In a context of fractious social division and increasing religious tension, the Government is on a quest for national identity, and education is the means by which it will be inculcated. Intrinsic to this pursuit is the identification of a unifying polity and the propagation of a cohesive spirituality – the reification of some kind of civil religion. The Department for Education sums up their concept of ‘fundamental British values‘ as: “the rule of law, individual liberty, and mutual respect and tolerance of those with different faiths and beliefs”.
That’s it in a nutshell, almost literally. It is vague thesis; indeed, it is no thesis at all, and certainly not one which may be uniquely attributed to Britain’s history or exclusively appropriated by the British people. What about good and evil? Where is justice? How do we discern what is righteous? It is as though the Government has purposely avoided political precision and philosophical definition in order to permit legal latitude and the enforcement of social cohesion through judicial activism. Values are not abstract conceptions of nebulous notions: they are personal or cultural determinants of action. Without them, there is moral anarchy. Indeed, there is no morality at all.
So, what defines Britishness? What are our national characteristics and unique frameworks of coherence? What are British values? And in what sense may any of them be considered ‘fundamental’?
First and foremost, Britishness is about tolerance: it is the attribute which has enabled five million immigrants and their descendants to comprise a tenth of the country’s population. This pluralism is a priceless ingredient of the nation’s culture, and it is incumbent upon people of all creeds, philosophies, ethnicities and political ideologies to tolerate those with whom they do not agree.
But British culture cannot be cohesive when there is diversity of language, laws, traditions, customs and religion. Of course, culture can accommodate diversity, but ultimately the systems of governance and jurisprudence in a liberal democracy cannnot produce unity: they must be the manifest foundation of a pre-existing unity. As far as England is concerned, foreign encroachments have been fiercely resisted since the Reformation, yet the accommodation of Roman Catholics has developed incrementally of necessity to the extent that they agreed to abide by the laws of the state. A logical corollary of this is that Asian immigrants to the UK ought now to adapt their cultural traditions and religious expression to accommodate ‘British toleration’ or conform to those aspects of ‘Britishness’ which make society cohesive. And so a Briton has the right to oppose or support UK foreign policy toward (say) Israel, and may campaign to that effect, write, agitate and stand for election towards the chosen end. But it is also elementary that he does not have the right to stone adulterers to death, throw gays off the top floor of a building or plant bombs on the London Underground.
Toleration of the intolerant is distinctly un-British.
Religious practices which conflict with traditional British liberties need an urgent focus. While few would defend such abhorrent practices as forced marriages, ‘honour killings’, female genital mutilation or child abuse, there is emerging an increasing tension between the assertion of individuality over the common good, and ‘human rights’ over community cohesion. Since there are no agreed criteria by which conflicting religious claims can be settled, religion is increasingly relegated to the private sphere: morality thereby becomes largely a matter of taste or opinion, and moral error ceases to exist. We are left with autonomy, equality and rights – the credal values of liberalism that allow each to be whatever he or she chooses. Left unfettered, the assertion of these leads to anarchy, so a values system has to be imposed for society to function at all. This is perhaps what politicians mean when they refer to ‘muscular liberalism’.
This benign paternalism is thoroughly British, but only when it is consistent with the mores and traditions of the majority.
As society expands to encompass ever larger numbers of religious, ethnic and linguistic groups, rigid social structures are stretched to breaking point. Rather like the Church, society requires either cultural homogeneity or an élite sufficiently powerful to enforce conformity. But this negates the limited degree of Christian religious pluralism which the passing of the 1689 Act of Toleration specifically permitted. ‘Dissenting traditions’ have gained in number and influence and have weakened the grip of state religion. The costs of coercing religious conformity are no longer politically acceptable: the state is not willing to accept the price in social conflict and so adopts a position of ‘neutrality’ on the competing claims of various religious bodies and moral values.
The ultimate source of the state’s values system is the subject of much debate. In order to constrain religious expression in the public sphere, France has legislated to prohibit the display of all religious symbols and articles of clothing from its public buildings. Indeed, they have banned the burka altogether because, as President Sarkozy said, it “demeans and debases women”. In the UK, customs to do with dress, food laws or daily prayers have long been considered inoffensive as long as there is no compulsion or imposition. But the advent of shari’a courts, while considered ‘unavoidable’ by former Archbishop of Canterbury Rowan Williams, are perceptibly inconsistent with what have become inalienable values such as equality between men and women in the sight of the law, inheritance rights, the education and employment of women, and the freedom of young people to chose themselves whom they will marry.
There have been rabbinical courts (Beth Din) in the UK for three centuries, and the Protestant state has similarly granted to Roman Catholics the right to take account of their own religious sensitivities. But these judicial provisions have always been subject to Statute Law, and appeal has always been possible from their judgements. This settlement is now being challenged by shari’a courts, some proponents of which insist that their dispensations are superior to parliamentary statute.
And so, secondly, we observe that the rule of law and equality under the law are fundamental British values. There is no doubt that some religious practices may coerce some, especially women through such conventions as child marriage or inequitable divorce settlements. But mindful of minority ethnic voting communities, politicians have trod carefully along the via media between religious liberty and cultural prohibition. It is time to end this compromise.
There are many models of ‘Britishness’, but the most enlightened and tolerant one, which is perhaps the most Christian, does not demand assimilation. It does, however, require integration: cultural relativism cannot be justified when the outcome is moral injustice. But while religion can play a role in promoting moral conduct, there is no longer agreement on which institutions are morally capable of implementing the rules of justice. While some repudiate the idea that the Christian religion can any longer be a unifying force for Britain, it has to be observed that it has bequeathed to us our system of laws, administration of justice and our understanding of liberty.
Over recent centuries, it is Protestantism which has defined the character of Great Britain: from the Armada, through the Act of Union in 1707 to the battle of Waterloo, Britain was involved in successive wars against Roman Catholic nations. It was a shared religious allegiance that permitted a sense of British national identity to emerge, and which has served as a unifying narrative under the aegis of the Established Church through which the common good has traditionally been defined. Of course, this history is peppered with myth, sentiment and flights of fancy – notions that somehow God had chosen England, and the nation is singularly blessed by virtue of the purity of Protestantism over the discredited and sullied Catholicism of continental Europe. This selective sense of religious history and an idealised perception of the moral purpose of the United Kingdom in the world are part of our ‘Britishness’. We have a cohesive religious base, which is intrinsic to the national psyche: essentially, whilst acknowledging the liberties of atheists and rights of secular humanists, to be ‘religious’ is to be British.
The Christian moral social contract which existed (at least through the tinted lens of ‘Britishness’) has now been replaced by a new liberal moral uniformity. While the former was Anglican and benign, the latter is perceived to be increasingly intolerant of the dissident and unorthodox, seeking to impose itself in order to create social cohesion and control. Indeed, although the guiding principles of liberalism are respect for and tolerance of the ‘other’, it is itself increasingly being seen to be disrespectful and intolerant of the illiberal. This is antithetical to our fundamental values. When we cease to tolerate benign dissent, we cease to act in accordance with the grand harmony of British history: indeed, we cease to be British.
And so, thirdly, to be British is to be free – to believe, to own, to contract and to associate. The state only has authority to the extent granted by Parliament, which is subject to the assent of the people. The foundations of those liberties – Magna Carta, Habeas Corpus, Bill of Rights, Act of Union – guard against state coercion. To abrogate them is to diminish our liberty and to deny our heritage. It is not British to be subject to foreign parliaments or alien courts – temporal or spiritual – especially where they seek to impose a doctrine or creed which is antithetical to that which we have evolved over the centuries. The sovereignty of the Crown in Parliament is inviolable.
To be British is to tolerate conflicting philosophies, mutually-exclusive theologies and illogical propositions.
But not at any cost.