What values do we share as British citizens? Or, let me rephrase the question: are there any values that we share? What does a 17-year-old Muslim in Bradford have in common with a 77-year-old Christian in Brighton? Or a 30-year-old single parent in Galloway with a 60-year-old grand-parent in Gosport?
A government discussion document published last year said: “There is common ground between British citizens, and many cultural traits and traditions that we can all recognise as distinctively British.”
So, what are those cultural traits and traditions? I ask because tonight (25 January) we’re going to be broadcasting a special edition of The World Tonight in which we try to answer some of these questions.
Here’s another quote from that government Green Paper: “It is important to be clearer about what it means to be British, what it means to be part of British society and, crucially, to be resolute in making the point that what comes with that is a set of values which have not just to be shared but also accepted. There is room to celebrate multiple and different identities, but none of these identities should take precedence over the core democratic values that define what it means to be British.”
I tackled some of these issues in one of the first pieces I wrote on my blog, back in October, when a government minister suggested that Britain and Saudi Arabia had many values in common. I quoted the dictionary definition of what “values” are: “the ideals, customs, institutions, etc., of a society toward which the people of the group have an affective regard.”
We can list half a dozen such values which the vast majority of us would happily sign up to without much difficulty: democracy, an independent judiciary, a free press, sexual equality. But suppose you’re a British citizen who doesn’t believe in democracy? Does that mean you’re not entitled to a British passport? Should being prepared to sign up to an agreed set of values be a requirement of citizenship?
What it comes down to is simply this: is there something that marks us out as British rather than French, or American, or Australian? I came across this definition just a few days ago: “Being British is about driving in a German car to an Irish pub for a Belgian beer, then grabbing an Indian curry or a Turkish kebab on the way home, to sit on Swedish furniture and watch American shows on a Japanese TV. And the most British thing of all is suspicion of all things foreign.”
In Prospect magazine late last year, the writer Duncan Fallowell came up with this: “You should hate liars and cheats and those who won’t play the game. You should be able to take a joke. You should dislike extremes. You should be bad at dancing and sex and incapable of either without being drunk. You should resist invasion of your personal or national space. You should ignore what you dislike but give to charity. You should protect the countryside. You should respect the sovereign. You should say what you think. You should be classical on the outside and romantic within. You should put religion in the back seat and make sure it bloody well stays there. You should acknowledge your amazingly good fortune.”
Or how about this list of supposedly quintessential British traits, from the historian Timothy Garton Ash? “Tolerance, common decency, respect for the law, an instinct for fair play, good-neighbourliness, a tendency to support the underdog, a love of sport, much shared complaining about the weather and, last but not least, a highly developed national sense of humour.”
The government’s Green Paper says: “The Government believes that there is considerable merit in a fuller articulation of British values. Through an inclusive process of national debate it will work with the public to develop a British statement of values that will set out the ideals and principles that bind us together as a nation.”
So let’s have that debate. I hope you can listen to the programme, either tonight, or online via the website, where you’ll also be able to hear it for seven days after transmission by using the Listen Again facility. And do let me have your thoughts …