There is no such thing as British values. There is, however, a British way of doing things.
It follows that Michael Gove erred when he said schools should promote British values. To expect schools to uphold British institutions would make much more sense.
To define democracy, or freedom, or fairness, or tolerance, or equality before the law, as a British value is to prompt the immediate objection that these things exist in other places too. Almost everyone claims nowadays to be democratic. It has become the universal legitimating principle of our age.
What matters, in Britain, is loyalty to the institutions which in this country enable us to enjoy in our own constantly evolving fashion the blessings of democracy, freedom, fairness and the rest. It is not my purpose here to try in a few hundred words to write a complete account of the British constitution. Nor do I wish to imply that our constitutional arrangements are perfect: they are susceptible to continual improvement or decay, and some questions, such as the role played by the European Union, are unlikely to be settled for a long time to come.
But to live in this country is to accept the authority of laws made in Parliament. The government is formed by whichever party or coalition of parties wins a majority of the seats in the House of Commons at a general election. The monarchy, the courts, the press: these help to prevent our politicians from becoming over-mighty. Many other institutions have helped to foster the habits of mind, and modes of behaviour, which enable parliamentary government to work. The relative importance of these organisations has varied. The Churches, the Royal Navy and the trade unions are examples of institutions which now have a less pervasive influence than was once the case.
But whether we want to increase religious liberty, or end the slave trade, or widen the franchise, or improve conditions in factories, or promote sexual equality, it is to Parliament that we look for some of the decisive steps. The unpopularity of politicians sometimes leads to the rise of new parties, of which UKIP is the most recent example, but it does not lead to the demand that we give up parliamentary politics.
Gove suggested in 2007 that there is “something rather unBritish about trying to define Britishness”. He is right that it feels a bit strange to have to spell these things out. Michael Oakeshott, greatest of modern conservative thinkers, commended “the unselfconscious following of a tradition of moral behaviour”.
Happiness, it has been said, is a by-product of other things. Britishness might be considered in the same light: it is a by-product, or an expression, of the loyalty we feel to our country and its institutions.
But we do sometimes need our politicians to be able to articulate that loyalty for us. The present generation of parliamentarians are mostly rather bad at this. The language of patriotism strikes them as a bit old-fashioned, or even a bit embarrassing, and they tend to leave it to people like Nigel Farage and Alex Salmond.
Our politicians prefer the evasive language of values to the specific language of patriotism. In Birmingham as in every other part of the kingdom, Britishness entails being loyal not to lofty abstractions, but to British institutions and the British way of conducting politics.