Bake Off, burkinis and the lessons for counter-extremism

As the UK’s counter-extremism policies have evolved over the past decade, working out what it means to be British has found a place at their core.

“Britishness” is marked out in policy as the counter-point to extremism. In particular, the 2011 Prevent strategy offers the definition of “radicalisation” as “vocal or active opposition to fundamental British values.”

A nice, succinct way of putting it. So long as we’re sure what those values are exactly.

Probably Prevent isn’t intended to target commuters opting for a macchiato over a morning brew, or those who protest our socks-and-sandals heritage. But just to avoid confusion, the strategy does set out our British values in black and white.

Any guesses? (Don’t worry if you’re struggling- the only person I found with an immediate correct answer was an ex-registrar for citizenship.)

One point for any of the following: democracy, the rule of law, individual liberty and tolerance.

So far so vague.

Prevent demonstrates the inevitable complications of putting identity into words. Of course it’s difficult to object to democracy and tolerance, but is that really what makes us feel “British”?

By sticking to universal notions, the Prevent definition avoids conflict and fabricates a British identity that serves the counter-extremism agenda very neatly. But if the intention were to strengthen our sense of unity under a shared image, it is perhaps a little uninspired.

So how else can we set the parameters for Britishness?

The List-of-Stuff approach

If British values were decided by Facebook poll, an extremist would be someone interfering with our rights to expose our hairy legs in shorts, keep our upper lip stiff and offer unnecessary apologies. All while drinking tea, of course (with some potential for controversy over the milk-in-first debate).

And those are just the core principles. Further suggestions include loving the underdog, playing fair and scowling at restaurant bills.

Because that’s what happens as soon as we stray from broad, abstract notions of identity, we start to catalogue the almost unlimited number of things that distinguish Britishness: habits and behavioural quirks, food, drinks, books, famous people, sayings.

The UK’s International Centre for the Study of Radicalisation have set out to do pretty much just that, to create a ‘British manifesto’ and a complementary canon of ‘classical texts’, all in an effort to establish a firmly rooted notion of Britishness that can weather the challenges of extremism and social disharmony.

Inevitably this is a complicated and challenging task. But is it even necessary? If the aim is to create a sense of Britishness that stops young, socially isolated Brits turning to Jihadism or dissuades a family from Bradford from joining ISIS in Syria, then the benefits of a reading list or a British manifesto are not exactly obvious.

The Wear-it-on-your-Sleeve approach

France’s burkini debate gave pause for thought on this side of the Channel too over the presumed conflict between “ostentatious religious dress” and national values.

Burkini Britain
Onlookers intervene in a spoof burkini arrest in Southend

An onlooker’s intervention in a spoof altercation between a burkini-wearer and policeman on Southend beach captured wonderfully what burkini-gate has to say about Britishness.

‘She’s obviously a Muslim. Do not discriminate against her religion. You can’t do that. That’s bulls***.’

An A* response on the Prevent scale for defending British values. Perhaps those values of tolerance and standing up for individual liberty aren’t so abstract after all.

Certainly, the scene reveals a reassuring difference between British and French approaches to a threatened national identity. In France, the atmosphere of the burkini debate is mirrored in the less-reported, but more worrying, plans for national “centres of reintegration and citizenship”, de-indoctrination hubs that will use military discipline and strip away the visual aspects of religious identity, (cadets will wear military uniform, salute to the Tricolore and sing the national anthem daily) in an attempt to retrain French citizens identified as vulnerable to radicalisation.

The plan has been heavily criticised by those who argue that refusing to accommodate individual beliefs will “reinforce extremist mind-sets [rather] than counter them.”

Thankfully it doesn’t look like 1984 will be playing out on this side of the Sea of Brittany any time soon. For now, at least, it seems the British establishment and the general public alike recognise that there is no other way, in a diverse, modern nation, to create unity other than through a liberal, open-minded dress code.

The Bake-Off Formula

In the end, perhaps it is best to keep the parameters vague. No need to pick apart what it means to be British, but just ascent to a general penchant for tolerance and Victoria sponge.

union jack cake

If it works for Great British Bake Off, why not as a national policy? After all, the show is undeniably British. Whether it’s in the bunting, the undercurrent of lewd humour, or the carefully selected diversity of contestants, it doesn’t really matter. And there’s certainly not much gained by analysing the components, or demanding to see the contestants’ passports.

Because finally what’s important isn’t so much knowing what it means to be British, but making Britishness something that we want to identify with. If our national identity is to unite such a diverse population, the real mark of success will be in convincing us all to opt in.

Over to you, what’s your take on ‘core British values’? What are they, and is it important to know? 

Read more:

Prevent Strategy

‘Police officer’ confronts burkini-wearing woman on UK beach

International Centre for the Study of Radicalisation:

British Values in the 21st century

France tests “tough love” de-radicalisation approach



  1. Apart from democracy, there are many in the UK who do not adhere to or agree with the rule of law, individual liberty and tolerance when it suits them.
    I am not saying they are right or wrong but refusing to pay the Poll Tax or rioting when you feel your cause is right or doing something because you know you won’t get caught is not following the rule of law.
    Individual liberty as in freedom of speech is abused not taking sufficient account of the hurt it can cause and for some people tolerance goes out of the window when jobs are at stake and there are not enough services to go round.
    So to say all these people are radicalized can’t be right, can it?
    I love the idea that you can read your way out of it, but be careful some of these British classics can be radical in themselves.
    I like the idea of Britishness as being something that you cannot put your finger on and that we can joke about.
    In my opinion the issue is much deeper and revolves around inequality and the usual issues of over population, lack of jobs, lack of services leading to not feeling a full part of the country you are living in.
    There is no way that I want Britain to be like France. The burkini thing is crazy there. Excusing it with the Nice Bastille Day attack and also calling the burkini an ostentatious religious symbol are to me wrong. As is the assumption that Burkini and scarf wearers are only doing it because they are forced by their male relatives.
    It would be nice to have more tolerance of difference and encourage people to get out and mix more so we can eat more cake and understand where people are coming from.
    Emily, keep your articles coming for they are interesting and thought provoking.


    • I’d be a bit careful with one of the points you make here. The point of Prevent, here, is to say that *if* you adhere to these 4 British values then you will not be radical(ised); but that is not the same as saying (as you seem to suggest Emily’s article does say) that if you do not adhere to the 4 British values then you will be radical(ised). Ie, if ‘A’ implies ‘B’, it does not follow that ‘not A’ implies ‘not B’. (If I study at the LSE then I must be human, but it does not follow that if I do not study at the LSE then I am not human…)


  2. Emily, I like your article!

    Two quick points. One, I suggest that a reason why values such as ‘liberty’ and tolerance’ might fall under the category of ‘British values’ (rather than simply ‘values of the modern world’..) is that there is such a rich tradition of incredible British thinkers, from Mill to Burke to Bentham, who have expounded the meaning and merits of such values. Two, although I completely agree with what you said about the problems with the French approach to radicalization, I am a bit more sceptical than you about how far the naked promotion of these British values will help to prevent radicalization. For if there is a radical undercurrent of Islam that is explicitly opposed to values such as liberty and tolerance, its response to such a promotion may simply be to double-down in its opposition to these values, perhaps now with a more clear sense in which Islam (as they see it) is opposed to ‘Britishness’. One way to oppose that (and now my comment gets a bit more radical, hehe) might be to make state-schooling compulsory, in the name of political equality, and to introduce an element into the education system for which students study some of the essential ideas about liberty and tolerance (from British thinkers such as Mill, for example) and develop a taste for the validity and worth of such values. That would definitely support the mission of Prevent’s promotion of these values, by (hopefully) leading to a more authentic, inside-out support for such values among the community, including within the Muslim community.


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