Mr Gove’s declaration that schools will, henceforth, be required to teach British Values shows just how far he has lost the plot. He has always been a libertarian ideologue, and he has removed lots of the citizenship things that Labour put in to the curriculum.
Pundits have been having a lot of fun trying to work out what British Values are; of course, they are whatever you want them to be. If the conservative Muslims of Birmingham succeed, British Values will become Muslim values; and there is nothing wrong with that – if that is how society develops. I hope it doesn’t, because I don’t hold with conservative Muslim values although there are parts of Islamic morality that I like (as well as lot I really dislike).
As it happens, it’s much easier to make a case for French values or American values – because they’re encoded in their history. Freedom, equality and brotherhood – French values in a national motto. But British values? Not so very long ago, the answer would have been simple – British Values are Protestant values. Christian, but certainly not Catholic. Mr Gove is probably thinking a bit along those lines, but he can’t say it. The Protestant enlightenment allowed the free-thinking in which our society and economy developed.
Neither can Mr Gove say secular values, although he almost certainly does mean that. France is proud of laïcité; but secularism this side of the Channel is still seen as a little cranky. It shouldn’t; religious people in particular should embrace secularism as the best guarantee of religious freedom. The opposite of secularism is state-sponsored religion, which isn’t that far from theocracy. I don’t think we can directly compare today’s Church of England to Massachusetts Puritans or the Taleban; but the Church of England under Queen Elizabeth the First wasn’t a nice organisation if you were a Catholic. The difference is one of degree, not of nature, and it was the bad experiences of the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries that led America’s founding fathers to write the First Amendment. A secular state gives no faith any special privileges, and thus it guarantees all faiths the same treatment.
In a secular society, a woman may wear the hijab, should she choose to do so; but she may not be forced to do so – either by the State or by any other player. That’s a pretty good example of a modern British Value, which most of us would endorse (I’m very uneasy with secular France’s outlawing of the hijab – it strikes me as populist, Islamophobic and illiberal).
But from the punditry and the vox pops of the last few days, another British value has emerged: the idea of good manners. It’s been renamed “respect”, but that’s a horrid weasel word. Good manners matter; as William of Wykeham said, “manners makyth man”.