Martin Parsons is an author, writer and teacher who has a PhD in Islam and Christian-Muslim relations
It is hard to underestimate the significance of Michael Gove’s insistence that schools must not just respect British values, but actively teach them. For liberals who have dominated the education establishment for the last 40 or so years, education is about the individual – helping each pupil to fulfil his or her potential. For Conservatives it is that – and much more. It is also about giving children and young people access to the best of the past that we have been entrusted with, both in terms of wisdom and culture, the accumulated wisdom and knowledge of the past including Science, Mathematics, English Literature and, crucially, History.
History is incredibly important for education, since almost every culture, up until the present, has believed it is important to pass on to the next generation the sense of a national story, the narrative of who the people of nation are, what values are important to them, how they came to acquire those values and the key figures who fought for those values. It is this transmission of these values that have shaped our story as a nation – which, as I argued recently on this site the liberal-dominated education establishment has largely failed to do.
This establishment has an unfortunate tendency to water down good policy initiatives into shallow expressions of liberalism. Take the teaching of Citizenship for example. In the average state secondary school, one is likely to find the abstract concepts European Convention on Human Rights on the citizenship curriculum, but not the specific rights set out in Magna Carta or other constitutional guarantees of British rights, while the history and development of British national identity is likely to be absent altogether. This sort of liberal watering down must not be allowed to happen to the teaching of British values.
There is a further reason why Michael Gove’s announcement that schools will be required to teach British values is potentially of enormous significance. It is extraordinary fact that the last Labour Government almost entirely failed to define what extremism actually was. In so far as there was a working definition, it was not groups that were extreme in relation to historic British values, but those who were more extreme than some other members of the Islamic community: i.e, you could call someone a ‘moderate’ if you could find someone even more extreme. The result of this flawed policy was that, in the aftermath of the 7/7 bombings, a number of radical Islamists who had attended training camps in Pakistan actually managed to infiltrate the British security services.
It should of course go without saying that extremism, whether of the Islamist variety or any other sort, should be defined by its distance from historic British values. However, now that Gove has made his announcement the real battle will be define exactly what we mean by British values.
Liberals generally have far less respect for history than Conservatives, with liberal ideology seeing it as something to be left behind and replaced by launching out into the great unknown of creating something new from scratch. So when liberals – and I used that term in the broadest sense – talk about British values they tend to mean something ‘new’ that they are creating, a set of values that, curiously enough, seems to map almost identically with their own liberal values!
For example, during the last Labour Government, Gordon Brown made a series of speeches on ‘Britishness’ – a concept that he claimed was defined by key characteristics such as ‘liberty, civil duty, fairness and internationalism’. Not only is it hard to see how such values are distinctively British, they were also what Michael Nazir Ali has termed ‘shallow values’. In other words, they are abstract values that are not rooted in British history in the way that deep values such as equality of all before the law , freedom of speech, freedom of religion and so forth have been for centuries.
Ultimately, the sort of shallow abstract values that those on the liberal left tend to espouse owe their origins to the era of the French revolution, which proclaimed liberty, equality and fraternity, although the latter was fairly quickly forgotten! However, these shallow abstract liberal values are flimsy, far more easily pushed aside and open to abuse than historic British values. As Edmund Burke, writing at the time of the French revolution, observed, in England we have inherited our freedoms
‘not on abstract principles as “the rights of men”, but as the rights of Englishmen’
In other words, these values are an inheritance we have had entrusted to us from previous generations. Burke was pointing to a whole series of enunciations of English liberties, starting with Magna Carta which, as Burke observes, was merely a reaffirmation of existing English liberties.
The basis of many of our liberties has been the common law which is, in many respects, an outworking of the idea derived from the Judeo-Christian worldview that all men are created in the image of God and therefore of equal worth and dignity. From this came the concept of equality of all before the law,. It was the outworking of this concept of the equal worth of all men that led to a whole series of common law judgements that set out fundamental British freedoms – such as the 1628 Felton judgment which forbade the use of torture, and the 1772 Somerset case in which Lord Chief Justice Mansfield effectively declared a principle that anyone on English soil was a free man and could not be enslaved. Both judgements predated similar European developments by a considerable period of time.
In fact, there have been a whole series of events in our history that have led to explicit constitutional statements of our values – such as the civil war affirming the Magna Carta principle that government may not impose taxation without the consent of parliament, while the 1688 Bill of rights not only affirmed existing constitutional freedoms such as Habeas Corpus, but also set the precedent of Parliament deciding the royal succession, thereby creating the basis for the development of parliamentary democracy. Our national values are embedded in the narrative of these event. This is why our national values cannot be separated from our national story.
Those values include one law for all (something that sharia explicitly rejects by giving preferential rights to Muslims over non Muslims and men over women in a range of areas including the relative weight given to their testimony in court); the right to trial by jury; the independence of the judiciary from the government; freedom of speech (the right to criticise the government or anyone else, including religious beliefs, something that is explicitly denied by sharia).
These also include the sovereignty of Britain as a nation state, something we have fought over the centuries to defend; constitutional monarchy and parliamentary democracy. It is these that together have emerged as British values over the centuries, and are part of our national story. Unfortunately, as I observed back in 2008 the last Labour Government not only actively undermined around half of these historic British values, but also on occasions appeased non-violent Islamists who pursued a strategy of seeking to increasingly align British law with sharia.
Unlike the shallow values advocated by liberals such as the promotion of ‘diversity’ and ‘internationalism’, historic British values are far less open to the sort of manipulation by Islamists that appears to have taken place in a number of state schools.
That is why it is so important that genuine historic British values are what is taught in schools. We owe it to our children not just to give them a sense of who they are – as British citizens and their part in our national story, but also to give them an education that values the values that have come define us as a nation.