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Like much of Western Europe, British society has in recent decades experienced a series of social and demographic transformations which have made for an increasingly cosmopolitan cultural landscape. In contrast to the often negative rhetoric associated with immigration in much of the mainstream media, the positively vibrant impact of multiculturalism is clearly evident in the ongoing development and growth of British cuisine, art, education, music, and literature, as well as their associated economic benefits. Yet despite this seemingly natural and mutually beneficial cultural fusion, the perceived subversion of a set of distinctly ‘British values’ has become the subject of a fiercely emotive and divisive debate, which has intensified in recent weeks following an explicit pledge in support of the promotion of British values in schools and wider society from none other than prime minister David Cameron.
It is clear why the prime minister felt it politically astute to weigh in on the issue. Turn on the news on any given day, and the chances are you will be exposed to any range of stories which perpetuate a divisive narrative in which noble and indigenous aspects of British society are under threat from reprehensible and foreign influences. Attempted ‘takeovers’ of British schools by Muslim extremists, the extent to which the face-veil should be tolerated in British society, and threats to political and economic sovereignty posed by EU-based immigration are but a few of the recent fixations which have framed the debate around British values in the media. Common to the discussion on each of these topics is not only an unfortunate use of hyperbole, but crucially the identification of what it means to be British by contrasting it with the ‘other’, which in recent times has most often come to be characterised as Muslims and immigrants. This is a grave concern, as whilst there is little contention with regards to the legitimacy and nobility of the values themselves, by explicitly identifying them with Britain and British history, the credibility and tolerability of minority visions of society and culture are inevitably undermined.
Cameron’s pledge, published as an op-ed in the Daily Mail, identified British values as: “freedom, tolerance of others, accepting personal and social responsibility, respecting and upholding the rule of law”. Failing to recognise that these values are in fact universal, Cameron undermined pluralism whilst implying that alternative ways of life, in contrast to these British traditions, were not in favour of those values. To quote the legal philosopher John Tasioulas: “Real values, unlike good cheese and wine, are not geographically specified.” It would be more accurate to suggest that Britain has an admirable record of respecting and upholding these values domestically, which makes it all the more ironic that such values have now come to be appropriated for the political means of perpetuating the perceived threat from an exaggerated notion of otherness.
The receptiveness of politicians to such rhetoric can only serve to alienate minorities in Britain who have come to represent the oppositional other in this divisive discourse, with the demonisation of whole communities often being based on the actions of select individuals, or through a process of associating particular behaviours with certain communities, as is the case with the common labelling of so-called ‘Muslim grooming gangs’. The potentially destructive impact of monopolising a particular brand of British values was evident in the way in which far-right groups capitalised upon the frenzy created by the so-called halal meat ‘scandal’, with Britain First and the EDL both using the story to present their paranoid Islamaphobia as genuine concern that Britain was pandering to an Islamic lifestyle at the expense of British values.
Indeed, a society does require a commonality of language and ideals to prosper, and it goes without saying that in response to competing visions and interests within society, identifying such ideals is made all the more necessary. However, identity is a fluid, socially constructed, and personalised concept. As opposed to Cameron’s sugar-coated account of British history as the foundational basis of British values, which failed to take into account the impacts of slavery and colonialism, it is essential that pluralism and multiculturalism, which have contributed much towards modern British life, are equally associated with our national interests and values.
Ultimately, one cannot help but feel that Cameron’s pledge served the purposes of consolidating some of the right-wing support that the Conservatives have lost to more outspoken parties such as UKIP. Cameron’s association of British values with fish and chips serves as an interesting insight into the traditionalist vision of Britain that is the framework of these values. Although perhaps nothing more than a trivial metaphor chosen for the image it evokes, we should not forget that in modern multicultural Britain, jalfrezi, lasagne, and chicken chow mein are as beloved as fish and chips themselves. In any case, as long as we can all continue to peacefully eat together at the same table, there is hope for a progressive Britain that embraces its diversity of cultures without trying to stake a historical claim on their most shared values.