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Halt this talk of values

30 January 2015

THE barons at Runnymede had a list of concerns and objectives when they drew up Magna Carta in a meadow next to the Thames in 1215. It would be safe to say that establishing a set of British values was not among them. Their document is regularly cited, none the less, as a set of precepts to which all are invited to adhere, few of which appear on the original document. In lieu of a written constitution, Magna Carta has been a magnet for libertarian aspirations through the ages to the present day. Liberty can be taken too far, however, and recent initiatives to assert British values have stemmed from the opposite impulse: to restrict and curb rather than encourage and set free.

Nothing is more telling than that the drive to instil British values in schools started with the 2011 Prevent strategy, clearly aimed at combating the spread of radicalism among young Muslims. Various bodies, among them the C of E Board of Education, are challenging the process being promoted by the Government. It is one thing to teach citizenship, trying to inform young people about their opportunities and responsibilities to engage in the democratic process at local and national level. It is another for OFSTED inspectors to attempt to judge a school's success in what is, essentially, an exercise in changing students' opinions. Schools can and should govern their students' behaviour. Whether it is within their remit or ability to alter opinions is another matter.

A new document was released this week, a sort of British values for adults, by the Maranatha Community, a loosely based inter-denominational organisation founded by Dennis Wrigley and backed by Lord Alton. It begins well: "We affirm the fundamental British Values of democracy, rule of law, equality of every human being before the law, freedom of speech, and the rights of all men and women to live free from persecution." Our only quibble is the description of these as "British Values" (their capitals). The document ascribes these values not only to Britain but to its "Judaeo-Christian foundations", stating: "British history clearly authenticates the role and benefits of Christian teaching and practice."

An election looms, in which, thanks to the threat of UKIP, all the main parties will be attempting to look as "British" as they can. We believe that the Churches should resist this where they can, and certainly resist this loose talk of national "values". In a video on the Maranatha website, Mr Wrigley laments the "emphasis on rights" over responsibilities prevalent in the UK. But it is only in recognising the rights of others that we are confronted by our responsibilities. The United Nations' 1948 Declaration of Human Rights is a key document here, although routinely ignored by those who believe it applies only to other countries. Its purpose is to establish that people do, indeed, have rights, whatever the values of their surrounding culture; and that these are universal human rights, not national ones.

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