prospect; that of the government setting up its own ‘Ministry of Propaganda’ to promote ‘British values’ to the Muslim community as part of ‘The War Against Terror’ (T.W.A.T) – I know, altogether now, ‘whaddya mean ‘setting up’? – or that of putting Dr Demento in charge of compling the ‘script of British values’ that they intend to use.
(Incidentally, the Dr Demento ‘you know what’ I’ve been running for a few months has successfully pushed his biography page on the Downing Street website up to third in the rankings on a search of UK webpages.)
If you’ve read of my previous articles on the subject of ‘Britishness’ then you’ll know that I tend to view the efforts made by politicians, of all parties, to arrive at a precise definition of ‘British values’ with all the disdain and contempt that the practice deserves.
It is, without any shadow of a doubt, a source of great personal satisfaction that such a definition remains, today, as elusive and intractable a proposition as it was back when John Major was maundering on about warm beer and cricket on the village green – not that I harbour any great dislike for either – and Norman Tebbit was suggesting his infamous ‘cricket test’. As to why I should feel that way, this is perhaps best answered not in terms of a discussion of the difficulty one naturally faces in trying to define precise what it is to be British, but rather in terms of why it is best that no such official definition of Britishness should ever be arrived at by government, or accepted by the British people.
The first and most practical reason is simple enough. Whenever politicians attempt to define what is to be British in terms of values or character traits, the list they produce invariably ends up being so generic that one can hardly consider anything on the list to be defineably British at all. According to the Independent, Dr Demento’s draft ‘script’ of British values includes “respect for the law”, “freedom of speech”, “equality of opportunity” and “taking responsibility for others”, none of which are uniquely British – on the basis of such a list one could just as easily be taking about America, France, Germany or any other modern Western democracy – nor do any of the items on this list say anything at all about the ‘British attitude’ towards these values and how this might differ from attitudes towards the same values in other countries.
Yes, in Britain, we value freedom of speech, but the manner in which we both regard and exercise that freedom is markedly different to that one would find in the US, where it not only valued but subject to express constitutional protection. To say simply that freedom of speech is a ‘British’ value is largely meaningless, such ‘universal’ (as in generic) values neither exist nor operate in isolation from their cultural context – what make freedom of speech ‘British’ is not simply that its valued in British society but also the manner in which it is exercised in the context of British culture; for example the British approach to free expression often exhibits rather more self-restraint and even self-censorship than one would ever find in the US, although this is certainly changing, not least in terms of free speech as practiced by bloggers.
Second, and more importantly, whenever the state involves itself in efforts to define the national ‘character’, as in this case, it will inevitably place the greatest emphasis on those characteristics, traits and values that are perceived to be most supportive of its own interests.
Notice that the first item on Dr Demento’s list is ‘respect for the law’, which could, indeed, be thought part of the British ‘character’ – but only within finite limits. If one looks at British history, turbulent as it has been, then it becomes obvious that a quality such as respect for the law only goes so far with the British people. It is not the absolute principle that one suspects the government would like it to be, and certainly like to present it as; this being because there is another ‘British’ trait; a keen sense of justice (and injustice) that is both seen as having greater value and as applying limits to the extent to which one might reasonably be to treat the law with respected. In short, British people will respect the law only is so far as they perceive it to be just, fair and equitable; and if it not seen to embody those qualities then not only with they not respect the law but, in many cases, they will have no compunction about defying that law open, as was certainly the case in regards to the Poll Tax (on both occasions such a tax was introduced).
The tension that exists between a state-sanctioned definition of ‘Britishness’ and British values and that espoused by the British people is to be found nowhere more keenly than in the ongoing debate around civil liberties, in which the government has, in recent years, consistantly sought to de-emphasise the importance and value of Britain’s strong civil liberties tradition and, by extension, its history and deep-seated culture of liberal individualism, in favour of its own preferred values, which emphasise collective responsibilities and security of individual liberty.
That the government’s efforts in this area have met such stern and unyielding resistance from across the whole political spectrum stands as proof both of the extent to which Britain has such a strong tradition of liberal individualism and that it is a value that is seen by many British people as one that is part of our ‘national character’, much as one suspect the government wishes it wasn’t in anything like the same degree.
This leads neatly to the third, and perhaps, most important reason why the efforts of the government to define ‘Britishness’ British values to its own specifications should be resisted at every possible turn.
In the absence of a clear, and state-sanctioned, definition of what it is to be British, it is impossible to say definitively what is, or may be, ‘un-British.
If the importance of that last statement is not immediately apparent then one need only review the history of the United States of America during the mid-1950s and the activities of Senator Joseph McCarthy and the House Committee on Un-American Activities (HCUA) – of which, despite popular myth, McCarthy was never a member, and which was only finally dispensed with in 1975 – to see how rapidly and easily even a liberal democracy can descend rapidly into paranoia and political persecution and lose sight of those values which it is supposed to protect.
The absence, in Britain, of a clearly delimited and universally accepted, not to mention state-sanctioned, definition of ‘Britishness’ serves as a bulwark against the very excesses that, for time during the 1950’s, enabled a paranoid and delusional man to bring the US Congress into disrepute, let alone that it also permitted the HCUA to implement a blacklist of ‘Hollywood’ performers, artist and writers that included such notable cultural figures as Leonard Bernstein, Arthur Miller and Orson Wells and is all the more important for the fact that Britain lacks a written and codified consitution to curb the excesses of the British government, should one ever take a turn in just such a direction.
The British identity, such as it can be said to exist, has worked and, to my mind, continues to work effectively precisely because of the absence of a clear definition of precisely what it is or might be. This, in turn, encourages migrant communities to discover within themselves their own sense of what to actually means to be British. In that, it offers both a beautifully utilitarian – and one might say uniquely British – solution to the question of national identity, one which flexes and adapts to fit the changing character of the British people rather than seeks to place them in a cultural straitjacket that demands conformity.
To become British, one simply needs to find one’s sense of Britishness within oneself and not conform to the values and expectations of others, a solution that is, in all respects, consistent with the traditions of liberal individualism that the present government are seeking to do away with.