The notion of British values has been under considerable scrutiny over the past week after Michael Gove said he believed they should be taught in Britain’s schools. Gove’s broadside against the dangers of Islamic extremism taking a hold of our education system was backed by the prime minister, David Cameron , who provided his own view of what these values are, citing freedom, tolerance, respect for the rule of law, belief in personal and social responsibility and a respect for British institutions.
The prime minister’s emphasis on tolerance as a measure of Britishness offers an interesting contrast to the most recent survey of British social attitudes, which has found that people think it is getting more difficult to prove that you’re “truly British”. The NatCen report has found a sharp rise in the number of people who think it is important for people to speak English if they want to claim a national identity.
Language aside, Britons are split as to whether shared customs and traditions are important to that sense of Britishness. The number of people who think you either need to be born in Britain or to have lived in Britain most of one’s life appears to be on the rise, which is perhaps reflected in the increased political and media focus on immigration.
And what of the immigrants themselves? What do they make of the idea of “Britishness”?
In 2005, I and my research partner Rumana Begum from the Equality & Diversity Unit of Tameside Metropolitan Borough Council went in search of British values among Britain’s first-generation Asian migrants. We conducted interviews with 30 men and women who had arrived in Britain from India, Pakistan and Bangladesh between 1956 and 1972. The youngest was 49, the eldest 86.
We felt that if the voices of Britain’s ethnic minorities were rarely heard in the public debate about Britishness, the voices of Asian communities were heard even less than those of other groups. We focused our attention on the first generation, for whom Britain was a largely alien society when they arrived, but who had since come to make Britain their home.
Calling Britain home
Our findings were striking. The majority of our interviewees confidently described themselves as “British Indian”, “British Pakistani”, or “British Bangladeshi”. The sense of Britain being their home meant that few entertained the notion of eventually returning to their place of birth, even though they had often clung to such a possibility during their early years of settlement.
They were also remarkably consistent in their sense of what British values were. Alongside a legal definition of Britishness – the right to hold a passport, which they clearly prized – they identified a core set of values: religious toleration, the welfare state, respect for law and order, and the monarchy.
Having the freedom to practice their religion was clearly something very important to all of those we interviewed. When one Bangladeshi man was asked what he valued about Britain he simply replied: “They have never questioned me about my religion, which I have been able to practice freely”.
There is a paradox here. The default position is to think of core British values as a quest for what culturally we have in common – a search for sameness. But the people we spoke to put the respect for diversity right at the heart of what they valued about living in Britain.
While the issue of religious diversity was not directly canvassed in the British Social Attitudes Survey, when asked whether being a Christian was an important measure of Britishness, only 25% replied that it was.
Our interviewees – who had worked tirelessly to give their children opportunities beyond their own reach – spoke of the welfare state. Many had been actively involved in voluntary activity and a wide range of community work. But they also valued the services provided by local authorities and central government – especially the NHS. This is shared by the broader community, the majority (56%) of whom said they felt that the welfare state is one of Britain’s proudest achievements. Our interviewees also shared their concerns with us about the breakdown of the extended family in their communities – which among other things they felt had acted as a counterweight to reliance on the state.
Respect for law an order was another value widely shared. The first generation avoided confrontation, a fact not always sufficiently recognised, and which, because it removed one line of defence, may explain their appreciation for the times when they had faced racial hostility and were supported by the police. Two-thirds of those we spoke to identified closely with the monarchy. In fact some thought that it was the Queen who more than anyone or anything else best summed up what it meant to be British. The perception of a strong link between the royal family and the Commonwealth may well have been important here.
What should we make of these first generation Asian migrants' articulation of British values. At their worst, British values can come across as little more than a collection of pious platitudes or convenient political slogans. This certainly wasn’t true of our interviewees, however, who spoke about these values with sincerity and in a way that related them to their day-to-day lives.
On the face of it, there is a fair overlap between their values and those of the rest of the country both as articulated by the prime minister and as elicited by replies to the British Social Attitudes survey – albeit tolerance probably had an even higher priority for our interviewees, and was more explicitly linked to the question of freedom of religion.
But our study had a very different dynamic to the debate we have witnessed over recent weeks. We were not trying to establish whether or to what extent our interviewees agreed with what others – be they politicians, journalists or indeed Ofsted inspectors – thought core British values were. Rather, we went with open minds in search of British values in Greater Manchester’s Asian communities without presuming that they existed or that, if they did, we already knew how they were going to be defined.
We will never break out of the current cycle of confusion about British values until we allow ourselves to think differently about them. To breathe life into these values we have to work from the bottom up not the top down. We have to recognise that for something to be taught it first has to be defined, and for something to be defined it first has to be discussed. We don’t need edicts from government, however well intentioned.
What we need is a nationwide dialogue about the British values we do (and perhaps don’t) share – a dialogue that spans the sacred and the secular, the north and the south, the urban and the rural, and the advantaged and disadvantaged. It may well be that our schools are among the best drivers of this dialogue, but only if we downplay its didactic purpose in favour of our best traditions of democratic debate.
This article was co-authored by Rumana Begum.