Oh well, today sees the release of the Ajegbo report on Diversity and Citizenship in the national curriculum, which means yet more harping on about ‘Britishness’ as is obvious from the Beeb’s opening gambit…
Schools in England should teach “core British values” alongside cultural diversity, a report says.
A more predictable outcome to a report on diversity and citizenship one cannot possibly imagine.
The report itself is going to take a little digesting, weighing in as it does at 126 page, but my initial impression is that its best taken as offering ‘more of the same’ and contains little that could be considered either innovative of illuminating.
In fact, the one thing I’m finding most intriguing about the current welter of reports and political rhetoric on the subject of ‘Britishness’ is not so much what’s being said and what isn’t – a very important word seems to have suddenly gone missing, a word that, at one time, would be first out of the traps in any discussion on this subject.
Here’s let me give you couple of examples and see if you can see what I’m talking about; this is from the Beeb’s report linked earlier…
The report, by Sir Keith Ajegbo, says pupils should study free speech, the rule of law, mutual tolerance and respect for equal rights.
And this is the Maximum Tone, holding forth on much the same subject in a speech entitled ‘The Duty to Integrate: Shared British Values‘ given last December…
But when it comes to our essential values – belief in democracy, the rule of law, tolerance, equal treatment for all, respect for this country and its shared heritage – then that is where we come together, it is what we hold in common; it is what gives us the right to call ourselves British.
I wonder, have you spotted it yet?
‘Britishness’ and the idea of ‘British values’ is not a new debate by any means. Its a recurring theme in political and popular discourse that ebbs and flows in the public eye according to the times – sometimes its hotly debated, as now, other times its taken rather for granted and its assumed that whatever Britishness is, we all pretty much understand it without getting to het up about the specifics.
But, the more our present crop of politicians talk about it, the more obvious it become that something important, even fundamental has gone missing, something that was certainly there when I was younger but has now seemingly disappeared off the face of the debate…
When I was younger if ever anyone was asked what it meant to British or what British values are, the very thing you would hear was, ‘Justice and fair play…’ – yes all the other stuff about democracy, the rule of law, etc. would follow shortly behind, but the very first thing than anyone would say, the ‘British value’ par excellence was ALWAYS Justice.
So where has it gone?
Why is it no longer number one?
Have we, as a nation, ceased to care about the blind lady who sits atop the Old Bailey and who has served us well for so much of our history?
Of course not… because its not us speaking here about British values, its the political elite and what they’re talking about are the values that matter to them, the ones that serve to sustain their privileged position in society.
I could be wrong, here, but I strongly suspect that if the question of what are British values is put to ordinary folk, then even today, Lady Justice will win out or, at worst, be beaten by a very short head by that other grand old Lady, the one they call Liberty.
Justice is not a uniquely British value, of course, it is one that is universal and belongs to everyone, but it was, and I believe still is, the pre-eminent value by which we would like to define our own sense of what it means to be British, the value with which we, as a nation, would most wish to be associated… and yet in Blair’s vision of Britain is seems conspicuous only by its absence, replaced by the altogether more stentorian tones of ‘the rule of law’.
This is no mistake, no erroneous omission, but a deliberate and careful crafted attempt to engineer the public discourse around Britishness in a direction favoured by the political elite, one that above everything else, stresses and emphasises the ‘legitimacy’ of their position. That’s Blair’s message in his speech, we should value, first and foremost, democracy and the rule of law, that from which he derives his authority and status – justice doesn’t even merit a mention, not as a value in its own right.
In that whole speech he uses the word justice on only two occasions, once in referrring to the ‘criminal justice system’ but even then only as a means of streesing the pre-eminence of parliament…
There is thus no question of the UK allowing the introduction of religious law in the UK. Parliament sets the law, interpreted by the courts. All criminal matters should be dealt with through the criminal justice system.
…and on a second occasion in terms of ‘social justice’ to bolster arguments for requiring migrants to take an English test in order to become citizens.
Sixth, we should share a common language. Equal opportunity for all groups requires that they be conversant in that common language. It is a matter both of cohesion and of justice that we should set the use of English as a condition of citizenship.
Blair’s ‘vision’ of what it mean to be British is, as if ever the case with him, a completely ahistorical vision, and because of that one that fundamentally not British at all (or English, Scottish, Welsh or even Irish).
To be British is NOT to value, the rule of law, but to value the of law only in so far as the laws of land are just laws. Yes, we value democracy, but only so far those elected to lead this nation exercise the powers granted to them with due regard and respect for justice.
To view and understand the history of this nation properly is to appreciate that it was the value that we place on justice that brought King John to heel at Runnymede and that took Charles I to the executioners block – unlike the French, who during their revolution put the entire notion of monarchy on trial and found it wanting, in Britain we disposed of a King because he was simply an unjust King – to say that no one is above the law is, in reality, to say that no one is beyond the reach of justice.
Blair’s vision is one in which the sovereignty of parliament and the laws it passes should be respected no matter what, a false vision of a ‘Britishness’ that is both absolutist and authoritarian, the kind of ‘Britishness’ that belongs, properly, to Henry VIII and not to the 21st Century.
Whatever else Blair’s vision might be, it’s not my vision and not, I think, the vision of the British people, and that’s why we should have none of it.
If we must discuss the concept of Britishness, then lets do it properly and restore Lady Justice to her rightful place as the paramount value amongst all those values that we claim to as our own…
…because that is a very British thing to do.