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Seeking another way to Britishness

20 June 2014

There is never going to be consensus about shared values; so the UK should find other points of agreement, argues Alan Billings

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 British.

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 place.

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 others;
• 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 repression possible.

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.

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