Luke de Pulford is a political adviser. He lives and works in Westminster.
British values. Chief in our rhetorical arsenal against Islamism, this mighty phrase is marketed as the solution to all our ideological woes. Our weapon of mass destruction against totalitarian theocracy. Kryptonite to inferior precepts.
Or so we’re told.
The trouble is that, much like WMD, no one really knows what or where these values are.
David Cameron had a good stab in the Mail back in June. For the PM, British values are:
“A belief in freedom, tolerance of others, accepting personal and social responsibility, respecting and upholding the rule of law”.
Michael Gove said much the same when initiating his attempt to combat extremism in schools, which is back in the news this week following revelations of playground radicalisation from the beleaguered Borough of Tower Hamlets.
Certainly, these values are important. But as an all-encompassing statement of a national ethical system, it’s a bit thin. Where’s the distinctively British flavour to freedom, tolerance, responsibility or the Rule of Law?
Admittedly, defining Britishness is a formidable task. Before Cameron, Danny Boyle was charged with performing the contortions required to sift through our chequered history, extracting the essence of Britishness without offending anyone. Like Cameron, Boyle came up with an impressive brainstorm of ideas relevant to British culture. And like Cameron, Boyle’s Opening Ceremony steered well clear of anything really substantial.
So what are British values?
The Telegraph ran a vox pop recently. Respondents grasped at straws. “A love of animals” said one. “What the Union flag means to the Country” said another. And another: “National anthem”.
We can do better than that, can’t we?
I’m not so sure. The truth is that we Brits suffer badly from value-schizophrenia. For evidence, look no further than two recent news events.
First the phenomenon of Kim Kardashian’s big backside. Last week, navigating social media was like running a gauntlet filled with heavily armed soldiers. Except that, instead of soldiers, obstructing one’s access to real news stories were thousands of pictures of oiled buttocks, variously adorned with bursting black leather bindings and priapic champagne-bottle phalluses.
For an excruciating 72 hours, the rump of Mrs Kardashian-West was a bigger story than conflicts in Syria, Iraq and Ukraine combined. News editors considered it more important than thousands of deaths and public policy considerations that will actually affect people. Her fundament nearly eclipsed a space landing, for goodness’ sake.
Who is this demigod that her body parts are worthy of such benediction?
There are two main strands underlying this bizarre passage in world history. One is the relentless pornographisation of generation Z which occasionally makes itself known through the hermetic seal of social taboo, like bumping into a porn star on the street who you oughtn’t to recognise.
Another is an indisputably dominating aspect of contemporary British culture and ipso facto, British values – fame worship. As everyone knows, Kardashian is famous for nothing other than exhibitionism and for having lots of self-evidently expensive things. Her domination of the national conversation is a celebration of emptiness and materialism.
Unarguably, then, celebrity worship is representative of many modern Brits’ values. If you don’t believe me, try trend watching on Twitter for a few days.
Second the Tower of London Poppies. More than 5 million people travelled to see nearly 900,000 ceramic poppies, each representing a life lost in World War One. No one anticipated such huge public interest. So why the overwhelming response?
Through the haze of celebrity culture and information overload, it was as if the nation could make out a simpler time when Britons really did understand what their values were.
Solidarity. Fortitude. Self-sacrifice. Individual human dignity. Judeo-Christian ethics.
Of course, none of these belong exclusively to Britain. But taken together, they capture the essence of what people meant when they used to talk about British spirit.
Visitors to the Tower participated in a collective act of reconnection with this old England. And we were permitted to revel in it without any of the usual pillorying meted out to anyone who hankers after the past with its now unfashionable ethical norms.
The nation liked it, as well it might – for these are our roots.
But this England is in decline. Its faith and culture have now decoupled. Its codes of politeness and resolve are boring to a generation drunk on hormone rushes. We are rapidly moving away from what made the war generation so great in favour of aspirations so vacuous and engulfing that they are almost a vacuum.
Which is a roundabout way of saying that contemporary British values are hugely diverse, overlaid, and, frankly, contradictory. At one polarity, the modern totem of Kim Kardashian’s bum. At the other, the resonating collective memory of our war dead. One represents the selfishness implicit in fame-seeking and garnering an economic plenty; the other the selflessness required to lay down one’s life for others.
Happening within the same week, these two events perfectly express the incoherence of the modern Brit – we just don’t really know what we’re about anymore.
Add to this confusion the phenomenon of mass migration and attendant difficulties in trying to house incommensurable doctrines under one roof, and it should have been obvious that trying to slap a single label on our ever more diverse polity was doomed to failure. No wonder Cameron’s list of values had to be reduced to a few dusty, uncontroversial principles that few understand.
Nevertheless it’s a good start. The answer to bad ideas is better, more attractive ideas. Cameron knows this, hence the attempt to fashion some of those better ideas into an identity to match the striking pulling power of Islamism. The trouble is that it won’t work because it’s not a true reflection of modern Britain.
Now I’m not saying that less flattering British values like fame and greed ought to be taught in schools. Perish the thought. If I were a young radical thinking about joining ISIS, I reckon Kim K’s videos would push me over the edge.
But a bit of honesty about who we really are wouldn’t go amiss. Perhaps then a discussion about the undesirability of many of our modern aspirations would follow. It might even precipitate a conversation about the real questions lurking beneath all of this: how should we define the Common Good in 21st century Britain? From where does it derive its legitimacy?
The Islamist addresses each of these questions with a single word. Until Britain has something coherent to say in response, we will remain feebly armed in this battle of ideas, and continue to cede citizens to extremism