What are problems with British values

What are values that show what it is to be a citizen in a modern and diverse Great Britain? In this post I explore why trying to define these are problematic at best. And maybe more trouble than it’s worth.

Identity is complicated

How would you answer, “Who are you?”

As we move through our lives, each of us carries around a many-sided answer to that question in our minds. Think of the nouns and adjectives you use to describe yourself. Think of the stories you tell to make sense of your life. These answers form our identities. These are the ways in which we define ourselves as human beings. Now, as human beings, we are both separate individuals and social creatures at the same time. We therefore define our identities on both an individual and a social level. And each of our identities represents an intricate blend of both types of characteristics.

British people have to answer this same basic question with which I began. Only now the pronoun has shifted. It’s no longer “who are you?” Now it’s “who are we?”

Bring it up with two different British people, and you might receive two very different answers. Especially if one of them voted Leave and the other voted Remain in the 2016 referendum on whether the UK should leave or remain in the European Union.

Brexit revealed fissures in British national identity

Very broadly, Remain voters tended to have a more inclusive conception. This is one that welcomes immigrants to the UK. Leave voters tended to have a more exclusive conception; one that rejects immigrants. And being white is one of the markers of being British. Which is a deeply problematic belief that’s shared by far more British people than just the more xenophobic Leave voters.

Xenophobia has deep roots in British society

Of course, the fact that there’s a long history of Britons railing against immigration means that there’s also a long history of immigrants coming to Britain. Indeed, contrary to the popular belief of many British people, the UK has always been a nation of immigrants.

For example, by 1500, recent immigrants comprised six percent of the population of London. Around the same time, thousands of people began to arrive in Britain from Africa. This was when the British Empire started participating in the transatlantic slave trade. That being said, mass immigration to the UK didn’t begin until after World War II. The immigrants arrived to fill the labour shortages the nation experienced after the war.

Despite evidence to the contrary, many Britons think of themselves and their society as being post-racial

Whatever it may have been or done in the past, the UK is now a tolerant, pluralistic nation. It welcomes everyone, regardless of their race, religion, origins or any other differences. People who believe this story often claim that they “don’t see race.” In other words, they claim to be racially colorblind.

If we look beneath this national narrative and the alleged colour blindness of its adherents, we can see a couple of very problematic assumptions. The first is that people’s racial identities are undesirable. Think about it this way: when people claim they “don’t see race,” they’re presenting their alleged color blindness as a strength, rather than a shortcoming. Believing themselves unable to see race, they think of themselves as being able to see the world as it should be: as a world without racial identities. Of course, this implies that there’s something wrong with those identities – as if they were merely obstacles in the way of everyone’s ability to “just get along.” And it further implies that the world would be a better place if we could simply remove racial identities from the tapestry of human life.

But this is to deny the truth, which is that racial identities are an important and enriching part of many people’s lives, providing them with a powerful sense of meaning, belonging and connection. Far more than just being a label put on people because of the color of their skin, racial identity is something that links a group of people to the heritage they share – the land they come from, the ancestors they descend from, and the history and culture that have shaped them.

Our values


So what does all this mean then? Well, politicians suggest that our values should be based around:

belief in freedom, tolerance of others, accepting personal and social responsibility, respecting and upholding the rule of law

as these:

are as “British as the Union Flag, football and fish and chips”.

However, are these actually values?

Of course, free speech, gender equality and the rule of law are important but they are these are simply requirements for being a successful state as they bind members of a democratic society together and help to avoid a kind of relativism where all points of view and truths are equally valid.

The other problem is that there’s nothing particularly British about them.

Values and the Magna Carta

Perhaps Magna Carta is the way forward then as it also it appears that every British child will now be taught about its contents and history as it is the:

foundation of all our laws and liberties.

Of course Magna Carta was a vitally important document but to assert that it embodies British values:

is to go a step too far.

Making a list of values

For me if you try to define Britishness then you end up making a list. For example, Betjeman suggested:

Think of what our Nation stands for,

Books from Boots’ and country lanes,

Free speech, free passes, class distinction,

Democracy and proper drains.

And Orwell said:

We are a nation of flower-lovers, but also a nation of stamp-collectors, pigeon-fanciers, amateur carpenters, coupon-snippers, darts-players, crossword-puzzle fans. All the culture that is most truly native centres round things which even when they are communal are not official — the pub, the football match, the back garden, the fireside and the ‘nice cup of tea’.

If you look at the above quotes you’ll notice that they both look somewhat out of date. Why? The answer is that what it means to be British is constantly changing.

For example,

“British values” have accommodated slave-trading and the abolition of the slave trade; burning people both for being Catholics and not being Catholics; absolute monarchy, constitutional monarchy, no monarchy at all; the death penalty for buggery and an annual Gay Pride march through the centre of London.

Final word

Despite many British people’s belief that they are racially color blind and that the UK has overcome its problems with racism, those problems persist. They manifest themselves in many ways. These range from the continued prevalence of stereotypes and prejudices about Black people to the marginalization of their contributions to British history. They also intersect with issues of immigration and xenophobia, which have come to the fore since the Brexit referendum, but have a long history in the UK.

So it seems that attempting to put your finger on just what it means to be British is transient at best and at worst I believe it just stirs up more trouble and problems that its worth. As an example of what I mean watch the video below where Yasmin Alibhai-Brown and Rod Liddle debate British values and get nowhere fast.

What do you think? Why not leave a comment below?

Photo by Chris Lawton on Unsplash

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