Writers and intellectuals respond to the government's call for a statement of British values—page 2by prospect / October 27, 2007 / Leave a comment
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Page 2: Ian Jack—Geoffrey Wheatcroft Click here for page 1
Ian Jack Journalist
I would be wary of trying to articulate “British values” other than by putting some flesh on the bones of the green paper’s paragraph 204: that Britain is a society based on laws that reflect the rights of citizens, including the right to participate in the making of these laws, and the responsibilities that go with the rights, and so on. “Values” are quite hard things to pin down—even as gifted and thoughtful a writer as Orwell was happier depicting national characteristics than national values, though many of the qualities he prized (“The gentleness of England is perhaps its most marked characteristic”) have not survived. The green paper mentions France and the US as countries that have clearer perceptions of their values: “liberty, equality, fraternity,” “the land of the free.” But those are vivid slogans created by revolutions. A Spaniard or a Swede has nothing similar, but I don’t think that means Spaniards and Swedes have a less certain idea of what good citizenship entails. It may even mean that they have a clearer appreciation of their nations because they haven’t been suckered by Enlightenment rhetoric into idealising themselves.
Are Scottish values the same as English values—or are they different and united by some overarching British values, in turn overarched by European values? Are values aspirations, or do they describe a historic and existing reality? Anyone who has witnessed the collapse of the London bus queue—they existed 20 years ago—would be puzzled by the notion that “fair play” or “women and children first” is a distinctly British value. This is very muddy territory and best left alone by governments. The rights and duties of the citizen are what need spelling out, with a heavy stress that no one can escape them on grounds of gender, colour or creed.
Josef Joffe Editor-publisher, Die Zeit
“If you have to ask, you can’t afford it,” was JP Morgan’s fabled reply to a friend who asked the millionaire banker about the price of his yacht, thinking he might want to buy one himself.
Gordon Brown’s question about citizenship and identity raises the same problem: if you have to ask, it’s not for you. Britons used to know what “Britishness” was; hence, they did not have to ask. It was pork…