In the midst of the Trojan Horse affair, in which Islamist extremists were accused of seeking to exert influence over a select number of state schools in Birmingham, the vexatious issue of British values was raised again.
The education secretary Michael Gove was quoted as saying that from now on schools in the UK should teach pupils about British values.
Bizarrely, but not unsurprisingly, his statement caused alarm and attracted angry ripostes from many commentators.
It seems the term ‘British values’ is able to create as much fear amongst some sections of our society as the term democracy may do amongst North Korean political leaders. It is almost as though a discussion about British values is construed as a threat to the pluralistic and multi-ethnic/religious fabric of our society. Or that such a discussion will be used to enforce mass conformity and stifle anti-establishment sentiment.
I find this attitude very strange and slightly disturbing.
Almost every country in the world is, or at least can be, associated with certain values and that is what helps make nations distinct. The set of values that a country is associated with do not, individually, have to be unique to that country. Rather, they help define the country and the aspirations of the majority of its citizens.
Such values also inform us of the social, cultural and political climate of a country which, in turn, gives a country a unique brand or flavour.
I believe Britain is uniquely placed to face globalisation and the challenges of ethnic and religious pluralism because British values allow for the accommodation of difference. Britain, in my view, is the best country in Europe in which to be a Muslim.
It is also, arguably, the best place in Europe to be gay or a single mother. This is because at the heart of the British psyche lies a set of values that respect and tolerate differences and individual choices.
I believe Britain is characterised by fairness, rule of law, equality before the law, personal freedom and a respect for the rights of others. These values are reflected in our democratic political framework and institutions, such as schools, hospitals as well as charities.
These values act to make Britain an attractive destination for asylum seekers from around the world and those that are seeking to better themselves from societies in which equality is lacking.
Having a national values-based discussion is very important in a globalised world in which countries are becoming increasingly diverse and, therefore, are in need of something that can bind citizens together. National values offer citizens a framework with which issues of national concern can be discussed and appropriate solutions reached.
These values also do not have to be static or fossilised, they be dynamic and evolving and they often are.
Not wanting to talk about British values is, oddly, becoming a British value too. It seems many feel such a discussion could lead to the promotion of values that are too prescriptive and stifle debate and dissent which is needed for a society that wants to make progress.
I think this fear is unfounded and, perhaps, only applies to a small minority that seeks to synonymise British values with bizarre ideas about racial or ethnic homogeneity. British values, as they are understood by most, are accommodating and able to absorb different viewpoints and lifestyle choices.
However, whilst accommodating differences is important there is a danger of descending into absolute cultural relativism. Tolerating practises and beliefs that undermine fundamental human rights, such as Female Genital Mutilation (FGM) or forced marriage, is not the same as respecting difference. Being liberal and respecting choices does not equate to accepting human rights violations, injustice and inequality.
I do not think discussions about British values will lead to curbs on free-thinking and pluralism. As an inherently liberal society, I believe we can encourage more free-thinking, creativity and pluralism by upholding and celebrating values that provide a basis for such things.
Furthermore, if we do not believe in these values for everyone then we do not believe in them at all, therefore, let us not fear the debate and instead engage it in.
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