Remember British Day? That was Gordon Brown’s idea. It was one of the more risible initiatives to have cropped up over the past decade, designed to build an inclusive common identity, of Britishness, in a divided, multicultural Britain, which had become split along ethno-cultural lines and, post-7/7, was haunted by the spectre of homegrown terror. Brown’s idea of creating a day of celebration, in the spirit of ‘tolerance and inclusion’, never got off the ground. He quietly dropped it. As did the Lib-Con coalition, after toying with launching a less-divisive-sounding UK Day.
But the Conservatives have now topped these lame initiatives. Communities secretary Sajid Javid has announced that he wants public servants to swear an oath to ‘British values’. In a piece for The Sunday Times, he said: ‘If we are going to challenge [intolerant] attitudes, civic and political leaders have to lead by example. We can’t expect new arrivals to embrace British values if those of us who are already here don’t do so ourselves.’ He got the idea from the Casey report, which warned earlier this month that certain ethno-religious minorities were living parallel lives to mainstream Britain.
The oath has already been dismissed as the Conservatives ‘throwing a dead cat on the table’ to distract from Brexit. Maybe that’s true. But it’s at the very least in keeping with the government’s British values campaign, in that it is entirely superficial, not to mention contradictory. In 2011, as part of the revamped counter-terror Prevent Strategy, the government placed a duty on public institutions to ‘actively promote’ what it deemed to be British values, which included ‘democracy, the rule of law, individual liberty, and mutual respect and tolerance of those with different faiths and beliefs’. And yet, in practice, the campaign has rung hollow.
Alongside bland school initiatives, like mock elections to teach children about democracy, the way the British values campaign has been rolled out, particularly in schools, has undermined the very values it claims to champion. So far, the government’s promotion of tolerance – a crucial ‘British value’, we’re told – has entailed profound state intolerance, from one primary school quizzing Muslim pupils about whether they thought their ‘religion is the only correct one’ to Ofsted placing a Christian schools in special measures because of its pupils’ attitudes to lesbianism and transgenderism. This is not about promoting liberal-democratic values; it is about enforcing socially acceptable attitudes.