I recently attended an ESRC sponsored event on the subject 'What is Britishness' in St George's Church, Westbourne Road, Birmingham (which provided very welcome refreshments afterwards). It was introduced by Dr. Chris Allen from Birmingham University who posed the question-
"The historian Linda Colley says that traditionally, ‘Britishness’ had four foundations: warfare, Protestantism, industry, Empire. Today, given the Empire no longer exists and that Britain is rather more diverse than Protestant, what might the contemporary foundations of Britishness be?"
The event publicity concluded-"The conversation will be informed by the research findings of social scientists from the University of Birmingham." This was not quite the case, for although Dr. Allen did allude to Linda Colley's Britons: Forging the Nation 1707-1837 (1992) he focused on the values to be taught in schools and subject to OFSTED inspection, namely-
- the rule of law
- individual liberty
- mutual respect for and tolerance of those with different faiths and beliefs (and for those without faith)
It is common that those academics involved in diversity/migration research refer to these as 'universal' values rather than being specifically British. In the subsequent discussion I pointed out that:
It is true that these values are enshrined in the Universal Declaration on Human Rights. But looking round the world, they are often observed in the breach rather the observance. Interestingly, a Chinese student present said that university lecturers in China were forbidden to speak of 'Western values' and students were encouraged to inform on any who did. An alternative system has been proposed by the OIC (Org. of Islamic Co-operation) in the Cairo declaration that proposes values of ;'true religion' that are not against the principles of Islamic Sharia.
A Dr. Mohammed Sidique Seddon concentrated on Britain's imperial past at a time when hundreds of millions of people all over the world could call themselves British subjects with the implication (I gathered) that this was a different kind of 'Britishness' from that of today. He referred to the Linda Colley thesis that Britain, and therefore by implication British values, could not have existed before the 1707 Act of Union in effect created Great Britain, although of course England and Scotland were united under the Stuart monarchy from a century earlier. He stressed that Britain had always been a diverse country, although Poll Tax records show that the foreign-born population of England and Wales in the mid-14th century was 1% and by the 1901 census again 1% (4.5% in 1951; probably 17-19% now).I regret I did not catch the next presenter's name. But she had the annoying style of throwing out questions such as "what was the origin of the idea of the Welfare State?" (the Islamic system of Caliph Umar of course). I resisted the temptation to call out facetiously in reply to the origins of freedom of religion (the Abrahamic faiths), freedom of thought (Socrates), care for others and laws (Hammurabi I think). However, when she got to Magna Carta (cited by the PM) and how it couldn't be part of Britain's values because Britain did not exist at that time, I did interject the long history of development of the Common Law in contrast to the Code Napoleon on the Continent.
Magna Carta is significant because, even though it was the baron's initiative in their interest, it has been continually reused and reinterpreted ever since to oppose arbitrary government action. Habeas Corpus is a British invention. In the 1630's opposition to Divine Right rule, the post First Civil War debates on representation, through the Chartists even to today the Great Charter is cited as an inspiration. The 1640's Putney Debates about governance and representation and the equally important, though neglected, Westminster Debates concerning Toleration of belief are seminal in the foundation of British values. Freedom of speech increasingly became one of the tenets of the Protestant religion on these islands.
In diverse modern Britain freedom of conscience is as important as it has ever been. We have permitted parents to dress their children in outward symbols of religion-in effect labelling a child a Muslim, Sikh or Jew. And I don't think we are going to change that anytime soon. Therefore an educational framework which includes acknowledgement of those of different and no faiths is essential if young people are to benefit from a modern educational environment. But this must include challenge and the freedom to give offence. "Liberty, if it means anything at all is the right to tell others what they don't want to hear" (Orwell) is truly a British value.
"This realm of England is an empire" declared Parliament at Henry VIII's instigation.The UK is a (semi-detached) member of the EU (but for how long?). But it resists 'ever close union' and insists on remaining a nation state. The Common Law is unique to Britain and our uncodified (not unwritten) constitution means that however governmental legislation is passed, carefully worked through precedent cannot easily be overturned at one fell swoop. It marks us out as different. Democracy means British people electing British MP's to act in the British interest. Moreover, people have always been able to nestle under the overall arch: English & Scottish & Welsh & Northern Irish and British without losing the individual identity of their nations. Britishness is not simply Englishness writ large or confined in effect to England.