The suggestion that public servants swear an oath to them is intriguing—and not in a good wayby Jay Elwes / December 27, 2016 / Leave a comment
Sajid Javid, the Communities Secretary, said recently that he wants all public servants to swear an oath of office in which they agree to abide by British Values. Writing in the Sunday Times newspaper, Javid said that: “We can’t expect new arrivals to embrace British values if those of us who are already here don’t do so ourselves, and such an oath would go a long way to making that happen.”
It’s an intriguing suggestion for many reasons, but two are especially significant—it assumes first that British values exist, and second that it would be possible to reach agreement on what those values are.
In the spirit of Javidism then, we ask: what are British values? An answer might be that they are a set of precepts that reflect the modern experience of being British. Sounds good. But this brings us immediately to the question of what it means to be British, and the ructions of 2016 strongly suggest that there may be no real answer to that question.
If you ask an early middle-aged, suburbanite, middle-class white man from Dulwich in south-east London like me what it means to be British, then you will get one answer. But if you ask a middle-aged, suburbanite, middle class white man from Dulwich in south east London like Nigel Farage, then you will get a different answer altogether. The distance between our views would be huge, just as it would be between a Ukip voter in Boston and the man who does the Gladdy Wax sound-system at the Notting Hill Carnival.
The neat relativist solution is to say that Britain is defined simultaneously by all of these visions and that in embracing them as a whole, we find our true national identity. The flaw in this nice little post-modern love-in is that it tries to recruit people who by definition reject this kind of pluralist view. And there are a lot of them. According to polls by YouGov, 37 per cent of British people agree with the statement that: “There are so many foreigners living round here, it doesn’t feel like home anymore.”
So if it’s not the urge to awkwardly clap one another on the back and just get on with it, then what is Britishness? The legally-minded might point to our common law, and there may be something to that. Something—but, at the end of it, not enough. Important though they may be, neither the small print of dos-and-don’ts, nor the big over-arching legal principles forge the stuff of national identity. It comes from somewhere else.