I must say that as a Welsh sexagenarian I had never, until recently, heard of ‘British values’ before. But the phrase is often used in political rhetoric now. The current Home Secretary Suella Braverman, a professed Buddhist, claims that immigrants are “not embracing British values” or are “at odds with British values”. She’s even written about an ‘Oath of British values’, which no doubt she’d like us all to swear.
And the current – and first Hindu – Prime Minister, Rishi Sunak, said it’s important that “everyone subscribes to British values”. Then, while announcing ‘pro-motorist’ policies, he said that the default-not-blanket 20mph zones in Wales and London’s ULEZ clean air fees “aren’t the right values of the British people”. What does all this even mean?
I’ve found it all a bit odd, not least as both Braverman and Sunak are from immigrant families. It got me thinking about a comment made to me some years ago in an overseas Irish pub. Something I still use as a guide when first encountering people.
I used to work in New York City. When I arrived, my cab driver announced, “Welcome to New York, the greatest city on earth, where every nation is represented.” Then asked where I was from. “Wales” was met with “Where? What, like the fish?” With no desire to explain that whales are mammals, I offered Wales’ location, and “No, it’s not part of England.” Well, he did say he liked to learn something, in addition to earning fares.
New York, like the city where I grew up and live, Cardiff, is truly cosmopolitan. I was a minority in the office, being a Welsh blue-eyed white guy. My colleagues were descended from Germans, Greeks, Italians, Irish, Mexicans, Puerto Ricans, and Black Americans. All proud Americans.
This was unchanged as I walked around or rode the subway. Did being in the minority bother me? Or the mix of cultures? Not remotely, I revelled in it.
I doubt there’s a city on Earth without an Irish pub. In my local bar – yes, an Irish one – I met friendly, eclectic patrons: of all ages, cultures, personalities, and life’s knowledge. One regular was Don, a short and stocky Black American. He habitually dressed in a checked fleece working shirt, blue jeans, and what Americans call ‘engineer boots’. We’d chat for hours while drinking, playing darts and, as in most bars, ‘putting the world right’. I learned that he grew up in Germany, with parents in the military, and had three college degrees.
Judging a book by its cover, I figured Don was in construction. But as he was never dusty or dirty, perhaps he ran the company? It mattered not, it was none of my business, nor his about what I did. He was just a pleasant person to socialise with. More of Don anon.
Values were raised in a 2014 article by David Cameron. Its nominal purpose was a Magna Carta anniversary, but it’s clearly his response to the ‘Trojan Horse’ controversy. This related to a letter alleging a plot to take over Birmingham schools to promote Islam. (His government’s investigation later found no evidence of this). Cameron asserted core British values: “belief in freedom, tolerance of others, accepting personal and social responsibility, respecting and upholding the rule of law.”
At Easter 2023, Sunak claimed Christian values of “tolerance, compassion, and charity” are embedded in British culture. In Braverman’s ‘Oath’ she claims immigrants aren’t integrating fully into British society, which is underpinned by a “belief in equality, democracy, and respect for the law”.
So modern Conservative ‘British values’ appear to have sprung from a xenophobic hoax letter about an imaginary plot. Thanks to Cameron, ‘British values’ are part of primary school education: Democracy, Individual Liberty, Mutual Respect, The Rule of Law, Tolerance. None seem directly concerned with honesty and integrity, or the rights we have as citizens. They often underpin anti-immigration comments directed at the Muslim community.
I researched whether its values are any different to ’British’ ones. As with Christianity, many concern prayer and belief. There are Ten Commandments in Christian and Jewish teachings, Five Pillars of Islam. Delve deeper and you find:
- Justice. Uphold justice and treat others fairly and equally. Stand against oppression. Contribute to a just and harmonious society.
- Good character. Cultivate such qualities as kindness, honesty, humility. Promote harmonious relationships and social cohesion.
I’d say these are completely compatible with ‘British’ values.
Perhaps the PM and Home Secretary should revisit the core values of Hinduism and Buddhism. Both include being truthful, and not criticising or condemning. They’ll see that they’re similar to other faiths, and aren’t exclusively ‘British’.
Honest and true
Back to Don in New York. One evening he arrived at the bar, this time immaculate in a dark suit, collar, and tie. A gold pocket watch chain hung from his waistcoat pocket. He looked very impressive. I broke a social rule, the one that says it’s nobody’s business what you do. I asked.
Don told me he owned and controlled a major public relations company, and that day there’d been an important press conference. You see where judging a book by its cover gets you? He had nothing to do with construction.
I remembered an earlier conversation, and a comment he’d made. It sounds like a famed aphorism so I’ve tried to see which ‘someone clever’ came up with it Emerson or whoever, to no avail. Therefore – unless someone tells me to the contrary – I credit my old pal Don as being that someone clever, with this quote, something I hold with me to this day.
“It doesn’t matter what you are, who you are, or what you do. As long as you are honest and true.”Don, Manhattan, 2004
This is something we could all live by. Particularly our politicians. Perhaps they should try giving ‘British values’ a go themselves?