‘British values’ on World Values Day

On World Values Day, we wanted to prompt a little reflection: what do you think of as ‘British Values’.

Where do you get your signal for ‘British values’?

These are the values that guide our decisions, show us what it means to ‘do the right thing’, and demonstrate the example of what’s tolerated and what’s not OK. For national values, our boundaries and our moral compass are set by the codes of behaviour around us much as a formal code of law.

This is deeply programmed in our sense of belonging as social, tribal animals. And it’s when times get tough that we see what we really value.

In the topsy-turvy turbulence of the last two years in the UK (sometimes it feels like being on a rollercoaster designed by Lewis Carroll) has our values-compass been disrupted?

There’s been much talk from politicians of all hues about ‘being guided by our values’ or ‘preserving our British values’.
But… Which values? Whose? What is our reference?

The phrase has been so over-used that it risks being meaningless: what exactly are ‘British values’? What do we really value as a nation?

So many possible answers, as varied as our society. We’re famous in other cultures for valuing ‘Orderly queuing’. An important value features on the front page of this morning’s ‘Times’ newspaper ‘Universities ordered to guarantee free speech‘. The headlines of tabloid newspapers often reveal our high-value of puns. We value  curiosity, discovery, camaraderie, looking out for the underdog, not taking ourselves too seriously… Ah, a long list. We used to be famous for ‘fair play’ and ‘our word is our bond’. Are these still valued?

Where can we find some common understanding of what is meant by politicians when they say things like ‘We all want to defend our British values’?

In 2014, in the aftermath of the Birmingham schools’ ‘Trojan horse’ incident that challenged values in schools, School Heads and Governors were required to reinforce (explicitly) ‘British values’ with all staff, pupils and school communities.

This is one of the clearest, most unambiguous references to what is meant by ‘British values’. According to the guidance from the Department for Education (DfE) the fundamental British values which schools should promote are stated as:

  • Democracy
  • The rule of law
  • Individual liberty
  • Mutual respect for and tolerance of those with different faiths and beliefs

Yet, despite these principles, sadly, in July 2016 Police figures showed a burst of racist hate crimes immediately following the EU Referendum, an increase of 41%.

Time has shown it wasn’t an isolated spike: in the 15 months since the EU Referendum, racist hate crimes have increased by 29%, almost a third.

So what’s more important? Do some of us value Xenophobia more than Tolerance, Violence more than the Rule of Law, Self-interest over respect for Individual liberty?

This uncomfortable question pushes an important point for discussion today:  how conscious do we need to be about what we value, in order to protect and uphold it?

Another source is the Seven Principles for Public Life. They are:

  • Selflessness
  • Integrity
  • Objectivity
  • Accountability
  • Openness
  • Honesty
  • Leadership

(I’ve dropped this list in for anyone looking for lively conversation in the pub…)

Established in 1995, after Lord Nolan’s Report, these standards apply to anyone who works as a public office-holder. This includes people who are elected or appointed to public office, nationally and locally, and all people appointed to work in:

  • the civil service
  • local government
  • the police
  • the courts and probation services
  • non-departmental public bodies
  • health, education, social and care services
  • those in other public services

These seven principles partly define fitness for office. They make a pretty good moral compass for any leader and Board of any organisation. Let’s make them so.

‘British values’ risks becoming a refrain with no meaning: or worse, a limited meaning hijacked by a small group. The FT’s article earlier this week, ‘The Six tribes of Brexit’, shares the nuanced findings a year-long poll. This defines not just two – ‘Leave’ or ‘Remain’ – but six distinct tribes in the UK post-referendum.  One of these tribes – older people, more likely retired, own their own home, middle-class, fairly secure – identified themselves around ‘British values’, estimated at around 10% of the population.

Values need to be shared by the 90%+. We’d better sort out what we really do value, so we can avoid further fragmentation and division in our society, and make good decisions about our future. It’s vital for our sense of belonging.

No, I don’t mean a self-conscious list of values. I mean confidently upholding the character that binds us, regardless of how we voted, regardless of background, of younger generations who will shape our future as well as older ones who remember our past.

What matters is the way people behave, and especially how leaders behave – what they say and do, what they tolerate, how they respect individual liberty, whether they tell the truth (OK, politicians… at least broadly most of the time and not deliberate untruths or misleading information).

In difficult times we need this more, not less. The quiet demonstration of the values we may have taken for granted, and so need to cherish, not the noisy blame or hectoring of others.

In our recent interview with Matthew Taylor of the RSA, author of the Taylor Review into Modern Working Practice, he argues that business leaders should ask themselves whether their company feels like the kind of country they would like to belong to.

As we redefine the way Britain belongs to the rest of the world, even how United a Kingdom Britain will still be, it’s an important question: What kind of nation do we want to belong to?

What we value – our shared basis of belonging – is surely a very good sign of that.

Hurrah to World Values Day for challenging us to stand by what’s important to us, sharing great examples and practical tips to encourage good practice – so we can share what we value, and mean what we say.