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.
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.
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?