Mapping the Malleability of British Values

Radical Islam, Prevent, Radical Right,

British values are often comically referred to as the need for orderly queues, a respect for the Queen and cucumber sandwiches with pots of tea, or for one of my participants in my forthcoming PhD thesis, “I’d think of someone getting drunk like on their summer holidays in Ibiza or something”. However, for Government officials, public sector workers and Britain’s younger generation, “British values” are now central to their everyday acts of citizenry and have entwined counter-terrorism and educational policy via a combination of existing (neo-liberal) agendas and topical events.

The Counter-Terrorism and Security Act 2015 paved the way for the statutory Prevent duty as a mechanism for preventing people from engaging in terrorist or extremist acts. The duty placed an obligation on individuals across the sector to identify those who might show vulnerabilities to becoming engaged in terrorist activity and refer them to Channel, a programme which seeks to engage with said individuals and provide them the support needed to move away from the process of radicalisation. The duty also placed an obligation on the education sector to not only uphold but to also promote British values; the rationale behind this being in order to enable and empower people to identify and reject the antithesis of them – the values of extremist and terrorist organisations.

There are a number of great explorations of the work of Prevent, the role of the Prevent duty, and the appropriateness of the use of “British” across the plethora of debates to be had within this field, but for this piece I wish to map the use of the term “British values” and its policy journey in relation to Prevent. This is in order to demonstrate the malleability of “British values”, a term which narrowly defined through four, paradoxically, broad notions: democracy, the rule of law, individual liberty, and mutual tolerance and respect, for policy gain. I use this opportunity not only to invite questions, debates and further research around the use of British values as a means for countering terrorism and extremism, but also in how it is used as a continuation of the Social, Moral, Cultural and Spiritual (SMSC) educational agenda and as a benchmark for Ofsted when assessing educational institutions in Britain.

Gordon Brown/WEF

The British values which have become a central tenet of the UK’s fight against extremism and terrorism, are seen as the cornerstone of British society or as the British ‘way of life’, as Gordon Brown put it in his 2007 Britishness seminar. Delivered at the Commonwealth Club, Brown’s advocacy of Britishness begins the journey of the term “British values” in political discourse, values he claimed to be rooted in our history, principles, institutions and contributions to the rest of the world. Though these sentiments failed to fully take off at the time, they are visible some years later in David Cameron’s ‘Big Society’ endeavour. Under Cameron’s muscular liberalism, values could and would unite society in order to overcome threats through a national bond which would preserve that British ‘way of life’. Such threats came in the form of economic and social issues, but too in the form of terrorist and extremist ideologies. This was in light of the 7/7 bombings and the threat from al-Qaeda inspired groups. As a result, British values rhetoric began infiltrating its way intogovernment policy.

The first mention of British values in government policy is its reference in the 2011 Prevent strategy where extremism is defined as ‘the active opposition to fundamental British values’ (p.34). This followed from the then Home Secretary Theresa May’s speech on the Response to the Terrorist Threat’ in 2010, where she confirmed the Prevent strategy’s introduction and the need for us to ‘stand up for our shared British values’, inextricably linking the two. The Counter-Extremism Strategy in 2015 further entrenched British values as a core tool in the governments fight against radical and dangerous groups, particularly those of an Islamist-inspired variety given that was outlined as the biggest threat Britain faced. Brown’s reference to the challenge ‘Muslim Fundamentalism’ posed to British values in his 2007 Britishness seminar could be argued to have laid the foundations for British values coming to epitomise the rejection of extremist and terrorist ideologies in not only government rhetoric, but government policy only three years on. “British values” therefore created a narrative of nationhood and belonging for ‘Us’, those who repudiated the beliefs of ‘Them’.

Meanwhile, the Trojan Horse scandal in 2014 paved the way for such sentiments to be embedded deeper into government policy; the supposed Islamist takeover of Birmingham schools arguably provided the grounding for the British values agenda to enmesh both education policy and counter-terrorism policy permanently. In ensuring extremist ideology was unable to find its way into schools, British values continued to be advocated by Education Secretary’s Michael Gove and Nicky Morgan through a stream of government documents which emerged calling for the Promotion of Fundamental British Values through SMSC. Said policy documents also provided Guidance on Promoting British Values in Schools before the Prevent Duty made British values a statutory element of schooling in 2015. To uphold and promote “British values”here was for both the development of the child and the countering of extremist and terrorist ideologies through the child’s rejection of them as a result of their belief and embodiment of British values. British values therefore becameelided in elite discourse, as both a tool for neo-liberal education policy and for counter-terrorism policy.

Throughout the journey of the concept, the values which are considered British have scarcely changed; the four tenets of democracy (rule of law, individual liberty and mutual tolerance and respect) have remained at the heart of British values rhetoric. In mapping the policy use of these concepts, however, we can see that whilst the term ‘British values’remains rigid in its definition, it has been made malleable in its application to government policy. This is not to argue that ‘British values’ are used in any which way shape or form, but instead to suggest that those sentiments which originated with Gordon Brown around a British way of life have been so described as to enable them to permeate other policy areas such as counter-terrorism, counter-extremism and education, whilst retaining the central goal of countering threats, in whatever form that might take.

Theresa May’s recent distancing from the idea that British values are distinctly ‘British’ may therefore well mark a new era of malleability for British values. May’s preference for using the term ‘our values’ in her speeches appears to have found fruition through the new 2018 CONTEST strategywhereby British values is almost entirely obsolete; instead, ‘our values’ or simply ‘values’ is adopted. The rigidity of the concept is maintained with the same values of democracy, rule of law, individual liberty and mutual tolerance and respect all promoted, but also retained malleability in its rhetorical adaption for the purpose of maintaining the narrative of unity against threats. Perhaps Amanda Spielman’s advocacy for maintaining the ‘British’ in values discourse within educational institutions might well be the unravelling of an agenda which sought to entwine counter-terrorism and education through the very same concept which might well now divide them: British values. One to watch, indeed.

Ms Natalie James is an Early Career Researcher at CARR and a doctoral candidate at the School of Politics and International Studies, University of Leeds. Her profile can be found here:

© Natalie James. Views expressed on this website are individual contributors’ and do not necessarily reflect that of the Centre for Analysis of the Radical Right (CARR). We are pleased to share previously unpublished materials with the community under creative commons license 4.0 (Attribution-NoDerivatives).

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