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British values 

09 December 2016

DESPITE this paper’s 153-year history, it was not until 1983 that the phrase “British values” was first mentioned. (It came in a letter from the Secretary of the Clergy Against Nuclear Arms, who was horrified by the violent treatment of the Greenham Common protesters, sanctioned by a government committed to “upholding traditional British values”.) The phrase has appeared with increasing regularity during the past two years, generally in relation to the Government’s attempts to counter Islamic extremism. The Archbishop of Canterbury is alive to the danger of this connection: “Values built on feelings of threat and fear can lead us down a dangerous path,” he warned the House of Lords last week.

The debate that ensued demonstrated that many wish to resist attempts to codify Britishness. “I do not want us to end up as a nation of identikit, roast-beef-eating, bowler-hatted Stepford citizens,” Baroness Sherlock said. Yet the Archbishop is right that, without agreement about shared values, it will be hard to achieve the vision of neighbourliness outlined in this week’s report on integration by Dame Louise Casey. As unscrupulous politicians have demonstrated repeatedly, it is always easier to unite people by what threatens them rather than what holds them together.

Lord Harries brought much-needed sense to the debate when he asserted that absolutes exist: “There is a magnetic north.” He chose truth as an example of a fundamental value. Its absence has been much lamented in recent weeks. Dame Louise expressed her desire to be honest about the failure to integrate new immigrants, and has warned that institutions, including faith groups, have turned a blind eye to behaviour that runs counter to accepted values. Her observations about “regressive” religion will spark debate in the weeks to come.

Instances of abuse cannot go unchallenged. Religious leaders have a duty to speak out against practices that harm women and children, and interfaith work must go beyond a “coalition of the willing”. The Archbishop appears conscious of this risk, having previously decried “bland statements of anaemic intent”. Asking the Muslim community to do more to support the rights of women is to sidestep the direct appeal that abused women have to the law of this country. A combination of ignorance and misplaced sensitivity about the rights of newer communities has denied vulnerable people the legal protection designed for all, without exception.

This is just one side of the story, however. A country might survive without defining its shared values, but it still has to put them into practice, and some of the best examples of this can be found among the newer communities in the UK. The Muslim community habitually demonstrates generosity, hospitality, and respect for the elderly. “No one eats alone” reads the poster from a Muslim-owned restaurant shared on social media this week, offering a free meal on Christmas Day. Christ illustrated neighbourliness with the parable of the Good Samaritan. Good Samaritans remain in abundance.

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