The Prime Minister’s call for schools to inculcate British values more has exposed the vacuum fostered by the national curriculum and the produce of years of education dominated by left wing ideologues. Politicians are now left wondering: just what are British values?
Wherever they are, we cannot look to the future to find them, for the future is unknown; now we are searching for them; and so the only place to find them is the past. As Edmund Burke noted, the past, present and future are intrinsically linked: we are stewards of the present, holding it for future generations, recognising that we ourselves are what we inherited, and that it is easier to destroy than create.
Our ancestors have formed everything we have, and that is why history teaching is so foundational in crafting identity. British values are the product of British history; and failure to understand the second leads to loss of the first.
And history does not disappoint. Henry II struggled with Thomas Becket over the extent of the King’s power: Henry wanted to control all; Thomas begged to differ. Thomas regarded the King’s power as ending at the door of a church; Henry II would not have it.
One of Henry’s sons, John, lost the crown jewels, lost the Angevin lands to Philip II of France, betrayed his brother, endured a French invasion and got excommunicated. It resurrected the question of the King’s authority, and the Barons of England forced John to sign, nearly 800 years ago, Magna Carta. The King was now not entirely free; law was not just an expression of Royal will.
Charles I lost his head, literally, because he refused to compromise his royal authority. When Charles II was invited back it was at the behest of Parliament. Not long later, William III replaced Charles’ brother James II, and even more preconditions were placed on royal power. The message? Britain is a place where tyranny is restricted: supreme power is held in check by Parliament.
The American war of independence was a further step in this direction. Fed up of being taxed and not being allowed a political voice, the British citizens of America, sensing again their historic battle against tyranny, rose up to continue the old fight for freedom. Out of the war was born the USA: a British dream in a new state.
Yet with the EU, we find centuries of hard-won freedoms and democratic control heading across the Channel to Europe, to institutions (as Cameron discovered at the end of June when he was outvoted in the choice of Juncker as President of the European Commission) that we simply cannot control. Juncker, as Head of the Commission, will be able to initiate legislation that only a few representatives of the British people will ever have a vote on; and even they might be outvoted.
Along with decentralised power, compromise is another hard-fought-for British value. The Wars of the Roses saw two great branches of one family tear the country apart as they sought power; Henry VIII raged against the Pope to achieve his divorce; Charles I went to war against Parliament; and finally, as the 1700s arrived, the country realised that messy compromises are actually sometimes the best answers. Elizabeth I’s Church of England looked remarkably Catholic; yet involved the input of many devout Protestants.
Connected to compromise, there is the maxim, eloquently worded by Lord Palmerston, that Britain has “…no eternal allies and we have no perpetual enemies. Our interests are eternal and perpetual…” Any politician seeking direction should tattoo this on their arm: the interests of the British people are to be free to go out, trade, and make their way freely in the world. The pioneers who went to the Americas were individuals seeking a better life, freedom from the state, and opportunities to make money. Cecil Rhodes built his own private empire in his own private interest before the State became involved. And before Britain ruled the Raj, the East India Company did.
Yet within the European Union, Britons are denied this. The UK cannot go and make trade deals. Our trade is entirely subject to Karel De Gucht, the Commissioner for External Trade. If the Commission signs a trade deal, then everyone in Europe benefits: if the Commission does not, then everyone suffers. The UK is not free to seek our own national interest, or the interest of its citizens.
If Cameron wants to find British values, he should look into the history books. A strong, but limited state; compromise; the freedom to trade and live freely; these are the values our ancestors fought for. Remaining in an unreformed EU, where the ‘state’ is increasing; compromise is meaningless, as even if all British MEPs vote against something, they can be outvoted and so Britain is forced to accept legislation anyway; and trade is restricted by red-tape and badly-done deals, British values will continue to be elusive.