Gav Prentice: Replacing British Values


You would think that for something to be called a ‘national value’ it would be enshrined in the life of, and championed by, that nation to an extent where the rest of the world would recognise it as quintessentially so, right?  Let’s assume that by ‘values’ we mean ‘moral principles’ or even vaguer, a moral ‘framework’ or ‘compass’ – or how about ‘a shared moral understanding.’  It’s not too hard to think of nations that explicitly claim these, for example the French revolutionary ‘Liberte, Egalite, Fraterne’, the South African post-apartheid ‘Rainbow Nation’ ideal, the USA’s equally revolutionary ‘life, liberty and the pursuit of property’ (taken from John Locke and slightly re-worded to equate property with happiness).  No matter how far short any of these countries fall from these, they have been universally recognised and constitutionally enshrined in each to make it plain to their own citizens and to outsiders: this is the substance of who we are.

Here, most politicians love ‘British Values’.  Well, they say that, but they can’t possibly love the substance of them, because they usually don’t seem to have thought too much about what they actually are. What’s the stuff that defines the common conduct of four constituent nations, what’s the glue that holds together all of the people within each?  When pressed they say things like ‘common decency’ – a platitude which to my mind could be used by any individual on earth to describe the principles they themselves hold, effectively saying that they describe their own ethics as ‘correct’. We’re told terrorists don’t share British values, but that’s because they kill innocent people, which is usually always illegal everywhere.

When pressed even further the politicians will start to praise the commitment of these Isles to ‘democracy’ and ‘democratic rights’, things common to a great deal of different states and, given the very slow and gradual path into participatory democracy that Britain took, with its constitutional basis therefore being an unelected second chamber and a hereditary monarch, a very odd thing to claim as our own.  Even if you want to call democracy a defining value (it’s more of a process, surely a value is something bigger?) it certainly doesn’t belong to the British.  It’s more Greek than anything else, it’s quite possibly Indian; the Americans and the French don’t even include it in their formulations despite both being known to erroneously claim to have brought it to the world.

But, undeterred by any actual meaning, still those politicians love their British Values, because it’s just so bloody convenient for them.  It allows them to be so very vague about what their principles actually are while at the same time managing get all misty-eyed and patriotic about their country.  In the ever-narrowing centre ground of mainstream parliamentary politics, it’s the perfect platitude, an uncontroversial way to say “I like good things, I don’t like bad things, and I threaten no-one.”  That is until recently. My hope is that now several issues, not least the independence referendum, can lead more and more people to reject British values, or more accurately to question if national values actually have any use or make any sense at all.

It’s worth stressing that the term as most often used is completely vacuous.  Ed Milliband, for example, is often fond of citing ‘British values’ as a catch-all term for everything decent about him, his party, and the good people he wants to vote for them.  This is a way to detract from ‘red Ed’ tabloid jibes, and means nothing of substance other than ‘not scary.’  Gordon Brown was the very same of course, though given his further unfortunate disability of a Scottish accent he had to go much harder on it, leading to such absurdities as the proposed ‘Britishness Day’ and his claim that his favourite footballing moment of all time was when Paul Gascoigne scored for England against Scotland in 1996.  It’s true that when ‘Britishness’ gets pushed far enough for a definition it often ends up in depictions of England and Englishness, given that is the governing interest in the union, as served here in Brown’s attempt not to seem threatening to the UK’s deciding voting base.  But as unusual as a self-proclaimed Scottish football fan enjoying Scotland getting beaten by their local rival seems, still none of this amounts to a political or moral ‘value’ as such, and is still vacuous.

It is with some irony then that the Daily Mail earlier this year attacked the deceased academic Ralph Milliband for hating British values.  Ed Milliband was stuck in a situation where he quite rightly wanted to defend his father’s memory and challenge the outright lies in the Mail, while still wanting to claim access to and sympathy for those elusive nationalistic values of your plucky, Mail-reading Brit, the very things they accused his father of attacking.  So he made his argument on their terms.  According to Ed his father, like him, adored British values.  He fought for Britain in the war.  He lived and worked in Britain for the vast majority of his adult life, and raised a family in it. He watched Dad’s Army. He ate Fish N’ Chips. I’m sure Ed would have claimed his old man read the Daily Mail if the ‘Marxist’ and ‘intellectual’ prefixes so often accompanying his name didn’t each by definition disprove it.  The fact that those prefixes alone adequately explain a value system which led him to fight fascism in Europe is also a little inconvenient.

But this whole stooshie gave us an amazing thing that I’d never seen before: it provided a clear definition of British values.  This happened when Jon Steafel, deputy editor of the Mail, appeared on Newsnight in debate with Alistair Campbell, he of lying, warmongering New Labour spin doctor fame.  Staefal had a clear plan, which was to state that when Ralph Milliband, in his teenage diaries, criticised the institutions of the Queen, Oxbridge Universities, the Houses of Parliament, and the military, he was attacking British values.  Staefel equated these insititutions with Britishness itself, and preservation of them in their existing form as the morality which supports that identity.

He was defining ‘British values’ as deference to Britain’s ruling-class institutions. To them, if you don’t show that deference to the institutions that rule you, not only are you not British, you in fact hate Britain itself, enough to leave “an evil legacy.” Which is ultra-conservative ‘cult of the pharoah’ stuff, but at least gives us an answer for what these values we’re so often preached to about actually consist of; we now have at least one view on what they are that we can categorically reject.  And not only is this the only explanation of substance that I have ever heard, it does make sense as a definition.  Those institutions which put the ‘Great’ into ‘Great Britain’, long may they rule over us, may represent the exact opposite of the values of a lefty like me, but they were the real decision-making architects of the Empire.  Whether we want to be or not, being ruled over by them is definitively what every British person has in common.

So in this case, it’s easy: I denounce British values.  They do not apply to me whatsoever.  They don’t apply to anyone I know, quite possibly to anyone I’ve ever met.  I want the institutions which define them to be constitutionally separated from the state that I take part in electing at the ballot box, and the people of the country that I live in to be sovereign. I have a fantastic opportunity to help that happen soon by voting Yes.  But say the Daily Mail definition isn’t correct, and like Alistair Campbell claims, these are the wrong British values, then still all that we’re left with are those platitudes of the careerist politicians frightened for their Westminster salaries and second homes. We have a choice between a highly authoritarian cult of the elite and screeds of nicey-nicey nothingness. And I denounce those British values too.  I denounce the British values of ‘common decency’ and ‘fair play’ when they are used in this context to say absolutely nothing and serve only to get in the way of what is actually at stake in the world.  I certainly don’t hate Britain, but it makes some kind of sense to me if this means that I don’t have a British identity – and so be it.

Are there competing ‘Scottish values’?  I really don’t know that there are, so claiming that Scottish values are superior won’t really cut it. I’ve heard a variety of attempts to explain them and again it ends up being much the same kind of nothing: “a sense of fair play”, “friendliness”, I even once heard “thrift.”  That last one’s an inaccurate stereotype, it’s not a national value. The explanation of British values often drifts into Christian values, which should be easy to describe given that they have a guide book, but it doesn’t tend to turn out that way. We’ve heard recently that upon independence, the disestablishment of the Church of Scotland is highly likely, swept away as they would be in the wave of de-centralising democracy which unfortunately will, initially at least, stop short of the Queen.  We could choose a Daily Mail, or maybe a Daily Express, definition of Scottish values, where deference to the Church of Scotland, the Scottish Parliament, still the Queen, and one of the Old Firm always winning the league is the way, the truth, the life. Not only would that still be shite, it would be wasting the opportunity that independence offers by merely changing the colour of the flag. I have my own values, I’m sure you’ll have yours, and building a society is about negotiating between them.

I’ve heard that in an independent Scotland we will be able to come up with new values.  That’s exciting, but I’d rather the values of our new constitution were more outward-looking and avoided platitudes which amount to saying “we’re nice here.”  Do any supposedly national values really speak to the specific character of that given nation?  The real reason that the French, South African and American examples I gave have force isn’t, unfortunately, because any of them are greatly accurate defining characteristics of those places today, but because they all came from a place of rejecting a previous tyranny and giving birth to new societies by defining themselves directly against it.  We do indeed have an opportunity to start something new, so let’s try to make it mean something.

Values are essential, they can and often do mean something.  I’ve recently had cause to try and re-assess what my own values could be.  For one aspect of my life it’s quite simple.  I’m a musician, and since my early teens my approach to the music I’ve made has always been informed by the values of punk, even if the music itself isn’t traditional punk rock. Here’s the way that I see them; you can Do It Yourself, rough edges show your character so are a welcome and happy accident rather than a mistake, the influence or aspiration to money or fame should be distrusted, please yourself with anything you do first and foremost, if what you do starts provoking or rubbing people up the wrong way that should be embraced, and that a general anti-authoritarianism should be accompanying all of this. I often feel old fashioned when I say stuff like that, but when any of these values are challenged that’s usually the basis for me disapproving of other music, if I do.

Those values don’t belong to a creed or a nation and without being in any way prescriptive they apply to me in a very practical manner.  They have guided a great deal of what I have done in my adult life, and I found it surprisingly easy to just detail what they were.  Although I’ve always played about with Scottish imagery, and you’d certainly never hear me say that I enjoyed seeing Gascoigne scoring against the international football team I support, Scotland, I’ve never written anything that could be called nationalistic because I wouldn’t feel comfortable doing so, it’s not me, and it doesn’t fit with those values I’ve had since I was a wide-eyed wee boy just trying to make as much noise as I could. I intend to vote Yes and I am not a nationalist. Furthermore, and it may sound odd in a climate where even every No campaigner is clamouring to drape themselves in the Saltire, I would not even describe myself as particularly patriotic.  I love and feel a deep connection to a great deal of Scottish culture, I am proud to take part in it in my own small way, it burns at me when our culture is denigrated, but I can also think of many things that us Scots should collectively be thoroughly ashamed of (sectarianism and an odd and prevailing sort of pride in our violence and our alcoholism spring to mind).  I also feel a connection to English culture. Just like a famous German Jew who lived in London once did, I can try to lend weight to the argument I’m eventually going to make here by quoting Shakespeare on money (“Thou common whore of mankind, that put’st odds / Among the rout of nations”) and feel I’m pulling from a shared cultural understanding in doing so. I just think that the best way that this particular piece of the world can be governed is if the people that live here have the ultimate say on it.

I’m voting Yes for two reasons: because so many of the great injustices carried out against the people in Scotland have only been possible because they have been ruled by successive governments that they did not elect; and from out of a belief that the best road to internationalism is via decentralisation, the dismantling of the old imperialist world powers, and self-determination.

Many will tell you that they are voting No in the name of internationalism – that we should not create more borders.  But what this non-debate on national values further illustrates is that we currently don’t have an option between Scottish independence and no-borders internationalism. If we did, I’d vote against Scottish independence, thank you, and bid a hopeful farewell to war. The Scottish border (which already exists, giving a constintuency to the Scottish Parliament and its existing powers) is indeed an arbitrary national boundary.  But voting No and staying with Britain, with it’s imperialistic past, its UK Independence Parties and its English Defence Leagues, is ultimately still choosing one arbitrary national boundary over another.  It’s a shame that we can’t just immediately do away with all of them and have anarcho-syndicalistic direct democracies across the globe, but this is the option that we are faced with at the moment.  One global super-state has never been my idea of internationalism anyway; it really doesn’t follow that the broader the reach of the government the better.

Scotland is already defined within the highly nationalistic Treaty of Union as a nation.  It has its own education system, its own legal system, its own Parliament.  That we have all of these things yet could still be taken to war or have our budgets held to ransom by an old-Etonian Tory government is madness.  And that government, despite its vague attempts at towing the platitudinous ‘British Values’ line, does indeed have real, substantive values. They are a prescribed self-reliance for the poor and vulnerable while the existing social hierarchy is maintained at all costs.

The fact that Scottish interests and, yes, the values of those people, whatever they may be, should be reflected in a government of its own is not necessarily a result of having superior values or more pressing priorities, but of having undeniably distinct ones. It is un-democratic that they are not reflected in how we are governed.  That’s it.  Maybe in an independent Scotland we can get shot of these inadequate ideas of national values and finally accept that class and the power structures in place in a capitalist society are the things that really define what seperates people, are the things that really explain conflict and define the values of our age.  If not, at least things like the Bedroom Tax can’t be imposed on a clearly defined population which has again so clearly voted against it.

The talk of national values is not helpful when the fundamental issue which drives politics is class.  So please don’t say “I’m not a nationalist but I’m voting Yes”, please say “I’m voting Yes because I’m not a nationalist.”  British nationalism, like all nationalisms, is dangerous, and in Scotland we have a chance to build something genuinely new without either falling into the same clichés or the same apology for existing power structures.  Say it loud, say it proud: “I denounce British values, and most probably Scottish ones too while we’re at it.” If we vote Yes we’ll have a fighting chance to negotiate something else between us. We currently don’t have that opportunity.

Gav Prentice
National Collective