Schools are now to be taught “British values”, partly in response to alleged attempts by Islamic fundamentalists to infiltrate certain schools and convert them into Islamist propaganda tools. But what are these “British values”?
I’ve argued before that “Britishness” is a constitutional concept, not an approach to life in general. Insofar as there are any “British values” per se, they are a reflection of our constitutional ideals - to be British is to respect and enact freedom of speech, constitutional monarchy, private property, the rule of law, ordered liberty, due process for the accused, the presumption of innocence, the strict burden of proof falling on the state as accuser or taxer, parliamentary democracy including crucially unelected elements as checks and balances, toleration of non-conformists, a state Christian church that has influence but few special favours, a constitution that evolves organically and in which tradition and precedent are vital, and many related constitutional norms and conventions.
But when folk talk of teaching “British values” in schools, I don’t think they have in mind a British constitution and politics class. I think they mean some more narrow matter of socially acceptable conduct and morality, or perhaps of legal opinion. On Newsnight recently, Maajid Nawaz of the Quilliam Foundation repeatedly urged Ibrahim Hewitt to condemn the stoning of adulteresses. I suspect he would contend that “British values” should include the idea that belief in stoning adulteresses and chopping off the hands of thieves is unacceptable.
Others say the current furore demonstrates that there should be no faith schools at al (even though the schools concerned weren’t actually faith schools). A few are so bold as to condemn even the gentlest of traditional Anglican faith schools, but for many the issue appears to be that they think if you allow one sort of faith school you have to allow them all, otherwise we are not treating all religions equally. But (as in so many things) equality is the enemy of good policy here.
We should not seek to treat all religions equally. If your religion burns widows or mutilates girls’ genitals or demands folk be murdered for drawing cartoons, we don’t need to treat it the same as a religion that advocates free will, humility, obedience to the authorities, orderly conduct, self-discipline, self-denial, self-sacrifice, that in Christ there is neither man nor woman, slave nor free, Jew nor Greek, toleration of those we disagree with, respectful and orderly debate, and so on.
As for “British values”, insofar as they mean anything at all, “British values” are Broad Church Anglican values – they are the creation of a particular form of Christian understanding that evolved in Germany and was applied in fullest effect in England. There used to be a requirement that schools teach Christianity and have a predominantly Christian assembly each day – but anti-Christian “liberals” wiped all that away, not appearing to grasp that it was Anglican Christianity and Anglican values that create and protect secular liberalism.
In a society where policy is guided by Broad Church Christian values, individuals are left with the privacy of their consciences provided their conduct is orderly and peaceful, private property is respected by the law and common conduct, and commerce is based overwhelmingly upon private transactions freely entered into, the state does not require any window into men’s souls. There does not need to be any morality imposed upon private individuals, other than that required for public conduct to be orderly and peaceable. Peaceable debate and disagreement can be encouraged as healthy, not seen as a threat to order. Those seeking to convince others to change their lifestyles can be agreed with or disagreed with politely, not attacked as “oppressive” or “intolerant” or arrested as a threat to order or violators of some sacred principle of “equality”.
The alternatives are not: (a) everyone must believe the same things, accept and not accept the same things, and abide by a state-imposed ideology enacted in the law; or (b) we must allow Satan-worshippers their teen suicide pacts, Hindus their widow-burning, and Islamists their violence, if we are to grant Jews their eruv lines, Catholics their fish on Fridays and Anglicans their opposition to divorce. If we abandon the false god Equality, we can instead decide to tolerate and incorporate the religions and faith schools we want to tolerate, and not tolerate those we do not want to tolerate.
Christianity is not the enemy of political liberalism. It is its origin and protector. You don’t have to believe in God or in Christianity to believe that Christianity is a huge gift to society. Most political leaders that adopted Christianity as their state religion were probably never true believers, but they saw it as useful. But, alas, the idea that a properly direct state religion can be useful for society seems to have been lost – and almost no-one seems to argue for it any more.