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What are Cameron's 'British values'?

The discourse on British values smacks of neo-imperialism in a post-colonial world.

Last updated: 18 Jun 2014 13:31
Myriam Francois-Cerrah

Myriam Francois-Cerrah is a freelance journalist. She is studying for a DPhil at Oxford University, focusing on Islamic movements in Morocco.
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British PM David Cameron delivered a speech outlining values that need to be taught in British schools [AP]

UK Prime Minister David Cameron's recent speech on "British values", published as an op-ed in The Daily Mail, had all the hallmarks of a colonialist eulogy. If the colonial project was about land and power, it was also a cultural project which involved exporting a presumed superior culture and imposing it on presumed inferior peoples.

We in Europe have a long history of defining ourselves in opposition to the great "other". The Greeks often contrasted themselves with the Asians who were deemed to be servile, ruled by tyrants and corrupt, whereas Greeks were virtuous and freedom loving. Viewing Islam as the great threat also dates back to the days of competing empires, in which Islam came to be the measure against which European Christians forged their identity.

"[F]reedom, tolerance of others, accepting personal and social responsibility, respecting and upholding the rule of law" are values all human beings aspire to and the British have no monopoly over. In fact, a recognition of the multiplicity of routes through which humanity has arrived at these ideals, acts as a form of global solidarity, of mutual respect and ultimately, of equality. Although many societies lack these ideals in their formal structures, this shouldn't be taken as a reflection of their rejection, but of the tumultuous conditions which impede their full realisation.

This wink to the right of the right was evident in Cameron's choice to refer to 'fish and chips', rather than Britain's national dish of curry, a hankering after a romanticised image of 'white Britain', untainted by these 'foreign' influences, engaging those alienated through his adoption of liberal policies on issues such as gay marriage.

Any discussion of British values can't be blind to the historical inequities undertaken in the name of those very values, and any assessment of other cultures cannot occur outside of an understanding of their position within the global system of wealth. When Cameron stated "I strongly believe our values form the foundation of our prosperity", he could have inverted the sentence with far more accuracy to: "I strongly believe our prosperity forms the foundation for our values."

We have come to formalise, institutionalise and uphold certain principles thanks to a level of affluence which not only came off the back of many nations but deprived them of the ability to achieve those same objectives. We absolutely should be bashful about our "greatness" because it came at the expense of others who continue to suffer the consequences to this day. The supreme haughtiness is to then decry the backwardness of the very nations which we helped relegate to the developmental dung heap.

What's more, to speak of the need to assert the greatness of British values over a portion of society requires examining the power relations which govern those dictating the values and those being dictated to. As the educationalist Sir Tim Brighouse rightly points out, in reference to a number of schools in Birmingham targeted in Cameron's "British values" speech, "what the proud city of Birmingham needs least is to be treated as a colonial outpost of London".

Cameron's op-ed is a clear means of expressing the dominance of white, secular liberal Britons, and articulating the commensurate respect of that supremacy from those deemed subordinate, in this case, minorities and specifically Muslims from some of the most impoverished areas in the country.  It was also an attempt to arrogate the meaning of "British values" while excluding those targeted by the speech from inclusion in any discussion over their ultimate definition.

Identifying "the other"

The claims about historical truth made in the speech mask the very real construction of a narrative, a particular vision of "Britishness" in which some Britons apparently have no say. This vision is asserted as enduring and unchanging in nature when such narratives always involve a convenient reimagining of history, as illustrated through the grandiose extolling of the Magna Carta.

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As the historian Dr Dominic Selwood points out in the Telegraph, "despite widespread beliefs about the charter's contents, it actually contained very little of significance." It also had a number of clauses we might not be so keen on highlighting today, such as "No one will be taken or imprisoned upon the appeal of a woman for the death of anyone except her husband" and provisions against Jewish bankers.

The discourse concerning the "otherness" and danger posed by Muslims is reasserted through manufactured hysteria about otherwise mundane aspects of Muslim life.

From halal meat to circumcision, the construction of a mega-mosque or the amplification of abhorrent, but thankfully limited social injustices: forced marriage, honour killing, female genital mutilation - all these are portrayed as inherently Islamic issues, despite evidence of their presence across ethnic and religious groupings.

The consequence is a social stigma attached to the Muslim label, reinforced through media associations of relatively uncontroversial issues, such as separating boys and girls for certain activities, with far more serious allegations, such as endorsing extremist speakers. An unconscious equivalence is drawn between the two, equating a practise otherwise normalised in other parts of British society such as single sex schools, single sex clubs or facilities with support for al-Qaeda-style views.

Most recently, former Prime Minister Tony Blair suggested that the problems identified within a number of schools in Birmingham somehow reflect the type of Islamic extremism "practised by Boko Haram, the Nigerian terrorist network". This slippage creates the notion of a monolithic Islamic threat, stretching across the globe. Such high-profile statements reinforce perceptions of essential "otherness" and of a latent threat posed by the so-called enemy within.

Other social issues are labelled in manner which essentialises them, as a means of locating the route of oppression within Muslim culture, rather than broader, patriarchal practises found across societies. The term honour killing suggests phenomenon culturally distinct from domestic violence, which afflicts 30 percent of British women.

The same might be said of forced marriages, for which new legislation has recently been passed. The establishment of a specific law to target this practice, one already criminalised under existing laws, reinforces the perception of a culturally specific crime, rather than recognising coercion as one of a myriad of patriarchal oppressions. As activist Amrit Wilson states, the reason prosecutions are so low isn't to do with laws, or a lack thereof, but rather, "These are often not implemented, partly through lack of will and partly because most services which support women through the legal process have been abolished." Such laws actually serve a distinct purpose: They are about defining ourselves against an imagined bogeyman, rather than recognising shared ideals.

'A wink to the right'

Ultimately, the debate on British values hinges on the nature of liberalism and whether we think of liberalism as a tool which allows for the articulation of varied and mutually contradictory viewpoints, including illiberal ones, or if we consider it a narrow ideology, which requires a muscular imposition on those who fail to recognise its truth. The irony of the latter position should hopefully not be lost.

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It is also an opportunity for the Tory party, which has lost support among its more conservative followers to pander to those voices who might otherwise be leaning towards the UK Independence Party or UKIP.

This wink to the right of the right was evident in Cameron's choice to refer to "fish and chips", rather than Britain's national dish of curry, a hankering after a romanticised image of white Britain, untainted by these foreign influences, engaging those alienated through his adoption of liberal policies on issues such as gay marriage.

Every empire has claimed it has a mission to enlighten, bring order and democracy. Although the empire may be long gone, the mentality which views the descendants of the former colonies as subjects remains. The motivation for imposing "superior" British values on others was bound up in a doctrine of European superiority and racism. Back in the 19th century, it was a British mission to lead the backward non-European nations to civilisation. Today, it's all about leading the backward non-European subjects to civilisation, a notion of British greatness constructed off the back of its own minorities.

What we do need as a society is a common language, a critical and contested understanding of global history and our place within it, and some common ideals. The ideals cannot be forged by a section of society as a civilising project, but rather should include a broad-based discussion on the nature and manifestation of those ideals. To paraphrase the great philosopher Aime Cesaire, no culture possesses "the monopoly of beauty, of intelligence, of force. And there is a place for all at the rendez-vous of victory".

Myriam Francois-Cerrah is a freelance journalist. She is studying for a DPhil at Oxford University, focusing on Islamic movements in Morocco.

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The views expressed in this article are the author's own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera's editorial policy.

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