Defining Britishness

Last night, Bernard Crick and Anne Phillips spoke at the LSE on Britishness and ‘British values’. If you are familiar with the work of either you will not have been surprised about the content of proceedings. Crick laboured, with validity, the point about the historically multi-national nature of Britain and the confusion this has caused; Phillips expressed her concern that talk of certain values being distinctly British represents a move towards assimilation though through the language of integration and cohesion.

However, one interesting, nuanced difference emerged between the two speakers. Phillips was critical of the idea of there being anything specifically British about those that we see as core values – human rights, equality, respect for difference and the rule of law. She suggested that to call these ‘British values’ belied their universality and suggesting that all newcomers needed to be taught them assumed a patronising tone of superiority. Crick politely took issue with this: in laying out these values we are not suggesting they are exclusively British, nor that as a set of values they are morally superior to any other set of values. But, the combination of values is British and is the one that Britons currently believe are most suited to the social, political and historical contexts of Britain. Were Britons not to believe this then these values would evolve (as they have in the past and as they will in the future) through democratic processes.

Bikhu Parekh, I think, has caught the nub of Crick’s argument: ‘we can have a British statement of values; but not a statement of British values’. Overall, however, there was agreement that any definition of Britishness should remain narrowly political and civic and that talk about socio-cultural British values is not in fact very British.

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