The British government is currently invested in promoting the concept of ‘British values’ as a tool of integration and education, and a symbol of national pride. But reliance on a nationally-oriented system of values is a petty patriotism which risks making the world less safe.
Ofstead, the educational standards department of the UK government, describes British values as ‘democracy, the rule of law, individual liberty, and mutual respect for and tolerance of those with different faiths and beliefs and for those without faith.’ It’s worth noting here that ‘respect and tolerance for all religions and none’ does not actually go as far as secularism, and could not under a government programme, since the United Kingdom still officially has a state religion with our monarch as head of the church.
But even besides our failure of secularism, these values can hardly be argued to belong to Britain exclusively. They are often understood to be a product of the European reformation and Enlightenment. So perhaps they are European values? But a more in depth understanding of history would show that there are plenty of competing ideas throughout Europe and Britain, and certainly outside Europe there have been many throughout the ages who have advocated and fought for these values across the world.
Are liberty and democracy good because they are British values, or are they British values because they are good? If they are good in their own right, why should we need to tie them to our national identity? That which is good should be supported for its own sake. To focus on the concept of British values is to obscure the nature and qualities of those values. If times and attitudes were to change within Britain, would we be expected to show loyalty to the new public mood?
The principles of liberty and democracy would still be valuable, even moreso, if the vast majority of British people rejected them. Wherever we are in the world, whatever is considered locally to be the done thing, we should continue to fight for human rights and freedoms. But the focus on these values as specifically ‘British’ makes it easier for other countries to justify their own human rights abuses. ‘You have your values, we have ours.’
Human rights are just that – human. We should thoroughly reject the concept of ‘British values’, ‘American values’, ‘Russian values’, ‘Chinese values’, etc etc, and focus instead on promoting universal values across the world.
Editor-in-Chief of Uncommon Ground Media