If you’re living in the UK, you’ll have heard the words ‘British values’ repeated more and more in the last year or so. If you haven’t let me contextualise its recent use for you: “If you reject British values and our Christian heritage, maybe this country isn’t for you.”—Toby Young, contributor to The S*n. “British values aren’t optional, they’re vital.”—our glorious leader, Call-Me-Dave. When Dave first introduced this buzz-term, he reckoned British values are “…a belief in freedom, tolerance of others, accepting personal and social responsibility, respecting and upholding the rule of law…” which all sound, if vague, at least fair.
Recently, though, the usage of the phrase has morphed into something decidedly more worrying. The recent refugee crisis has been painted by UK media as more ‘greedy Muslim foreigners coming to steal our benefits’ than ‘innocent human beings fleeing untold violence, war-induced poverty, and Western bombs’. This, combined with the ever-increasing problem of Islamophobia, has caused a sudden obsession with ‘British values’ that don’t quite seem to fit Cameron’s initial description.
For one thing, investigation of the term’s popular usage leaves one with the uncomfortable feeling that it is being used to suggest such values are the opposite of Islamic values. Thanks to the rise of islamophobia, the racialisation of Islam, and the conflation of the terms ‘Muslim’, ‘refugee’ and ‘Islamic extremist’ (often used interchangeably these days), a sinister interpretation emerges. This isn’t helped by the way the phrase’s most fervent champions use it along with terms like ‘Christian values’ and ‘our heritage/culture/traditions’. Search the phrase on Twitter, for example, and you will find questionable usage after questionable usage—from eggs and MPs alike.
So what is it about the term’s evolved implications that are so terrible?
When people suggest, as is the current trend, that refugees must “accept British values and culture”, what they really mean is “white, middle-class British values and culture”. Even David Cameron, in his early introduction of the term, couldn’t resist a reference to football and fish and chips—both of which are, of course, undeniably and quintessentially British. But this is only one side of a story arcing across centuries, generations, continents and, yes, atrocities.
The insinuation that there is only one set of British values, and the subsequent assumption that there is one, true British culture, ignores the fact that Britain, its values and its cultures, plural, are heavily influenced and contributed to by BAME citizens—aka immigrants and refugees. Some British cultures are our cultures—for example, Black British culture, which has produced amazing British music, art and innovations.
Many other British values and cultures would not exist without immigrants, refugees and their descendants. Even most of the pure ‘British values’ described above by Cameron, such as tolerance of others, have only truly come about in the last few decades—which means that the many migrants and refugees present during that period and today are just as responsible for those British values as British-born citizens. Interesting, eh? It’s almost like these ‘British values’ are flexible, fluid things that can be enhanced and added to by people born outside of the country.
Another issue is the phrase being used to suggest that the refugees’ own values and cultures are inherently undesirable and lesser—that they should be erased or abandoned in favour of ours. The reality is that all humans remain the same at the level of basic morality—notable exceptions included, as amorality is found worldwide also. As for the more complex, cultural levels on which we differ: the history of multiculturalism in Britain clearly shows that, as British values and cultures naturally evolve and develop, the influence of foreign-born citizens benefits us all.
Perhaps, reader, you find all this deep analysis based on the misguided usage of a phrase to be dramatic. Maybe it is—cough, it’s not, cough cough—but words, and the people who use them, have power. This innocuous phrase has transformed into an excuse to withhold safety and sanctuary from endangered people, unless they erase who they are for us—as though refugees to Britain are actually assimilating to the Borg collective. The term ‘British values’ has somehow metamorphosed into a weapon to be pointed at victims of terrible atrocities—but also at Black-, South Asian-, Polish- and other hyphenated Britons to suggest we are dangerous anomalies, rather than Britons with our own British values and our own British cultures.
Judging from our nation’s more recent history, I might once have tentatively labelled ‘helping those in danger’ a modern British value. Now? Our values seem to be more aligned with the colonial, genocidal Britain of not-so-long-ago.
Alicia ‘Tiss’ Saccoh
Image via www.legalcheek.com