Unveiling the Myth of British Values

myth of british valuesThere has been much talk about British values. The Prime Minister David Cameron spoke about them as a means of unifying the nation and promoting our future. In his words “Britain has a lot to be proud of, and our values and institutions are right at the top of that list. It’s not just important to promote, understand and celebrate these things for their own sake; it is absolutely vital to our future”.

At the Conservative party conference in 2014, Teresa May proclaimed, in response to the rise of Islamic extremism: “In the end, as they have done before, these values, our British values, will win the day and we will prevail”.

Most recently, the Prime Minister in his New Year address exhorted potential terrorist sympathiers to “sign up to our values of freedom, tolerance, responsibility and loyalty”.

British values are being held up as the panacea for uniting our diverse nation and empowering it for the future. But, what are British values? Are they the ones defined by politicians to suit their agenda or are they something more profound?

Why do we need values?

Whether we like it or not, every human being has values. These are embedded at an early age and develop through experience. We are not always aware of them but values are there, silently driving our behaviour and contributing to the collective culture.

We know from our own personal experiences that when individuals’ values align we get trust and cooperation. Similarly, when they misalign we get hostility and conflict. Values provide a unifying effect, and unity and cooperation are the secrets to success.

During my 30 years in the Army, I worked with a diverse but homogeneous group of individuals who shared common values. That’s not to say there weren’t disagreements or conflict, but in the main we were a unified group that was able to operate cohesively in adverse conditions.

British society has changed dramatically since 1945 and we need to maintain unity if we are to be successful. So I agree with the Prime Minister; a common set of values is essential to our national future.

Case Study

In 1999, General Sir Roger Wheeler recognised that there was a danger that the Army’s unity might be diluted as it started to recruit from a wider, diverse range of backgrounds. This was compounded by the individual focus of Generation X and its “what’s in it for me” culture that ran contrary to the military requirement for individuals to put the team need before their own.

As a result the Army set out to codify its corporate values to deliver operational effectiveness. Commanders were directed to ensure that the values were at the very centre of their command ethos, while individuals were to act in accordance with them. The Value and Standards of the British Army were to become central to its daily life.

Although the key driver was to maintain unity as the basis for operational effectiveness, the net result was to set in train something that would define the very character and spirit of the British Army at the start of the 21st century. The values of selfless commitment, courage, discipline, integrity, loyalty, respect for others bound the Army together and enabled the classes of Generations X and Y to achieve some astonishing feats in the operational theatres of Iraq and Afghanistan.

What is meant by values?

There is a difference between values, aspects that we value, institutions and behaviour. The Telegraph newspaper set out 10 British values which included:

The Rule of Law. This along with freedom of expression, equality for all and universal representation are not specifically British values. They are the structural pillars of democracy as set out by the United Nations.

Tolerance. I would argue that while we value tolerance, it is a behaviour derived from our values. It is a good indication of value and something to be valued, but not a value in its own right.

Institutions, traditions, culture and history. These are a manifestation of our values. They are important and may outwardly define us, like the decorations on a Christmas tree, but are not the core of the British nation.

Patriotism. Although this has value in bolstering national confidence and well-being, it is only the reflection of the pride in our national culture and achievements.

Values are the deeply held beliefs that guide our behaviour. They are the standards by which we live our lives and make choices. There are, to my mind, 3 types of value:

Core values are enduring but evolve slowly. In individuals, core values are developed through childhood and early adulthood; in a nation, they might develop through the trials of our history.

Contemporary values tend to be transitory in nature and while they may appear on the surface to be at odds with the core values, they remain roughly centred on them. Contemporary values link very closely with social trends and act on core values to bring about the acceptance of change.

At anchor off Deception Island by Pete Smith

At anchor off Deception Island by Pete Smith

The relationship between core and contemporary values is most easily imagined when you think about a ship at anchor. The core values are represented by the anchor lying out of sight on the sea bed holding the vessel stable. The contemporary values are the ship changing direction as it is moved by wind and tide. At times it may feel that you are swinging madly, but the reality is that you are generally firmly anchored over the same spot. However, in a strong wind the ship may drag its anchor to a new location.

The third type of values are aspirational values. These are different because they are set as goals that require a change of culture. The best example I have found of this is the development of Spartan culture under Lycurgus. In the 7th century BC Sparta was under attack and racked by rebellions. Lycurgus set out his Spartan values – equality (among citizens), military fitness and austerity – as the basis for transformation, out of which grew the formidable Spartan military society.

What are British core values?

This is the key question. Are they the ones set out by our politicians or something else? One way to identify the core values is to track them back from our culture and behaviour. Self-assessment is no easy task and the best way is to look in a mirror, in this case by using the views of foreign visitors to our country.

In 2014 a survey asked 5,000 visitors to Britain for their opinions on the British. I have added to this, behaviour that I would assess to be common place across the country. The results reveal a Jekyll and Hyde character:

Positive: Polite and well mannered; educated and skilled; friendly; respect the Rule of Law; tolerance; sense of humour; stoic; steadfast; sports mad; talkative.

vices and virtues

Negative: Drunken; poor eating habits; ignorant of other cultures; too nationalistic; intolerance towards foreigners; slovenly; conceited; lazy; opinionated.

From this I deduce that the British have 7 enduring core values – the magnificent seven of freedom, order, fairness, honesty, openness, community and fun.

Freedom. The British were freed from serfdom by the late 14th century and have remained free people ever since. We have largely been free of outside interference (if we quietly ignore the Dutch invasion of 1688) despite the best efforts of our neighbours – the Spanish, French and Germans. Within the country we have pushed the boundaries of personal freedoms and attempts to wind back the clock, such as Cromwell’s Commonwealth and John Major’s return to victorian values, failed. Freedom fuelled the colonisation of America, the Industrial Revolution, expansion of empire and the post-1945 social revolution. It underpins our reputation for tolerance while setting the condition for slovenly and anti-social behaviour. Freedom is our most significant value.

freedom and order

Freedom and order in balance

Order. The British value order as the brake on freedom. The Magna Carta signed in 1215 was about restoring order between the disorderly king and rebellious barons. We remain orderly now as demonstrated by our queuing, which fascinates foreigners, and manuals on social behaviour. The Edwardian class system saw the modern zenith of order ensuring every individual knew their place. Even leisure time was ordered as the British codified the vast majority of modern sports. We embrace order when danger threatens and reject it when it seems unnecessary. Order brings stability, our objection to change and our love of tradition.

Fairness or fairplay. The British accept that there can never be true equality but we do want fairness. We want to know the rules of the game and expect others to play by them. Ironically, we don’t find it unduly distressing when we know that the rules themselves are unfair, so long as everybody plays by the same rules. We accept the fairness of our asymmetric taxation system and a collective welfare system to support those in need. Fairness explains our traditional support for the underdog, the current outrage with FIFA over the World Cup corruption scandal and our on-going friction with those countries in the EU who sign up to legislation but never implement it.

My game is fair play

My game is fair play

Honesty. The British have nothing but contempt for hypocrites. We want people to be themselves even if they are criminals – provided they are honest criminals. In the Army you could get away with almost anything if you were honest but doomed the instant you were perceived to be deceitful. Britain sits 14th in the world corruption perception index and has improved its score year on year. The MPs’ expenses scandal did damage out of all proportion to its trivial cost because MPs were perceived as being dishonest hypocrites.

Openness. The British like to know and talk about what’s going on. We are suspicious of the secretive – what are GCHQ, the Freemasons, and our neighbours really up to? We like openness about individuals and agreements – nothing gets us more riled than the small print or the sneaky clauses. Above all we like the debate whether it be in Parliament, in the media, over the garden fence or in the pub. Alastair Campbell’s assertion that “it is dangerous to debate” is wrong. We need open debate and it is the control and suppression of that debate that damages us.

open communities

Open communities

Community. The British are not particularly family minded but we value our communities. The traditional communities – street, village, church – may have weakened but they have been replaced with communities that cover sports, pastimes, business and online groups such as Mumsnet. It explains our obsession with TV “soaps”, reality shows and celebrity culture, where we feel part of the story. Margaret Thatcher may have saved Britain from an economic abyss but she did so at the cost of many communities in Scotland, Wales and northern England, for which some will never forgive her.

Fun. The British value fun. The word, derived from the Middle English “fon”, is unique and no other word in the world quite mirrors its combination of teasing, joking, light-hearted fooling for entertainment and pleasure. The need for fun got in the way of the important business of war. King Edward III became so agitated by the impact of “sport that took up time better spent on war training”, that in 1363 AD he forbade it on pain of death. Banter and humour, much of it self-deprecating, are synonymous with British life and are found at even the darkest times. My father often regaled us with stories of the “fun” they had during the most difficult periods of the Second World War. The British like, and indeed need, to have fun even when there is serious business to be done. The downside is that we may never be particularly hard working or efficient because, let’s face it, that’s not really fun.

fun police car

So What?

Britain is going through a period of major change that carries with it the potential for social, cultural and political fragmentation. In the absence of any unifying purpose or leadership, we need to fall back on that which we already have – our core British values. These need to be identified, not though political sound bites but by following the linkage between culture, behaviour and values.

rugby fans

Once we have codified our national values, we have a choice. We can either live in accordance with those values or we can follow Lycurgus’s example and set new aspirational values to take us in a different direction. That raises the questions as to where we would want to go, how long would it take and who would make it happen? In my experience, fundamental change takes at least 2 if not 3 generations and not many democratic leaders have the endurance for long term change.

Then imagine Britain run with our national values underpinning all aspects of our life – politics, legislation, institutions, business, education – not just as something to be pinned up on a wall but at the heart of what we do – thought, word and deed.

I believe that would make us a happier and more successful nation.

Felix Spender Jan 2016

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