DEMOCRACY, the rule of law, and other “fundamental British values” listed by the Government do not contain the “deep magic” that will enable Britain to flourish, the Archbishop of Canterbury told the House of Lords last Friday.
Leading a debate on British values, the Archbishop warned against the application of “revisionist secularism”.
“Our values have not emerged from a vacuum, but from the resilient and eternal structure of our religious, theological, philosophical, and ethical heritage.”
He called for “a more beautiful and better common narrative”, that would enable Britain to “play a powerful, hopeful, and confident role in the world”, and resist “the turn inward that will leave us alone in the darkness, despairing and vulnerable”.
In the five-hour debate that ensued, peers discussed questions of universality and relativism — values change as society evolves, contributors suggested — in their attempts to respond to the Archbishop’s motion (to “Take note of the shared values underpinning our national life and their role in shaping public policy priorities”). Dostoevsky, Thomas Aquinas, and Walt Whitman were quoted.
The Archbishop’s contention that good existed in “absolute and permanent terms”, and his call to acknowledge the scriptural roots of values, did not resonate with all.
Since 2014, all schools have been required to “promote fundamental British values”, listed as democracy, the rule of law, individual liberty, and mutual respect for, and tolerance of, those with different faiths and beliefs. These values had “considerable” worth, the Archbishop said in his speech, but they were “not properly embedded in the heritage of our country. . .
“To apply a revisionist secularism to our notions of identity inhibits the ability to reassert the ‘deep values’ reflected in our common history: those that show what makes for virtue, and of what is good in absolute and permanent terms. It is what Aslan in C. S. Lewis’s Narnia, called the ‘deep magic’ of the system. . .
“Fundamental British values have certainly developed out of these deep values; but if they are not grounded in an understanding of how we came to be who we are, they will remain an insubstantial vision with which to carry the weight of the challenges of the 21st century.
“That is because the right to life, liberty, and the rule of law, and robust democratic government, does not come cheaply, nor is it held lightly. The roots of our freedom in this country are deeply embedded within our British constitutional and civic life, because their foundation lies within the shared scriptural inheritance of all our faith traditions.”
In illustrating the limitations of “fundamental British values”, he pointed to the examples of Martin Luther King, Desmond Tutu, and Dietrich Bonhoeffer, who “did not accept the final authority of the rule of law when the law was unjust”.
A renewal of British values would not happen without a renewal of “intermediate institutions”, including the family, companies, and schools, Archbishop Welby argued, “because otherwise nothing stands between the lonely individual and the over-mighty state”.
There was “no better example of the expression of good values” than the parable of the Good Samaritan, he suggested. It was a story “deeply embedded in our collective understanding of what it means to be a good citizen”; one that “reinforces a Christian hope of our values: those of a generous and hospitable society rooted in history; committed to the common good and solidarity in the present; creative, entrepreneurial, courageous, sustainable in our internal and external relations”.
The catalyst for the Government’s attempt to codify shared values was the threat of violent extremism, he said; but “values built on feelings of threat and fear can lead us down a dangerous path. . . If we spend all of our energy preventing bad ideologies — whether religious or political — I fear that we will neglect the far more transformative response required to build a convincing vision for our national life.”
He wanted to see “a more beautiful and better common narrative that shapes and inspires us with a common purpose; a vaulting national ambition, not a sense of division and antagonism . . . that will enable us to play a powerful, hopeful, and confident role in the world, resisting the turn inward that will leave us alone in the darkness, despairing and vulnerable. . .
“Such a vision has a deep magic that has, at our best, enabled us to be a country of hope and purpose — and will do so again.”
Peers disputed the existence of timeless values. “Values are national, cultural, tribal, time-specific, and exclusive,” Lord Stone of Blackbeath said. “They change as each individual society evolves.” Virtues, however, were “universal, for all human beings, for all time and are inclusive”.
“Each generation defines its own values, which are based on the norms of that particular time,” Baroness Warsi said. “We are not a reductive list: we are a complex set of aspirations, which change, and change often. . . The term ‘British ideals’ is a much better way forward.”
Many speeches warned that liberal values were under threat in Britain, and several pointed to evidence of a rise in hate crime in the wake of the EU referendum. Lord Harries feared that some of the values set out in the Archbishop’s speech were being “seriously eroded”.
He challenged those who denied the existence of shared values: “There are certain values that are fundamental, but whose implementation have to be worked out in every generation. There is magnetic north. There is such a thing as truth. There is that in us which is drawn towards it, however glazed over the glass on our personal compass might be. There seems to be a desperate need in our society to recover and reaffirm the most basic moral values, without which there can be no human community at all.”
He shared Baroness Warsi’s view that the values listed by the Government were not uniquely British, and expressed concern that they had been championed as part of the counter-terrorism strategy. This had left to some feeling “othered” and “alienated”.
Anxiety about asserting the supremacy of British values was voiced by other peers. Lord Wallace of Saltair suggested that “the claim by some on the Right that English values, or, more precisely, Anglo-Saxon values, are different from, and superior to, the values of other nations” had contributed to “a deterioration of national debate”. He also felt “some hesitation” about describing the shared values as “Christian”.
“The history of liberalism, of tolerance and dissent, is, on the European continent, the history of liberals fighting against the authoritarianism and orthodoxy of the Roman Catholic Church, and, in Britain, has a great deal to do with the Quakers, Congregationalists, and the other Non-conformists’ dissenting from what was then a rather complacent Establishment which supported the powers that be.”
Despite the Archbishop’s warning against a “defensive or preventive mindset”, some used the debate to issue a call to arms.
“The whole culture of western Europe is now under threat by those who will not integrate and accept the values of our European Judaeo-Christian heritage,” Lord Blencathra said. “We must not, in the name of discredited multiculturalism, sacrifice our Western liberal democracy, which is still a value shared by the vast majority in this country.”
While the Archbishop was not alone in quoting from scripture, several peers were alive to the failings of religion. Baroness Flather denied that values were “faith-based: they are shared values in themselves”, and called for more open criticism of faith practices. It was not racist to do so: political correctness had been “one of the biggest disasters of the past 25 to 30 years. . . There are faiths, especially the Abrahamic faiths, which treat women very badly.”
Other peers regretted the ways in which the Church failed to reflect their values. Baroness Berridge pointed to the lack of non-white bishops, and the fact that practising Christians were more likely to have a university-level qualification than the population at large. Lord Collins of Highbury called on the Archbishop to defend the rights of LGBT people.
There was praise for the Church from Lord Glasman, who said that he had received criticism, from some on the Left, for working with it. “At least Christians and people of faith don’t believe that the free market created the world,” he said. “Neither did the administrative State.” He welcomed the Archbishop’s focus on institutions as the “body politic” that would protect individuals from “domination” by these two external forces.
During a debate in which multiple values were listed, some questioned whether a list should even exist. The Parliamentary Under Secretary of State for Faith and Integration, Lord Bourne, concluded that “the essence of Britishness is undeniable and identifiable. . . At the heart of our values is a simple and inclusive proposition: everyone living in this country is equal before the law, and everybody is free to lead their life as they see fit.” Christianity was still “the faith of the great majority in the country, and we should celebrate that”.
Values could not be “tidy”, the Archbishop said, closing the debate. “We do not end up with a single list to which we all affirm. Values are necessarily dynamic and constantly adjusting to the situations around us.” Britain was not comprised of “vulnerable individuals and an incapable state. . .
“We believe passionately in communities — we are communitarian — and if they clash, we will learn how to clash well.”