THE recent revelations from OFSTED that in a few Birmingham
schools there have been attempts to pursue something of an Islamic
agenda has rekindled a debate about British values, and whether
religion, specifically Christianity, has any part in them.
We sense that something important is at stake. Can a nation as
diverse as we now are achieve integration and cohesion without at
least some shared values, and, if so, what are they? Does it make
sense to call them "British" values?
It is not the first time we have been here. Lord Tebbit, when
Chairman of the Conservative Party (1985-87), was widely derided
for suggesting that the sign of successful integration would be
when immigrant groups passed the "cricket test": we could regard
people as integrated only if they supported the English cricket
team rather than the team of their family origins - Pakistan, or
India, or the West Indies.
John Major, as Prime Minister, thought that Britishness was all
about "long shadows on country cricket grounds, warm beer,
invincible green suburbs, dog-lovers and pools-fillers, and - as
George Orwell said - 'old maids bicycling to holy communion through
the morning mist'". Gordon Brown insisted on the need for
"Britishness", but was less clear about what it might be.
SO FAR, the search for "British values" has been fairly
unproductive, principally because it ignores the fact that
societies are constantly evolving. In the Middle Ages, a large part
of what it meant to live in these islands was to be religious and
Catholic. After the Reformation, the population was no less
religious, but was now largely Protestant. By the beginning of the
21st century, a substantial number of people were not religious at
all, while others were religious, but not Christian; but all were
In other words, the values that even the majority of people in a
given country embrace may change over time, while the range of
values that people may choose to live by grows ever more diverse.
Moreover, in the present age, the capacity of any institution -
family, Church, State - to impose values is weak, even if there
were a willingness to do so.
This suggests that we should not be looking for some fixed set
of values as the basis of a cohesive society. The mere enunciation
of them will alienate some people, while pleasing others - the
opposite of cohesion. The attempt to write into the proposed
European constitution something about Christian values did just
that: it alienated those who were not Christian, as well as those
who were not religious.
The days of the homogeneous nation state lie in the past, and
the idea that cohesion requires shared values of this kind is an
illusion. We would be better advised to find a basis for our common
life which assumes disagreement around values, not consensus.
This has been the lesson of modern history. The attempt to
impose common values led to the continental wars of religion -
"une foi,une loi, un roi" - and totalitarian political
regimes, from revolutionary France to communist Russia. We have
come to realise that if a plurality of values is inevitable,
cohesion has to be brought about by another route.
IN THIS way, the liberal state gradually emerged, as we struggled
to work out what legal, constitutional, and institutional
arrangements were necessary for people with different values to
live together in relative harmony.
Let us call these the "contractual arrangements" of the liberal
state rather than "values". They are, of course, a large part of
the reason that immigrants want to come here in the first
If we want a cohesive society, where there is maximum freedom
for people to pursue those things that they believe are valuable
and worth while, then we must all acquiesce in the following:
• respect for the rule of law;
• equality of all citizens before the law;
• democratically elected government;
• freedom of speech;
• freedom of assembly;
• freedom of worship;
• freedom of the individual to live his or her life as he or she
wishes subject only to not interfering with the rights of
• tolerance and respect for those who differ from us.
The point about the above is that we can all agree on them,
whatever our religion, whatever our culture. Or, rather, by
acquiescing in them, we have no need to find cohesion through
shared values, and that enables us to avoid both the frustration of
a quest without a conclusion, or the absurdity of trying to impose
a particular set of values on everyone.
If aspects of the culture of particular groups - ethnic, or
religious, or both - conflict with them, then they must be rejected
as inimical to what makes living together without undue coercion or
THESE "contractual arrangements" are common to Western nations.
But there may be a way of speaking about them which captures the
peculiarly British way of holding and experiencing them; and
perhaps it takes an immigrant to appreciate just what that is. Sir
Isaiah Berlin (whose Jewish-Russian family emigrated here) once
summarised it. What he had come to see was that
decent respect for others and the toleration of dissent are
better than pride and a sense of national mission; that liberty may
be incompatible with, and better than, too much efficiency; that
pluralism and untidiness are, to those who value freedom, better
than rigorous imposition of all-embracing systems, no matter how
rational and disinterested, or than the rule of majorities against
which there is no appeal.
As he recognised, we all breathe freely in those societies where
all of this is taken for granted. Britain is one of them.
Canon Alan Billings's book,The Dove, the Fig Leaf
andthe Sword: Why Christianity changes its mind about war, is
published by SPCK.