Could we teach British values in schools if nobody seems quite sure about what they are?
Reactions to the Prime Minister’s proposals have captured how the British value democracy, disagreement and a healthy scepticism about authority. Yet if they are to unite us, an agreement about which British values are foundational also needs to be constructed on terms that everybody could agree are ‘fair’, writes Sunder Katwala.
Using our democracy to change the rules – such as campaigning for anti-discrimination measures to root out prejudice – can win widespread support, as long as it is seen to uphold a shared commitment to fairness. Going beyond ‘fair treatment’, however, to trying to ‘carve out’ a separate section of British society, is seen as a step too far. That is why the allegations of attempting to change the character of some Birmingham schools needed to be investigated.
Some on both sides seemed quite certain what they thought before they had the evidence – alleging either an Islamist plot to indoctrinate children, or an unfair Islamophobic attempt to get at Muslim-majority schools. Most people, however, will have wanted Ofsted to investigate impartially to ensure the proper boundaries remain in place.
British Future’s research into public attitudes on identity, integration and citizenship shows how people can agree on what provides a strong framework for an inclusive British identity today.
People believe that our diverse society needs a sense of what we have in common if our shared citizenship is to work. It is possible to identify the most important British values which can do this and there is close to universal agreement about these essential foundations – on both what is required and about which demands would go too far.
Respect for freedom of speech, even when you disagree, has a good claim to be the foundation stone, and was placed top by the public in an Ipsos-Mori poll for British Future, when asked to identify the most important attributes of being British. Respect for the law, the ability to speak English, and the desire to contribute positively to society are also seen as self-evident common sense foundations.
Those foundations unlock a broadly held commitment to fair treatment: that naturalized citizens who join the club and play by the rules deserve to be treated as full and equal members of our society. We do not have first and second-class British citizens.
There is a broad rejection of exclusive approaches to citizenship or identity: the vast majority reject any suggestion that it is necessary to be white or to be Christian to be British. These simply clash with commitments to equal treatment, or freedom of conscience and speech. Respecting that those of different ethnicities and faiths are fully and equally British must be one of the core values to be inculcated in schools. Otherwise the quest for shared British values would fail.
Some have argued that the values that need to be taught should be universal, rather than distinctively British. Democracy, free speech and fair play are not absent from other countries, so why seek to wrap them up in the Union Jack? It is fair to argue that, across democratic societies, the values underpinning democratic citizenship will often have many similarities. But there are also important differences. The British and French take a distinctively different approach to religion, for example. The British have a more moderate secularism, which includes an Established Church, and a greater public recognition of religion in the education system and beyond. France issues fines for wearing the burka in public, to defend a French concept of secularism, whereas in Britain we would consider this to be at odds with free expression.
British identity is also about emotional attachment – but our commitment to individual liberty means these are also issues of personal choice. Whether people cheer for England or not at football or cricket is not a loyalty test that most people think matters much at all. Whether to support the Monarchy is something on which citizens in a democratic society disagree. But a shared citizenship does depend on the knowledge to make these choices. Around Remembrance Day, for example, knowing what the poppy symbolises is essential in order to make an informed choice, as a critical citizen, about whether to wear one or not.
Moreover, it would help Britons of all backgrounds to understand the shared history behind such symbols. This year’s centenary of the first world war provides a great chance to do just this. With more than a million soldiers from what is now Pakistan, Bangladesh and India fighting alongside white British troops, the armies which fought for Britain a century ago resemble the demographics of 2014 more than those of 1914. We often have more shared history than we realise.
British values have changed over time. The rights of women, still less gay marriage, were not the themes of the Magna Carta in 1215. Britain developed a commitment to religious tolerance after trying the alternatives. Our complex history of Empire and decolonization, immigration and integration, has made us the society we are.
We should not shy away from these issues in the multi-ethnic classrooms of today – when they explain why those classrooms now contain the Britons of every colour and creed, and the values by which we can live together as citizens of a shared society.
Sunder Katwala is Director of British Future. This piece was first published in the Eastern Eye on 27th June 2014.