DAVID Cameron has had a stab at defining them. So have throngs of media luminaries, from sanctimonious liberals to hard-nosed Right-wingers.
Yet, to my mind, no-one has yet nailed a concise explanation of what are loftily describe as ‘British values’, even if we know – instinctively – the answer, since they’ve been inculcated in us since we were toddling around in soggy nappies.
The issue has become the subject of fierce debate, after allegations emerged of a ‘Trojan Horse’ plot by Muslim radicals to hijack control of a group of state schools in Birmingham and transform them into virtual Islamic madrassas.
After an Ofsted investigation, Sir Michael Wilshaw, head of the UK Government’s education watchdog, delivered a withering verdict that an ‘organised campaign’ had targeted certain academies to impose a ‘narrow, faith-based ideology’, with the same people ‘highly influential across several schools’.
A ‘culture of fear and intimidation’ had developed, he said, with ‘head teachers, including those with a proud record of raising standards… marginalised or forced out of their jobs’.
Wilshaw’s report examined many charges, including girls forced to sit at the back of classrooms, music ditched from the curriculum, an extremist, al-Qaeda sympathiser invited to preach at kids and state funds diverted to subsidise trips to Saudi Arabia.
Based on ancient Greek legend, the ‘Trojan Horse plot’ reportedly came from a leaked letter discovered in March, 2014, alleging Islamists in Britain’s second city sought to wrest control of schools and expand their warped agenda elsewhere.
Hence, a scab of local controversy erupted into a festering cyst of national dispute, with the nation’s core principles placed under a philosophical microscope and a UK prime minister minded to outline what he regards as Britishness and British values.
Cameron cited the Union flag, football and fish and chips as symbolic, but none cut to the quick of why we are who we are.
He also harked back to the Magna Carta of 1215 and the first time an English monarch’s absolute powers were curbed by law. This, though, was hardly a people’s revolt, since it merely forced bad King John to bow to will of his feudal barons and it improved the plight of long-suffering serfs not a jot.
What Magna Carta did, though, was to kick-start the process by which English common law evolved to what exists today, whereby every citizen, regardless of rank, gender or ethnicity, has the right to liberty and justice. Small wonder, then, it has been the template for countless other nations to copy.
So, certainly the law – dispensed by an independent judiciary – is valued, yet it’s not a value; neither is a parliamentary democracy, a constitutional monarchy, a moderate church, a vibrant Press and a culture of free enterprise.
Taking a millennia to develop, these pillars of the British Establishment are certainly entwined in the national psyche, but they are the products of values so abstract, they almost defy simple definition.
To hazard a guess at a few, though, I’d cite respect for freedom, justice and stoicism, that ability to withstand adversity without become hysterical.
That may partly explain the British virtue of tolerance. Because, even if some Brits are head-banging racists, collectively as a nation we possess a deep sense of fair play, which is why Shakespeare’s Sceptred Isle became a land of hope, salvation and opportunity for waves of immigrants, many escaping repression.
From the persecuted Protestant Huguenots arriving from 16th Century France – ironically ancestors of UKIP’s Nigel Farage – via the Irish navvies, who built Britain’s canals and railways in the Industrial Revolution, to Jewish migrants fleeing czarist pogroms at the turn of the 20th Century…all came and became infused with British values, each adding to the nation’s vitality.
Post World War Two, West Indians arrived to man the trains, buses and NHS, while Asians were recruited to work in the North’s fabric mills.
But integration was never easy for immigrants, because many faced walls of prejudice, manifested by anti-Semitism, xenophobia and a colour bar. Remember: it wasn’t so long ago a common sight in boardinghouse windows were signs, stating, ‘No Irish, no blacks & no dogs’.
However, there was a tacit acceptance among incomers that their adopted nation’s proud traditions and values – no matter how obscure – deserved respect and that reverence was passed on to their children.
So the country really didn’t need synthetic words like ‘multiculturalism’ foisted on it, because Britain melded into a rainbow society, which mostly succeeded…so long as everyone stuck to the script.
Neither did it require the zealous Left to force-feed the masses a dogma of political correctness, as prescribed by an arrogant, metropolitan elite, isolated from harsh reality in London’s ritzier suburbs.
But, mainly north of Watford, something was going radically awry and, instead of barriers breaking down, they were being raised, as folk witnessed irrevocable changes in their towns and cities that tested tolerance to the full.
Among some Muslim communities a hardline Islamist ideology – one denigrating the very ethos of Britishness – was being imposed that silenced the voices of the moderate majority.
Sadly, then, it has become easier to define what isn’t a British value than what is.
It is not, for example, forced marriage, the taking of child brides or the subjugation of women; it is not hostility towards other faiths or the supremacy of one; it is not discrimination against gays; it is not the encouraging of impressionable young men to destroy the society that nurtured them; it is not extremism in any of its various manifestations.
Muslim have as much right to freely practice their faith and culture in Britain as anyone and they should do so without fear or favour.
But, like all who take pride in their Britishness, warts and all, it should be understood that the very British value of mutual tolerance must triumph if Britain is to have any values left.