The Government is Wrong to Back Down on British Values

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There is something uniquely British about the squeamishness we Brits feel about just being…British. Or at the very least, in embracing being British. It is nothing new, George Orwell wrote about the unique discomfort some in this country feel with embracing their nationality back in the 1940s.

It should be no surprise then, that the official requirement that UK schools teach ‘Fundamental British Values’ (FBV) was met with everything from bewilderment to scorn.

The Values themselves should be uncontroversial: Democracy, the Rule of Law, Individual Liberty, Mutual Respect & Tolerance for Different Faiths and Beliefs. Who could argue? But the use of the term ‘British’ to describe these values caused a great deal of opposition.

Yet in recent months, the Government has been backing down on the use of the term, scrubbing out the word ‘British’ and referring instead to ‘Fundamental Values’ in new published guidance. But since the introduction of the legal requirement to teach FBV, not once has there been a robust public defence of the use of the term from government (aside from Ofsted).

To pretend that democracy is a geographical or historical norm is to deny reality

Why not? Who’s Fundamental Values are we talking about here? Some have attempted to spin FBV as ‘Universal Values’, but this is ahistorical if nothing else. They certainly aren’t the values of Islamist extremists, the far-right, the far-left or the various dictatorships and rogue states of the world. To pretend that Democracy and the freedoms we enjoy in the United Kingdom are either a geographical or historical norm is to deny reality.

According to the Freedom House think-tank, in 2018, ‘democracy is in crisis’, and many, many more people live under authoritarian regimes than in democratic states. Likewise for the Rule of Law: the Global Justice Project’s global report on the Rule of Law makes for grim reading. These are hard-fought rights and freedoms which have been centuries in the making here in Britain, and they are a relatively recent historical phenomenon.

Democracy is a fragile and recent phenomenon which must be appreciated and above all defended

Schoolchildren must be taught about the historical journey this nation has been on to secure the freedoms we enjoy - freedoms which people around the world are fighting and dying for. Democracy is not a natural human condition, it is a fragile and recent phenomenon, which must be appreciated and above all defended.  

Tolerance is yet another proud British tradition. It was Britain that sheltered those fleeing the terror in revolutionary France, gave refuge to European dissidents like Karl Marx, to Arab and Russian Dissidents in the 20th and 21st Centuries and became a sanctuary for Jews fleeing pogroms across the continent before that.

If we do not recognise that there is something special and unique about the freedoms, rights and responsibilities we hold here in the United Kingdom, we risk taking them for granted and thus losing them.

Children and Young People need to understand the values themselves, yes, otherwise they simply cannot make the most of the opportunities which modern Britain has to offer. But they must also understand that British Values is not a geographical accident or historical coincidence. We cannot afford to forget the centuries-long journey of sacrifice and toil which it has taken to get to this unique point in history, and we cannot overlook the fact that billions around the world do not enjoy these same freedoms.

British Values are an ongoing project, they did not spring up overnight, and they need constant reassertion and rigorous defence in order to survive and thrive. That starts with education.

Here at SINCE 9/11 we have been collaborating with the UCL Institute of Education to design free teaching resources designed to support UK primary schools with their duty to promote Fundamental British Values. Look out for the programme of resources going live on our website ahead of the Autumn term.

This blog post was written by the SINCE 9/11 Director and does not represent SINCE 9/11 as an organisation.