Security has been at the top of the Prime Minister’s agenda recently. Judging by the PM’s rhetoric, the arrival of refugees on Europe’s shores and of Russian fighter jets in Syrian airspace both pose a risk to our national security, and that’s on top of the “terrorist-sympathising, Britain hating” ideologue that leads Her Majesty’s opposition. The centrepiece of the Prime Minister’s recent conference speech was a re-iteration of his crusade against Islamic Extremism, through the nation-building exercise that he calls ‘British Values.’
This is more than just a war of words. As part of its fight against extremism, the Government has been launching a war of ideas across schools, universities, prisons, and other public institutions. Their target? The “Terrorist Ideology” that the Government has identified, which connects personal grievances at a local level, with real or perceived injustices on an international scale, thus purporting to legitimise violence.
Rumours have been circulating of a botched Government plan to bring forward a Parliamentary vote to extend Airstrikes to Syria. However many in opposition state that planes, drones and missiles can only go so far in such a fundamental conflict. British Values have been at the centre of this response. The antithesis of the Terrorist Ideology, British Values, are the worldviews held by engaged and active citizens. If, through our schools and public institutions, we can cultivate a crop of citizens who chose to adhere to British Values, extremism of all kinds will fail the test of time, the Government argues. This is why teachers are now legally obliged to teach British Values to their students.
Unfortunately, the Government has not made it clear to teachers and the wider public exactly what British Values are. Apparently they are “just common sense”. It appears they have jettisoned one traditional British Value- reservedness- in this mission. No longer can our society be “passively tolerant”, Cameron says, but instead we must “radically enforce” our liberal beliefs. Democracy, rule of law, freedoms of expression and religion are so virtuous that we mustn’t be shy to insist upon them.
A more internationally-minded audience might also ask; what is so British about these values anyway? Our democracy is Greek, equality is French, even our Royal family is German. On a more serious note, it is important that the statements are not seen as divisive and exclusionary to the UK’s significant non-British communities, and that they are also not implying that any one values system is superior to any others. If the state acts as an arbiter of what we should and shouldn’t believe in, it seems that another longstanding British tradition- limited government- might also be under threat.
Anyway, call them what you want. Promote them how you will. Enforce them if you must. We aren’t the first and won’t be the last to experience aftershocks when identities collide. The battle is starting in the classroom, and if the Government abides by the same rules that it seeks to enforce – respect, decency, and toleration- perhaps it can be won.