Since Michael Gove introduced the concept of ‘British Values’ in June 2014, in the light of the Trojan Horse scandal, it’s always been a contentious concept in our schools – why do values have to have a nationality? Is it the duty of schools to define the values of their communities? Was this a kind of moral imperialism, an updating of the Tebbit test? The fact that it then became written into the Ofsted framework and was therefore used to judge schools, only increased the sense that this was not so much a celebration of our shared heritage, as an attempt at forced cultural compliance.
It wasn’t so much that people didn’t support the values of democracy, individual liberty, the rule of law, and mutual respect and tolerance – on one level, they were hard to disagree with. Ultimately, they were conceived as an attempt to define the core beliefs that brought us together as Britons. Perhaps they were always doomed to fail – reducing the complexities of a modern multicultural, multifaith, multidimensional and multifaceted geographical entity to a handful of values defined as uniquely British always ran the risk of excluding more people than it included.
However, if it wasn’t challenging enough already, the fact that it landed a couple of years before the most divisive period in our recent history probably doomed it to failure. Over the last few years, the country seems to have been split like never before. In the context of the deep rift caused by Brexit, the very idea that we shared common values seemed far-fetched. Ultimately, Brexit was reduced to a battle of competing value systems. Whichever side of the fence you stood, this was not about policy differences, it was about a fundamental view of Britain’s place in the world. This division seemed to be real, and it seemed to be permanent.
Times have changed. Over the last couple of months, the passionate and deeply polarized arguments over Brexit seem to belong to a different age – we have more important things to deal with at the moment. At the time of writing, the news is carrying stories of conflict and protests in the United States as arguments rage about how and when to lift the lockdown. By contrast, apart from a few exceptions that test the rule, people in Britain have reacted with a remarkable level of consistency and unanimity. We have followed guidance, supported the NHS and carers with one voice, accepted the restrictions on our freedom with equanimity – even our children have dutifully been completing their lessons online and observing the lockdown.
New values are emerging, values that seem to represent who we are as a society. The sense of connection is growing – we sympathise and empathise with individual people’s stories in the news and on social media, we worry about the safety and health of people we don’t know and will never meet, we’re even saying hello to people as we pass them in the street – unthinkable even 6 weeks ago.
I’d like to propose a new list of core Values that British people have rallied around, with the full acknowledgement that they aren’t unique to our own country. However, they are values that have not always been obvious or fully acknowledged in our society, but have come to the fore in recent weeks.
Firstly, Humility – the understanding that true worth comes from the contribution you make to others, not the material possessions you have. Care workers, refuse collectors, supermarket shelf stackers, teaching assistants, agricultural workers, hospital porters, delivery drivers – there are so many people who do jobs that are clearly not valued when it comes to allocating salaries, but when the chips are down, they are among the jobs we really need to happen. Like many others, I have resolved never again to take these unsung workers for granted. In the meantime, many of those who had been lauded primarily because of their material success or reputation, have never seemed less relevant.
Secondly, Selflessness – the understanding that there is such a thing as Society. So many people have made sacrifices for the sake of others, for some that has meant risking their own health and wellbeing to care for others – for many of us, it has simply been limiting our own freedom to go where we want, when we want to. Whether it’s Captain Tom raising millions for the NHS by walking round his garden, or neighbours offering to pick up essential items from the shops, the question ‘what’s in it for me?’ has never seemed less relevant. Alongside the key workers are the army of volunteers who have been so willing to step up in the service of others and the wider community.
Thirdly, Resilience – we prize determination and stoicism in the face of adversity. It’s not just the skill and expertise of doctors and other essential workers that we have depended upon, it’s also their sheer doggedness – we know that people have dragged themselves into work, often in heartbreaking and perilous conditions because they have been needed by others. The list of people undergoing their own personal and familial tragedies grows longer, but still they pick themselves up and carry on, for the wider good.
Finally, Governance by Consent – this is a society that runs on our shared willingness to do what’s right, at least as important as doing what’s lawful. At the start of our lockdown, there was widespread scepticism (including from some official quarters) about the ability and willingness of the British people to go along with measures that inconvenienced individuals but benefitted society as a whole. There have, of course, been well-documented examples of the rule breakers, but new social norms have been established very quickly. We queue patiently outside shops, try not to buy more than we need, recognise the unfamiliar social rules – we understand that mistakes will be made but the vast majority of people are trying their best.
I know this isn’t the full picture, and I don’t underestimate the difficulties many people are going through, whether as a result of poverty, domestic violence or loneliness. This also isn’t about a ‘silver lining’ – we would all be much, much better off if this had never happened. However, this difficult time is a reminder that fundamentally, there are far more things that unite rather than divide us.