In the wake of “Trojan Horse” scandals, where schools in Birmingham were accused of plots to run them on radical Islamic lines, Cameron’s government decided to define and educate our schoolchildren in British values – “to create and enforce a clear and rigorous expectation on all schools to promote the fundamental British values of democracy, the rule of law, individual liberty and mutual respect and toleration of those with different faiths and beliefs.” This is apple pie, but it is fundamental, although equal treatment for women is a worrying omission. They are by no means exclusive to Britain.
We have talked already about democracy and the rule of law. Tolerance is non-negotiable and has been ingrained in the British psyche for centuries. The instances of intolerance are inexcusable but noticeable more as exceptions rather than the rule. Where Richard I expelled the Jews, Cromwell (Oliver) welcomed them back. Where Enoch Powell warned of “rivers of blood” as a result of immigration from the Commonwealth, he was overwhelmed by the indignant response from the vast majority of British politicians and the nation at large. The racism that was commonplace until comparatively recently has been recognised by all as unacceptable. We cannot even watch the TV entertainment programmes from the 1970s with their casual and explicit racism. Even then, it was based on ignorance rather than malice. There were riots, mercifully few.
The great thing about being British is that it has always meant being different. As George Orwell pointed out in the heart of the Blitz, part of what makes Britain special is our oddness. We keep bees, we ramble. We had the quirkiness to invent most of the world’s sports when the rest of the world had better things to do.
We revelled in our Scottishness, our Welshness and cheesy Miss Marple-Englishness. But we were all British. This sense of acceptance of difference has by no means been perfect. The Irish descent enjoyed by the author, found resistance when times were hard for manual labourers in nineteenth-century London.
The near-absence of overt racism in modern British society was hard fought and should not be taken for granted. But it has worked. Every train or bus on the way to work carries all conceivable colours. All large organisations will have representatives from ethnic minorities at senior levels. Our culture has become immeasurably enriched. There is more to be done.
But there is more to being British, much more. Here are some suggestions that have been missed off the syllabus. They are not essential, like the rule of law, they are discretionary, but they are at risk of being forgotten. That would be a shame. All of it is blind to colour or creed.
Decency and Fair Play
At the heart of our way of life is a fundamental decency. Strict definitions will elude us, but at its core is a basic respect for each other as human beings irrespective of class or race. It drives the famous British politeness and the innate sense of justice. And from justice, respect for the rule of law and tolerance.
In 1980, we invented the professional foul. The youngest ever player in the FA Cup Final, Paul Allen, is clear on goal with three minutes to go. The Arsenal defender, Willie Young, deliberately kicks away the young player’s legs. Young is reprimanded and gets a yellow card. Paul Allen won the FA Cup but, like any boy whose hopes are dashed, he was sobbing his heart out as he collected his winner’s medal. The nation was horrified at such a naked display of winning at any cost. The world had been introduced to the professional foul. The rules were rewritten and now the offence would result in the offender’s dismissal.
Britain’s sense of fair play had been offended. Now, the situation is different. In a recent radio show, most football fans would applaud their player if he committed a professional foul – it’s more important to win than to lose fairly.
In truth, the loss of sportsmanship is not new. The “bodyline” series in cricket where the English cricket team deliberately aimed their balls to hurt the players took place in 1932-33. The difference was that the “bodyline” series created national distress. The radio debate was a calm affair between two points of view – is it more important to win or play by the rules? Remarkably few voices suggested the rules are more important than the result.
As we saw earlier, the deep-seated British sense of justice or fair play, to use the phrases of the time, was fundamental to the British response to the outbreak of World Wars I and II. The storm of criticism against the Iraq War in 2003 showed that the British sense of justice had not disappeared and offending it will not go unpunished. Tony Blair may not have won the 2005 general election had he not conceded during the campaign that he would hand over the Premiership at some point before the following election – this was the unspoken punishment demanded by the British people.
We now seem less certain of our sense of justice and fair play. As noted above, we have barely noticed Parliament’s assumption of constitutional power; pushing aside the fair right of citizens of Wales, Northern Ireland and England to consent to the potential rupture in their nation state whereas they had been asked in previous generations.
Decency has given the British a healthy suspicion of extreme opinions or abstract ideas. The left-wing party is called the Labour Party and not the Socialist Party as it was borne of the practical need of the Trade Unions – labour- to have political clout. When the rest of Europe (even Switzerland) took turns at revolution in 1848; the British Chartists had a mass picnic in Hyde Park.
Even something considered by some brutal and unjustifiable, such as the Empire, was cloaked with an endeavour of spreading Christianity, Commerce and Civilisation – not to everyone’s taste of course but a very different attitude from an Empire conceived in domination, exploitation and humiliation.
Decency makes us suspicious of power, particularly when it appears to become too mighty. Other countries may have similar phrases but it was a British historian who spelled out that “power corrupts, absolute power corrupts absolutely”. We used to feel it important to take people down a peg or two – hence Thatcher’s fate in 1990 and Blair’s in 2005.
This tradition of moderation and tolerance has allowed us to mould our politics and society to the most extraordinary changes.
So when Parliament decides to overturn the constitutional rulebook and authorise an independence referendum for Scotland, it is not that the decision is necessarily wrong; it is more that it has been made too quickly, no time for the people to consider it, validate it. More worrying for our democracy, is the inability of our politicians and media to spot the dangerous precedent this set for overturning the unwritten principle of consent for constitutional change. Do we really want Parliament to have this new power?
Decency also requires humility – acceptance that we are not superior to anyone else, all of us flawed. With the decline of humility as a concept in our culture, comes arrogance. You are not a sinner, you are superior. Society now reinforces this. If there is no longer any need or expectation to recognise our common bonds as fellow members of society, then that most basic of social values –politeness or common courtesy – becomes unnecessary. Today it is common practice in business not to return phone calls that you perceive may not be of immediate benefit to you – unthinkable twenty years ago. E-mails between individuals and colleagues are routinely ignored. The author is no saint in this or any other regard. Schoolchildren walking to school may innocently say hello to a fellow student only to be ignored, encouraged by their parent.
The old British way of life that saw off the Kaiser and united us against Hitler has changed. The stiff upper lip that was a genuine element of British life and enabled us to withstand the empty chair in every home after World War One or the Blitz that terrified many but did not shatter hope is more difficult to find. On the tragic death of Princess Diana in 1997, the nation surprised itself with an unexpected open outpouring of grief. So much so that when Queen Elizabeth II failed to publicly show her emotions to the satisfaction of the nation, she was effectively dragged back to Buckingham Palace to make a public address. This satisfied the public lust for grief. It was the closest the nation had come in a hundred years to contemplating republicanism. The stiff upper lip had wobbled.
The rule of law, the essence of democracy, requires a fundamental humility – one’s desires have to take second place if they would break the law; one’s views will not be represented in government if the majority has voted for the opposing party. If the majority have spoken, the minority defer or give up their plans. Democracy itself requires sacrifice.