There’s nothing new about the Tories’ commitment to ‘British values’, or about them trying to find new and interesting ways of ‘enforcing’ them, but I’m as vague as ever about what these values really are. Or rather, what I’m unclear about is what makes them specifically British.
There’s nothing wrong with valuing tolerance, democracy, freedom of speech, and the rule of law, but these values seem to me to be shared with many other countries. The only thing uniquely British that I can see about them is the uniquely British belief that they are uniquely British. It’s a reflection of that casual superiority which the (largely English, in this context) establishment possesses without seeming even to realise the fact – Johnny Foreigner and those upstart colonials may profess to value the same things, but they are either aping ‘us’ or else completely insincere.
My first reaction to the latest pronouncement by Sajid Javid, that he wants all civil servants and elected officials (and perhaps all BBC staff and other public sector workers as well) to swear an oath of allegiance to this set of values was that there was actually something profoundly un-British about it. Oaths are all very well for Americans, and perhaps some of those European chappies, but they’re not the sort of thing ‘we’ do.
But then I thought about it a bit more, and realised that it’s actually very British – just not in the twentieth or twenty-first century. But in the past – which is where most of the current government seem determined to reside – it was very much the norm. And for Cabinet Ministers, who seem to think that kneeling and kissing the hand of some unelected woman whilst swearing undying allegiance to her and her heirs rather than the electors is an entirely normal thing for grown-ups to do, it is not as strange as it otherwise appears. (And that’s without even mentioning that many in the establishment engage in the strange rites of freemasonry as well.)
But what is perhaps most ‘British’ about it all is the touching belief that having sworn such an oath, people will then abide by it. Because that’s what we do, right? I mean, no 'decent chap' would ever swear an oath to get a job and then proceed to challenge those who have a divine right to rule, would he?My real objection to this sort of approach is that it seems to be increasingly the case that ‘tolerance’ is limited to tolerance of orthodoxy, and ‘freedom of speech’ is limited to freedom to agree with the government. Faced with an uncertain future (and having themselves contributed greatly to that uncertainty), their only response seems to be to attempt to return to the certainties of the past. I suppose it’s a possible response, but it belies their oft-stated confidence about a great new future for Britain post-Brexit. If the only future is the distant past, then perhaps Private Frazer was right after all in his assessment of the capability of those in leadership positions - and we really are all doomed.