In search of British values 1

In July, Gordon Brown published a green paper called "The Governance of Britain." The final section said that we need to be clearer about the rights and responsibilities of citizenship and what it means to be British. It proposed "to work with the public to develop a British statement of values." We asked 50 writers and intellectuals to give us their thoughts on this statement and what should inform it
October 26, 2007
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Rushanara Ali Think-tanker

The government's initiatives on citizenship and a statement of British values have been met with a mix of encouragement and scepticism. Inevitably, the scepticism revolves around whether there are such things as British values given that so many of our values are shaped by more universal values, and no single nation has a monopoly over the ideas of democracy, equality and the principles of human rights. But the real test of whether a statement of values is meaningful will be based on our everyday experience, whether we are genuinely treated equally as citizens, whether we feel a sense of belonging and pride in who are as a nation. That means taking practical steps to enable the whole population to be a part of the national story, as opposed to the current situation, where many feel they are outsiders and lack a sense of belonging.

Paul Barker Journalist

In his great work The Civilising Process, the German Jewish sociologist Norbert Elias (1897-1990)—who took refuge in Britain from the Nazis—made it clear that the highest achievement in any society was to evolve ways of resolving differences without resort to violence. This achievement, where it is attained, is a spectrum which ranges from everyday civility to the protections of legislation. The laws are part of an entire ethos. They do not, in themselves, create that ethos; but they do help to ratify it. On the Elias criterion, Britain is much less civilised than when he wrote. (The Civilising Process was published in German in 1939; translated into English in 1978-82.) In-growing alienation in the suburbs of Leeds leads to bombs on the London underground. The creation of so-called "vibrant" cities—but let's give that creepy adjective a rest—goes hand in hand with riotous city centres that many local people go to great lengths to avoid. (Have you recently seen Leicester Square, or Sunderland High Street, on a Friday night?) On a Halifax housing estate, two sisters quarrel about a boyfriend; each girl stabs the other. In London and Manchester, murders of teenagers by other teenagers are starting to drift down into routine inside-paragraphs in the newspapers; this was something that astonished me when I first saw it in the Chicago press, but everything crosses the Atlantic eventually. Civilisation, in Elias's sense, is the value we need to move back to.

Vernon Bogdanor Political scientist

Knowledge advances when philosophical questions are turned into manageable ones. Academics can have a splendid time debating the nature of Britishness ad infinitum. But perhaps we are not dealing with a philosophical question at all. To be British, surely, is to wish to be represented in the House of Commons. Paradoxically, the nationalist parties provide a useful indicator of the strength of Britishness. In 2005, the SNP gained around 18 per cent of the Scottish vote, 2 per cent less than in 2001. Thus, 82 per cent of Scots voted unionist. In fact, the Scots feel more British now than they did in the 1970s, when the SNP gained 30 per cent of the Scottish vote. Britain's ethnic communities also support, by and large, parties which, far from repudiating parliament, seek better representation there. In Ireland, by contrast, in every election between 1885 and 1914, the nationalists won at least 80 of the 101 seats. The Irish were delivering a very clear message which was ignored for far too long.

The question of Britishness is really a surrogate for two quite different problems. The first is that of holding together the post-devolution, multicultural United Kingdom. The second, which has troubled the Labour party since its foundation, is that of strengthening the bonds of community so that we can live more happily together. Gordon Brown is squarely within the socialist tradition in arguing that we should learn to realign rights and responsibilities. The trouble is, however, that neither philosophers nor politicians have been able to show how this can be achieved in a society whose dominant ethic is that of individual aspiration.

Rodric Braithwaite Ex-diplomat

People spend much more time than they used to trying to work out who they are, trying to find their "identity." It is a sign of insecurity in a changing world. What makes a Frenchman? Is it to be steeped in French civilisation, to have—like De Gaulle—"a certain idea of France" whatever your race or religion? The old Soviet Union was known as the "prison of nations" in the west and, true enough, it flew apart once the imperial bonds were loosened. But while it still existed, most of its inhabitants felt comfortable that they were citizens of one of the world's two superpowers, and it was under the red banner that they fought and won the war. In Israel they argue about whether you can properly be regarded as Israeli if you are not Jewish. Perhaps only in America are people still reasonably secure in their identity, in the knowledge that they are the children of the constitution, citizens of the city on the hill, Irish Americans, Japanese Americans, Italo-Americans, but Americans for all that.

Linda Colley pointed out years ago that "Britain" and "Britishness" were artificial constructs, which went with the unification of the isles and the expansion of the empire. In Scotland you were a Scot. But in London you took part in a British political process, and in the far-flung corners of the globe it was Britain you represented.

Much of the current debate is about the values that this "Britishness" allegedly represents: democracy, decency, tolerance; but not, God help us, binge-drinking, football hooliganism and Big Brother. But the attempt to nail down an identity on a set of national characteristics is a fool's game. There are Germans, and Americans and French people: but once your start talking about "the Germans," "the Americans" or "the French" you will soon begin to stumble among national stereotypes and prejudices.

"Britishness" nevertheless remains as important as ever, and its function is not all that different from what it used to be. Though I never expected to find myself saying so, the Union Jack is still a symbol of unity. If you are a Bangladeshi whose family is from the subcontinent, you may feel a connection with that flag that you could hardly feel for the red cross of England's national saint. For the future wellbeing of these islands, the important task is not to engage in philosophical debate about values, but by legislation where necessary, and by common everyday practice, to enable everyone who lives here to feel they that they share as of right a common allegiance and a common citizenship. If you can do that—and it is obviously not at all easy—the values will take care of themselves.

Lesley Chamberlain Writer

The real problem seems to me not values but that Britain has become a country that can't enforce its own rules. Try asking someone in a designated quiet carriage on the train to switch his phone off. Britain's social strength used to rest on unwritten rules passed down the generations, but this can no longer happen in a global society where experience differs so widely. Nor does peer pressure work any more. A good residual British attitude is dislike of telling other people what to do, but a mixture of political correctness and fear have turned it into auto-paralysis on the part of social institutions. The British Library went temporarily insane in 2005 when it talked of accommodating "new behaviours"—phoning, texting, eating and chatting—in the reading room. More recently it simply banned un-librarylike behaviour. A few years ago, the tube sported silly posters suggesting, for instance, that love is not eating smelly food in the tube. Transport for London has since moved to displaying notices saying outright: don't! Still, people are too scared of their fellow citizens to enforce such rules. The first question for contemporary culture—I don't think it's primarily a matter for government—is how to set guidelines for what is unacceptable and, having made rules based on "our values," to require them to be followed. (Uniquely the smoking ban works. Perhaps we can learn from it.)

Stephen Chan Political scientist

I was a child of the Chinese refugee diaspora in New Zealand and, my host country having then a bruising environment, I decided after the early harassments that I did not want to be Kiwi, and became instead a staunch Anglophile, for three reasons. First, a petty one-upmanship, affecting the outlook of the "mother country" better than my antagonists; second, I never learned French well enough to indulge myself properly as a Francophile; and third, because I was much taken by Defoe's description of the English, indeed the British, as a miscegenated race. I thought I could go to Britain and be whatever I wanted to be.

What brought me to Britishness was that I didn't have to swear allegiance to anything. Not a goddamned thing. This was meant to be the most tolerant society on earth and, even now, when I return from escapades in dictatorships, I always walk to Westminster and pay my respect to the Houses of Parliament for letting me live as a different person.

So I treat talk of "core values" and "what it means to be British" with suspicion. I don't mean that I do not subscribe to the values of tolerance, plurality and their expression in debate and democracy. I do mean I am intensely suspicious of any suggestion that "core values" were arrived at by "British means"—by which is meant via Britain's attachment to the western rationalist and Enlightenment tradition. I would be happier if those British "core values" were also seen as influenced by Islam, Hinduism, African philosophy, Chinese polyglot mixtures of Buddhism, Taoism and Confucianism—and that Nasir Khusraw's defence of intellectual freedom is seen as important as Milton's defence of free expression.

Michael Collins Writer

This need to define a "Britishness" that will see us through the 21st century, and not offend anyone's sensibilities, echoes an attempt by writers and parliamentarians to define "England" in the early days of the last century. Back then the question was in what locality, what class did "England" reside. The masses were by then a mixed bunch. The Liberal minister Charles Masterman, in his book The Condition of England, wondered what "spirit" would unite the nation at a time of adversity, with the threat from a foreign invader. These days the diversity of the masses is due to ethnicity, faith and nationality rather than dialect and locality. And the issue now is one of values rather than spirit. Whatever these values are, they were previously taken as a given. Rarely was there a need to define or document them. The prime minister argues this was because the relative stability of the nation meant there was no call for precision on what it means to be British. His desire to officially define "Britishness" for new arrivals and the nation's rising generation comes at a time when it has little bearing on most of us. Actually, a time when many British citizens from all classes—notably those that never needed their citizenship prescribed—are heading for the airports in a desperate bid to escape, by emigrating.

Philip Collins Ex-Blair adviser

There is a good idea and a bad idea in these proposals. The bad idea is that we can articulate the principles that bind us together. There aren't any. We're not bound together by abstraction.

The only nations that are ever bound together by a principle—and then so imperfectly as to impugn the very idea—are those which are made, as de Tocqueville said of America, "in broad daylight." It takes a revolution to gather people round a principle.

The kind of Britain that would emerge from any such process is pure wish fulfilment. We will be liberty-loving, tolerant, decent democrats. I suspect some of our other characteristics might not make the cut: drink-loving, lawless, bored by politics.

We do, however, all owe allegiance to certain institutions. The better argument is to discuss which institutions count in the formation of national character. The principles matter not in the seminar room but in the way they are encoded into institutions. We will find that the truly shared values are both rare and Olympian. They will come down, essentially, to the basic tenets of liberal democracy.

The good idea is to clarify what is expected from citizens in a liberal democracy. But a word of caution: the things that the state can reasonably demand of me are not very extensive. If a white paper emerges in which I am not encouraged to go to a lot of meetings I will be astonished.

Robert Colls Historian

Government thinking is muddled. It says we are a more stable society because we have been imprecise about our values, but at the same time need to be more precise if we wish to be more stable. It says we have drawn strength from an evolving constitution, but need a full programme of change if we wish to be stronger. It says national identity should be overarching, but is not clear what that identity is, and proposes a national "conversation" to find out.

National values come out of social systems, and are similar across similar societies. In the modern global era, even when societies are different there is a tendency for governments to claim the same values. No government says it stands for unfairness, inequality, and oligarchy (although in truth most do). The British government proposes a "statement of values" setting out what binds us together. But if the values do bind us, why do we need a statement? And if they don't bind us, in what sense are they our values?

National identity is different. It is an historical relationship, not a set of values. Not all nations have identities and only a few have them strong enough to exist more or less independently of the state. National identities, therefore, happen when nations see themselves as one, regardless of all that divides them, which can include the state. In the British case, national identity was built over a long line of political compromises at home, and a talent for military victory abroad. The result was an identity based on an overarching sense of English liberty at home and British power abroad. In such circumstances it was claimed that a written constitution was unnecessary. And so it proved. The remarkable thing was not that the modern British sustained a union of sentiment, but how well they sustained a union of sentiment. Only Catholic Ireland ran counter, and only decisively so late in the day.

Our current predicament is that the conditions in which this identity thrived have more or less disappeared. The state, whose job it is to secure the nation and express its identity, is no longer sure who that nation is. The old historical relationship, or at least its articulation, has ceased to matter, and British hegemony has ceased to exist. It was not that the British people ceased believing in this relationship; it is more that over a very short period its conditions evaporated. At the same time, with mass immigration promoted by a metropolitan elite, the ethnic relationships of the country changed. To fill the historical vacuum, "diversity" became New Labour's watchword. But diversity pleased no one and left nothing to build on. A mildly racist society was turned into an intensely racialised one. To say the least, slavery, imperialism, and Islamicism are not promising historical relationships on which to build a new national identity.

Brown ought to understand that for over 150 years the political class in this country has had it easy. Everything is going to get more difficult. In place of history, sentiment, and an unnecessary (and therefore unwritten) constitution, we are going to end up needing a written constitution that spells out who gets what. This going to be made more difficult by membership of a EU that will insist on its own constitutional way of doing things and an even more open immigration policy.

Whatever happens, national identity will not go away because, except for the EuroUtopians, nation states show no sign of going away. So, like religion, the question is not whether national identity is true but whether it is useful. The government believes we are living between two identities—the national and the post-national. In the interim, expect morbid symptoms to appear.

Robert Cooper Diplomat

Britons never, never, never shall be slaves. The Magna Carta. An Englishman's home is his castle. Independence, privacy, eccentricity. Britain alone against tyranny from the continent. The other side of independence is unreliability. No permanent allies; no permanent friends. Perfidious Albion, dropping out of the alliance with the Dutch to make a separate peace at Utrecht, dropping out of the Concert of Europe to pursue its own policies in the new world, keeping its options open before the first world war, failing to support France in the 1930s. Opting out of this and that in the EU. Splendid isolation, avoiding commitment. Never quite trusted.

But independence also implies tolerance. Mind your own business and I'll mind mine. A nation of shopkeepers. An Englishman's word is his bond. The English gentleman who does business with a shake of the hand. Honour as a commercial value. Values or mythology? Or the self-image of the upper class? Talk about values is usually cant. Real values are things you do without thinking, like queuing—reflecting some sense of fairness, or (mostly) not taking bribes, reflecting loyalty, or saying sorry when someone else bumps into you, reflecting a general mildness. But of course there are the yobs, oafs, thugs and other idiots who are also British. You don't like us and we don't care.

Tom Devine Historian

Not again! Gordon Brown has been down this road several times in the past. That in itself is clear evidence that the values of Britishness are not possible of widely acceptable definition and/or make little impact on the general public.

There are several flaws in the Brown campaign—and, it pains me to say it, it is orchestrated by a very able historian, trained to doctoral level, in my own distinguished university. He should know better.

Britishness was a construct developed in the 18th century to serve the ideology of an aggressively expansionist empire and at the same secure the joint interest of the peoples of the British mainland against foreign attack. Virtually all of the foundations of that idea have crumbled long ago: the imperial project, the shared loyalty to Protestantism, the seduction of protected markets across the Atlantic and Asia for the many thousands of Scots "on the make" and, not least, the fear of "the other," be it the threat of France before 1815, the German menace culminating in the possibility of invasion in 1940, and then, finally, the Soviet empire with its nuclear arsenal. Only the welfare state remains of those forces which moulded Britishness and for how long will it survive in its present form?

Given the absence of the historical roots of Britishness, some unionist politicians fall back on the notion of "shared values" which in their view can provide a new foundation for the British state into the future. This a false trail. Few are convinced by the assertion that those values espoused are uniquely or mainly British; instead they are the commonplace principles of most modern democratic societies. So, if Britishness is to survive, it needs a new formulation: one which accepts the inevitability of federalism and equality within these islands and, at the same time promotes the pragmatic advantages of the union connection within that evolving structure. The stress on shared values is intellectually dishonest and a waste of time.

Brian Eno Musician

A country's values are revealed more by what it does than by what it claims. In our recent market-fundamentalist phase, we have come to regard prosperity as an exclusively economic issue—a growing economy is considered good, although it says almost nothing about anyone's quality of life. America and England have a lot of money sloshing around—but also the west's highest proportions of prisoners and teenage pregnancies, the most rapidly increasing wealth gaps, the greatest rates of youth crime, the worst public education systems, decreasing social mobility, and miserable public transport. Whatever we might claim our values to be, this is what's actually happening.

Our infatuation with the American capitalist model has misled us. After Iraq it's time to acknowledge that the special relationship we have with America is not as special as the one we have with Europe. We should gather the courage to say: "we're Europeans, and proud of it. We're proud to be part of a continent that regards military power as a last resort, that pursues negotiation and co-operation in the name of peace." And if we really valued peace we could be the first nuclear power to renounce those weapons: many of the scientists now engaged on defence could be usefully redirected towards the real threat of climate change. What an example that would be!

The values we usually claim as ours: democracy, peaceableness, equality of opportunity, pluralism, social responsibility, diplomacy, fair play, the rule of law —are all fine by me. Now let's try them.

Duncan Fallowell Writer

You should hate liars and cheats and those who won't play the game. You should be able to take a joke. You should dislike extremes. You should be bad at dancing and sex and incapable of either without being drunk. You should resist invasion of your personal or national space. You should ignore what you dislike but give to charity. You should protect the countryside. You should respect the sovereign. You should say what you think. You should be classical on the outside and romantic within. You should put religion in the back seat and make sure it bloody well stays there. You should acknowledge your amazingly good fortune.

Michael Fry Historian

The question of British values is bedevilled, like so many others, by the inability of the English to distinguish between England and Britain. When the English make up 80 per cent of the British, this may not seem to them important. When they are trying to keep the other 20 per cent on board, it is.

Ask an Englishman to define English values, and he will no doubt say fair play, decency, that sort of thing. Ask him to define British values, and he will no doubt say exactly the same.

But fair play is a large nation's value. A level playing field always favours the big battalions. The wee fellow gets his way by stealth and guile, by the garrotte from behind, the shot out of the darkness, or else by sheer nimbleness of mind and body. Just ask the Celts. It is the only way to beat the plodding English. Fair play is not, cannot be, a Celtic value.

As for decency, well, there are various vices anglais regarded with horror north of the border, where I am writing this. The Scots' own besetting sin of drunkenness is indulged as harmless or amusing among themselves (see the poems of Robert Burns), while causing moral outrage when they see it on the streets of London.

What precisely are the British canons of conduct that can transcend and sublimate these merely national norms? Would they not have to challenge the national norms in some way: say, to prompt the English to be less arrogant, the Celts to be less irresponsible? If not, they are scarcely worth the formulation.

Thanks to the English, Britishness still has to be created. That is Gordon Brown's problem. It is too late in the day.

Timothy Garton Ash Writer

This proposal conflates three things: citizenship, values and identity. I am strongly in favour of spelling out more clearly the rights and duties that go with British citizenship. That's something we badly need—and by no means just for immigrants and their children.

Values are more complicated—as the green paper itself shows, in its multiple, conflicting formulations. If "the Human Rights Act provides a contemporary set of common values to which all our communities can subscribe" (paragraph 206) then those core values are not distinctively British but common to all European liberal democracies. Beyond these minimum core values, however, men and women in free countries can subscribe to very different values (conservative or socialist, Christian or atheist) while living together in a civilised way. Isaiah Berlin's "value pluralism" might even be considered a very British philosophy. "Live and let live" is a British motto.

"Shared values are the bedrock on which the elements of our nation are built," says paragraph 196. Uggh. As so often, bad English signals muddled thinking. In truth, national identities are even more complicated than values. If you really think French national identity is defined by Liberté, Egalité, Fraternité, you know little about France. I have two national identities: English and British. For me, the English identity has most of the warmth, the emotion, the poetry; yet I also value the British one. Gordon Brown is very Scottish as well as British. Britain is a multinational nation, and one should not let in daylight upon this magic. To define Britishness is an un-British activity.

My conclusion: less would be more. A statement, in plain English, of the rights and duties of British citizens is what we need. Lawyers should combine with poets to write it. Rather than entering the swamp of defining values, or the jungle of national identity, it would suffice to introduce this statement with a paragraph saying that British citizens have long prided themselves on living together peacefully in freedom. This peaceful freedom, rare in the world, has been buttressed by habits such as tolerance, common decency, respect for the law, an instinct for fair play, good-neighbourliness, a tendency to support the underdog, a love of sport, much shared complaining about the weather and, last but not least, a highly developed national sense of humour. It is this list of everyday British qualities or traits—not some contorted decalogue of high philosophical values—that should be widely debated. The resulting catalogue must be brief, open-ended, accessible, and presented with a light touch.

Conor Gearty Human rights professor

British values have emerged from a myriad of sources which are rooted in the history and tradition of the nations concerned; no one source has a monopoly of foundational wisdom. Various broad phenomena such as the movement of peoples, the depth of particular patriotic feelings and the economic health of the nations involved interact with deeply rooted religious faiths and with developments in contemporary culture to produce a set of values which are capable of being crystallised as specific to this group of nation states organised in this supra-national structure at this point in time. Values can change but they do so slowly, sometimes imperceptibly. They represent the collective common sense of a particular generation on how it is best to behave. They can be identified by careful scrutiny of a culture's best habits and by examining how prevailing systems of government (representative democracy; respect for human rights; the rule of law) implicitly reflect agreement about a range of core ideals.

The United Kingdom is committed to: (i) the freedom of every person to thrive, both individually and by way of the various belongings (family, gender, faith, club, country and so on) through which his or her personhood is more fully realised;

(ii) the principle of social justice which guarantees to everyone their basic needs and wants;

(iii) the flourishing of all persons and groups within the United Kingdom, including those ethnic and other minorities whose ways of prospering may differ from those of the majority cultures;

(iv) fairness in the legal process, including respect for the rule of law (national, regional and international) and no unjustifiable discrimination in the application of law;

(v) the sustainability of our cultural heritage, and our urban, rural and marine environment so that we pass on to our children a world that has not been damaged during the period of our trusteeship;

Maggie Gee Novelist

Let's pretend that there are distinctively British values. At any rate here is what I value about being British, my own flattering sketch of what might bind the British together in a better future. We are an old democracy; that means our sense of civic entitlement cannot be rooted out. We don't like over-zealous or intrusive governments. We don't like being bossed about in our private lives (and we didn't like being lied to by Tony Blair, especially when he smiled). We don't expect our leaders to be charmers. Though absurdly snobbish, the British are funny, eccentric and forgiving of difference. Humour makes us great mockers, deflaters and improvisers, liking the small scale: fundamentalisms, Muslim and Christian, won't find the British natural converts. We are not American. Too late for imperial dreams of policing the planet. From our lost empire, though, comes a great asset especially visible in London: it's a city of great racial mixing, sexually if not always socially, and it's doing well at growing Londoners from all over the world. Lastly, I value my Britishness because of British literature, art and theatre, which comes from, and shapes, the national character and history I have just described. We are good at it because we are unrepressed, playful, inventive and cynical. Keep reading books, Gordon, unlike your predecessor, restock the public libraries and keep them open.

Carlo Gébler Writer

The Brown government's enunciation of the ideals and principles that bind the British as a nation may be brilliant. Or not. But it will certainly be in the form of a statement in prose. And that's the problem. These things have to come into us in a story and happily there is already a brilliant story that dramatises those values: Robin Hood.

More than any other character I can think of, Robin best embodies the key British virtues—a belief in natural justice; a passion for self-effacement; and a deep, almost perverse attachment to secrecy. Robin lives in a wood, hidden from view. When necessary he emerges from the shadows; he punishes wrongdoers and helps the marginal; then he returns to Sherwood, having no desire for acclamation or power; both, he knows are corrupting.

While it is one thing to be told something, it is quite another for that something to be decanted into the psyche in a story. When values come grounded in narrative and wrapped up in language, they can reach where plain common-or-garden prose never penetrates.

So my counsel to Mr Brown is simple: don't bother trying to write a summary of British values. Instead, have The Adventures of Robin Hood (the Roger Lancelyn Green version, still the best in my opinion) distributed to every household in the nation and then pass an Act of Parliament to make reading it mandatory.

Paul Gilroy Sociologist

The proposal that we codify Britain's distinguishing values into a national mission statement is doomed to fail. People everywhere aspire to the same things. The bid to freeze our particularity would end up inadvertently joining Britons to the world from which this exercise is designed to separate them. To be plausible, the code would have to be tied to a specific historical sense of what marks Brits out. There is no prospect of consensus over what that core might be. A rather tentative conversation has been dominated by morbid and melancholic voices repeating the backward-looking mantra of little Englandism that has generated such a powerful electoral payoff since Enoch first coined it. Potentially, the lack of easy agreement about our values is a source of strength, a sign that reflection on what we'd like to become might be a way to find the solidarity that everyday life does not yield. Instead, we're hostage to fantasies of greatness, influence and imperial power. People snuggle up to watch The Dambusters, while the flag-draped coffins pile up out of sight.

National values would have to guide corporate actors as well as individuals. If not, even the mildest ethical advice would instantly conflict with the neoliberal habits that supply New Labour's corporate populism with its economic signature. On the other hand, if the demotic legacies of English radicalism are going to anchor the worthy content, then the real value being celebrated will be the capacity to set all principles aside in the name of pragmatic political advantage. We are to be connected by adherence to values as abstract principles while being prepared simultaneously to abnegate them in practice.

Dean Godson Think-tanker

One of the keys to constructing, consolidating and reviving national identity—Britishness—is a positive view of national history. We need a Royal Commission to look at how the Island Story can be imparted to new generations in a way that unites us. In so many schools it either isn't taught at all, or if it is, it too often portrays our past in distinctly unflattering light.

The Governance of Britain green paper is a curious mix in this respect. Its rather favourable account of national constitutional development and social reform is pleasantly traditional, even conventional—the sort of thing which David Cameron might have been brought to believe in the Berkshire stockbroker belt. It contains mercifully little self-flagellation. It is also refreshingly free of the historical errors which disfigure so many other government accounts of our history. But there is little about the actual teaching of history in this document. Instead, it paddles about in the soapy, shallow waters of citizenship classes. Thus, as in the Blair era, it identifies support for the NHS as a key British value to be subscribed (at one stage, it is even mentioned ahead of parliament itself). Does that mean that opponents of nationalised healthcare are in some way "unBritish"?

Oddly, one key component of Britishness is largely missing from the green paper: the sovereign. Considering the pleasure which new immigrants and others still derive from the monarchy, even in its "slimmed-down" version it would seem that the government is potentially missing a trick here. Soldiers still die for her, not for the "'ere today, gone tomorrow" politicians as Robin Day would describe them. And, after all, even Alex Salmond says that he only has the Act of Union in his sights—not the Union of the Crowns.

Michael Gove Politician

There is something rather unBritish about seeking to define Britishness. Rather like trying to define leadership, it's a quality which is best appreciated when demonstrated through action rather than described in the abstract.

As a Scot who, like Brown, has made his career in London and whose family are now rooted in England, I feel immensely fortunate to be a citizen of a cosmopolitan state where nationality is defined not by ethnicity but sustained by the subtle interweaving of traditions and given life by a spirit of liberty.

Britishness is best understood as an identity shaped by an understanding of the common law, refined by the struggle between the people's representatives and arbitrary power, rooted in a presumption in favour of individual freedom, enriched by a love of the quirky, local and unique, buttressed by anger at injustice, constantly open to the world and engaged with suffering of others, sustained through adversity by subversive humour and better understood through literature than any other art.

But if you really want to understand Britishness you need to ask why the British find Tracey Emin loveable, regard Ealing comedies as sacred, look on the world of Wodehouse as a lost Eden, always vote for the underdog on Big Brother, make the landscape the central character in their Sunday evening dramas, respect doctors more than lawyers and venerate their army but have never had a soldier as leader since the Duke of Wellington.

David Green Think-tanker

We should focus on the divide between liberalism and absolutism and clarify the confused distinction between public and private that pervades our politics. For liberals there are two public spheres: one the realm of the state, which has monopoly powers of compulsion; and the other the realm of concerted private action for the common good, such as philanthropy.

Liberals thought that the power to compel should be limited because it had been used by rulers to advance selfish private interests. And they favoured a large sphere of free action, inquiry and conscience because private individuals, without powers of compulsion, might act more effectively for the common good. The neglected writer Michael Polanyi called this tradition "public liberty" and contrasted it with "private liberty," the pursuit of purely personal ends. Behind the hope of liberals for an open society was their awareness of the fallibility of human knowledge. They believed, with Milton, that free discussion allowed truth to prevail over error.

To guard against the abuse of political power for private ends, Locke argued that rulers should govern by known established laws, applied equally to all and designed solely for the good of the people. But as Mill taught, a constitution is not just about limits, it is also a device for increasing the thoughtfulness of collective decision making in pursuit of the common good. At its (rarely achieved) best our system has discouraged crude majoritarianism and encouraged deliberative democracy in which debate advances public learning by challenging and changing initial opinions.

Nick Groom Writer

It is fashionable to claim that British identity is imprecise; in fact, it is no more vague than the Liberté, Egalité, Fraternité of the French, or the "Land of the Free" of the Americans. British identity is characterised by "fair play": the refusal of dogma and ideology, and a reliance on compromise and pragmatism through convention and organic evolution—whether in government by parliamentary democracy, or culturally in the infinite flexibility of the English language. This is also apparent in the design of the Union Jack flag, where each component—the crosses variously of Sts George, Andrew and Patrick—is adapted in relation to the others.

This flag (which Gordon Brown wants to be flown more prominently) should be a reminder that Britain is a union between England, Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland. However, a disparity has crept into the relationship between these constituent identities, with the latter three enjoying a degree of devolution from British government while still voting on English legislation in Westminster.

But a strong British identity can only be founded on a strong English identity. From the 17th century onwards, England has submerged its own national identity and institutions into the larger concept of Britain—not only because England is much bigger, more populous and wealthier than its sister nations, but because English values are precisely those values of contingency that enable a diverse society to flourish. Englishness, in other words, is the key component of Britishness: indeed, Britain needs an England more than England itself needs the Union.

Eric Hobsbawm Historian

Since British citizens are not alone in cherishing mother-love, being kind to children or public honesty and the right to vote, there is less scope than one might think for statements of values which are specific to the inhabitants of a particular state, especially a pluri-national one like the United Kingdom. Indeed, the important and positive green paper on "The Governance of Britain" admits as much when it points out that the European Convention of Human Rights covers much of the same ground and asks whether we should add a specifically British supplement. Nevertheless, it recommends the formulation of a British statement of values.

This project appears to have two overlapping but not congruent objects: the maintenance of the unity of the United Kingdom and the establishment of a single overarching sense of Britishness (and state loyalty) for an increasingly large and culturally heterogeneous body of immigrants who (unlike those of earlier periods) are in a position to maintain a constant connection with their original countries, cultures and religions. The first is clearly central, since it is undoubtedly correct in the claim that it is as citizens "from the United Kingdom and its institutions we draw our national identity." A national debate is unlikely to produce a single consensual statement about British values, though it is welcome on other grounds. Nor can our values be summarised in anything like programmatic slogans as in the US and France, states born of revolution. While some of the appeal of Britishness rests on presumptions about law (habeas corpus, for example) more of it rests on a long history, a record of stability and the ostensible continuity of institutions, capable of absorbing change and transformation without irreparable politico-ideological ruptures. Britons have more in common than a definable set of "values." History is central to what unites us, but even admirable governments should refrain from recommending, let alone imposing, an officially approved version of it.

Godfrey Hodgson Writer

My first instinct is that the current fashion for trying to define Britishness is inappropriate. It is very hard to generalise usefully about 60m people, or about a culture that for better and worse has had such an impact on the world for so long. The same would apply to an attempt to define "Americanness" or "Frenchness."

I think, however, that there are two ways in which this debate can be useful. For one thing, we do now have a large population of immigrants and the children of immigrants from many backgrounds. Many of them, when not actually disaffected, are somewhat at a loss to know what to make of Britain and British culture, all the more so because quite a lot of people, some British and some not, are quite busy putting about some unflattering and no more than partially true stereotypes about us.

It would be, I think, useful to offer, probably not on a compulsory basis, classes on British life, culture and history to immigrants, and it would be sensible to provide some sort of "carrot" to those who chose to take part.

Second, I think there is much to be said for the American practice of teaching "civics," by that or some other name, in secondary school. Many British people, by no means all of them immigrants or their children, have not the slightest idea about the British constitution, law or electoral system. (It is usual to say this is not written down, when in fact it is written in hundreds of statutes and judgements; what is meant by this is that there is no single text like the American constitution.)

It is possible that the reason we do not teach young people about our constitution is that many teachers and some others do not feel they can justify certain aspects of it, such as the Act of Succession, the hereditary peerage or even the monarchy itself. Perhaps teaching the constitution in school might act as an incentive to politicians to—for example—remove anomalies like the half-reformed House of Lords.

The semi-official religion of American exceptionalism has contributed to recent errors in US policy and to unattractive aspects of America's attitude to the rest of the world. But I do, also, recognise that widespread understanding of and belief in the American system has been a strength for the US and has motivated American leaders and others to set themselves high standards.

It would be good to teach British teenagers about our virtues and our failings as a society, and about their rights and responsibilities, and to encourage them to discuss these matters. I do not think it is a good idea to tell young people that, for example, "we are a tolerant society"—that suggests that others are not, and saying so does not make it so. But certainly young people in Britain ought to have a clear idea of how things are supposed to work. Perhaps they would later help to make the practice approach more closely to the theory, and failing that to refine the theory.

Sunny Hundal Journalist

A British statement of values that can help form a common bond across our increasingly mobile and diverse nation cannot be expressed in anything other than a new constitution.

There are two compelling reasons for this. First, that there is no alternative, and second, that a constitution fulfils all the requirements in this debate.

Britishness has slowly but surely moved away from being a race-based identity. What will Gordon Brown replace it with? He briefly ventured into "our way of life" territory before realising that football, queuing, jam on toast and morning tea were neither helpful nor a good starting point.

A discussion of common values is a step in the right direction but there is a danger it will flounder in a circular discussion of commonly held cultural and social values. Suffice to say, there can never be any agreement on those.

The only viable option for the prime minister is to emphasise common political values, expressed through things such as a strong parliamentary democracy, freedom of speech and expression, secularism, stronger civil liberties and more transparent political engagement.

Such political values are the only markers that can unite a diverse nation. This is also why a new constitution, which explicitly codifies these sentiments, is so important. If executed in the right way it kills several birds with one stone. It encourages citizens to take ownership of their rights as a source of empowerment; helps form a common bond in the way it does with Americans; and most importantly encourages further political engagement.

Ed Husain Writer

I was born and raised in Britain, but never felt British. In fact, I actively rejected any notion of Britishness. At the age of 25, I went to live in the middle east for three years and it was there, while living among Arabs, that I discovered that, despite being Muslim, I was distinctly different in many ways.

Back in Britain, I am concerned that the need to develop a British statement of values is taking place under the dark clouds of home-grown extremism and terrorism. Britishness is an emotion, an experience, a flavour that does not lend itself to empirical definition. But if we must draw up a British statement of values, it should mention the following. The English language, with its inherent modes of thought, culture and expression, binds us together as a nation; it roots us to British culture. And Britain has an exceptional history. The Magna Carta set in motion our heritage as a nation ruled by constitutional law, committed to justice for all. As a country, we want other nations to enjoy the same honour. Britain is a secular, Christian nation with a commitment to religious freedom. Britishness is not Englishness: it is many identities merged to form one nationality.

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