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  • How do we define ‘British values’?


    by Sunny
    10th October, 2007 at 8:43 am    

    The current edition of Prospect Magazine says:
    In July, Gordon Brown published a green paper called “The Governance of Britain.” The final section said that we need to be clearer about the rights and responsibilities of citizenship and what it means to be British. It proposed “to work with the public to develop a British statement of values.” We asked 50 writers and intellectuals to give us their thoughts on this statement and what should inform it

    I was one of the 50 asked to contribute. Below was my short response (we had a 250 word count!).

    *********

    A British statement of values that can help form a common bond across our increasingly mobile and diverse nation cannot be expressed in anything other than a new constitution.

    There are two compelling reasons for this. First, that there is no alternative, and second, that a constitution fulfils all the requirements in this debate.

    Britishness has slowly but surely moved away from being a race-based identity. What will Gordon Brown replace it with? He briefly ventured into “our way of life” territory before realising that football, queuing, jam on toast and morning tea were neither helpful nor a good starting point.

    A discussion of common values is a step in the right direction but there is a danger it will flounder in a circular discussion of commonly held cultural and social values. Suffice to say, there can never be any agreement on those.

    The only viable option for the prime minister is to emphasise common political values, expressed through things such as a strong parliamentary democracy, freedom of speech and expression, secularism, stronger civil liberties and more transparent political engagement.

    Such political values are the only markers that can unite a diverse nation. This is also why a new constitution, which explicitly codifies these sentiments, is so important. If executed in the right way it kills several birds with one stone. It encourages citizens to take ownership of their rights as a source of empowerment; helps form a common bond in the way it does with Americans; and most importantly encourages further political engagement.

    *********

    The full list of contributions is here.


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    Filed in: British Identity,Civil liberties






    23 Comments below   |  

    Reactions: Twitter, blogs


    1. chrisc — on 10th October, 2007 at 9:32 am  

      Good response.
      But the devil is in the detail.
      I would be very happy to adopt the US constitution to save time!

    2. Sofia — on 10th October, 2007 at 10:57 am  

      Not sure if this is the right place to put this, but thought it might be worth discussing as we are talking about values in a free society..I thought this article by Cath was spot on and really calls into question what kind of society we are bringing up our children in…

      http://commentisfree.guardian.co.uk/cath_elliott/2007/10/the_high_street_porn_brokers.html

    3. justforfun — on 10th October, 2007 at 11:51 am  

      …. ……..

      fine

      then

      ….This is also why a new constitution, which explicitly codifies these sentiments, is so important. If executed in the right way it kills several birds with one stone. It encourages citizens to take ownership of their rights as a source of empowerment; helps form a common bond in the way it does with Americans; and most importantly encourages further political engagement.

      It is this last bit I just don’t see following on from what you wrote before.

      To “codify” - one could substitute ‘ossify’ …at their current positions, with no hope of improving on the current position. Because once these sentiments are down on a piece of paper they will be far harder to change. Think long term - 50 years 100 years etc .

      Far better to maintain and improve political activism in a politicaly aware population, through education and campaigns AND by holding our parlimentarians to proper account - ie Vote Out Parties that are NOT willing or are unable to disipline their party leaders to keep to simple basic fundementals like honesty and truthfullness. If we as a society cannot even get our political parties to respect Parliment or us as the voters , why do you for one moment think that a piece of paper outlining a constitution is going to do it.

      It will just be a field day for lawyers and the super rich to set the precidents as to what will be allowable under the ‘constitution’.

      Power comes from the ability to exercise a vote and to show one cannot be taken for granted, not from a paper constitution. In this way power is safeguarded by being within the actual body of an educated and free people and not in a piece of paper that cannot flexibly deal with the future.

      Pass on to future generations an education that will allow them to make up their own minds as to what sort of society they want in the circumstances that they live in, rather than dictate from the past.

      Justforfun

    4. stu — on 10th October, 2007 at 12:13 pm  

      while all good points, why is this an essense of Britishness.

      Like most attempts to describe “Britishness”, there is little that can not be applied to any liberal state. I agree that codifying “the rights and responsibilities of citizenship” is useful but I fail to understand how this could, or indeed should, be uniquely British.

    5. Jherad — on 10th October, 2007 at 1:01 pm  

      A British Constitution eh?

      I’d love to have one - I’m just not sure who could write it. Or more accurately, who I’d trust to write it today.

      Part of the reason that Americans hold their constitution in such high regard is the passion with which it lays out fundamental principles of government and citizenship. In this age of security before freedom, of compromise and devious interpretation, could we form a constitution consisting of more than very British ‘weak tea’, to be reinterpreted, revised, sidestepped, and ultimately ignored at every ‘emergency’?

      I fear we’d end up with a pithy, sentimental and crucially powerless token bit of paper, with every article containing either get-out clauses (smash glass in case of terrorism/union action/recession/bad hair day) or language so open-ended as to mean anything.

    6. shariq — on 10th October, 2007 at 1:45 pm  

      I can see the benefits of a constitution. However the issues are very complicated and a can see a whole bunch of pitfalls. Don’t have time right now, but will try and go into more detail later.

    7. Rumbold — on 10th October, 2007 at 1:45 pm  

      Sunny:

      254 words- you went over.

    8. Boyo — on 10th October, 2007 at 2:08 pm  

      Yes adopt the US Constitution (just cut out the bit about guns). After all, it is THE expression of post-Enlightenment British values. What more could we want? Something that codifies our values and spring from our past.

      God spare us from some dreary Euro-fudging.

    9. Sofi — on 10th October, 2007 at 2:55 pm  

      i dont understand how asking for honesty and transparency is going to be very productive. for that, politics would need to be completely rehashed and rebranded.

    10. sonia — on 10th October, 2007 at 4:36 pm  

      nicely written Sunny ( if i do say so meself!)

      just a thought re: the american comparison:

      a fat lot of good the constitution did in helping avoid the Florida debacle.

      does having a common value written down in paper turn it into a shared reality? shared reality comes from communication with each other, yes people need a shared medium. its called the public sphere. and i think the UK is doing a hell of a better job in this regard than the US, constitution or no constitution.

      there’s much more political apathy in the US than over here.

    11. sonia — on 10th October, 2007 at 4:37 pm  

      sniff, good ol blighty

    12. sonia — on 10th October, 2007 at 4:39 pm  

      heh heh sofi.

      the constitution is i suppose - what we would like to aim for.

      so again, in the case of the US, having it written down doesn’t seem to have made much difference to anyone. they all forgot anyway.

    13. koppakabana — on 10th October, 2007 at 5:42 pm  

      sunny, i don’t know - and believe me, i’ve thought about the pros and cons of a british constitution quite a lot.

      in some sense, a constitution is a declaration of freedom, a stepping stone in disengaging from a history and moving onto a new future.

      who or what is britain fighting for freedom from?

      also, how would you ensure that this constitution is equally representated outside of london, in the places of the country that need it the most?

      re: american political apathy, i agree on a national scale but would argue that american communities are much more active on a local scale.

    14. Boyo — on 10th October, 2007 at 8:36 pm  

      I think Americans are apathetic because they are reasonably happy. And why? Because it’s a constitutional right!

    15. Don — on 10th October, 2007 at 8:42 pm  

      Boyo,

      Nah, they only have the right to pursue happiness. That’s a fool’s errand.

    16. soru — on 10th October, 2007 at 10:45 pm  

      The problem with a US-style written constitution is that the legal industry is dominated by the hired lawyers of corporations and the wealthy. Consequently, it would, in actual effect, take immense power out of the hands of ordinary people and hand it to the kind of people you see currently pursuing libel actions.

      Before I could trust the legal industry to play that much larger a part in the running of the country, it would need radical reform. Perhaps something like setting up a National Legal Service staffed by lawyers motivated at least partly by idealism and respect for the truth.

      Rather than being hired by the rich to lie by the hour.

    17. Sunny — on 11th October, 2007 at 4:51 am  

      stu: but I fail to understand how this could, or indeed should, be uniquely British.

      I don’t think a constitution or what it says is necessarily ‘British’ or unique. What makes a nation unique are its cultural habits. But it’s difficult to unite people around them since they are so varied and usually a matter of taste.

      What’s British about a constitution will be a process and the ownership of such a document. We can use a constitution to express our rights as British citizens.

      Although, I’m agreed with Shami Chakrabarti that basic human rights should be applicable and enshrined universally, not just for citizens.

      Rumbold: 254 words- you went over.

      Why you little…!

      Shariq: However the issues are very complicated and a can see a whole bunch of pitfalls. Don’t have time right now, but will try and go into more detail later.

      Write an article!

    18. Desi Italiana — on 11th October, 2007 at 5:08 am  

      Oh, that’s right, I forgot- YOU GUYS DON’T HAVE A CONSTITUTION! *smirk*

      However, I should wipe that grin off my face because I can’t feel too superior over you folks, especially because we’ve still kept the oh-so-archaic second amendment.

      And we have legalized a lot of unsavory things.

      And the 5th amendment doesn’t really exist for people who are “enemy combatants”- who have never been formally charged, of course.

      Also, we are grandmasters at acrobatic interpretations of the Constitution for not so great things.

      I could go on and on about the systematic stripping away of our civil liberties and undermining our rights.

      “does having a common value written down in paper turn it into a shared reality? shared reality comes from communication with each other, yes people need a shared medium. its called the public sphere.”

      Good question, but it’s not simply writing something down on paper; it’s about enacting those things on paper. I do think that there’s something to be said about a codified set of rules that would (theoretically and ideally) be available for folks who don’t have access to the “public sphere”.

      “i think the UK is doing a hell of a better job in this regard than the US, constitution or no constitution.”

      Hey, if it ain’t broke, don’t try to fix it (but maintenance, upgrading, upkeep are still important).

      “there’s much more political apathy in the US than over here.”

      I don’t know about that…there are plenty of folks here that are politically active; it’s just that they are folks with whom I don’t agree with and/or stand for things I don’t believe in. The immigration mobilization was huge, though.

      And it’s really tough to have a concerted, national political movement because we’re so freaking spread out in a big huge country. Like, it’s easier to get 3 million people to the piazza in Rome to march against the war as they did in 2003; most people can get their on trains from wherever they are in Italy. It’s different if I have to go to Washington DC for a protest for which I will have to fork over around $400-$500 round trip on an airplane (from SFO to DC).

      Other reasons for political apathy: people feel like their votes don’t count; people think the politicians are a bunch of liars who care more about campaign money (critique is not untrue); they feel like there are no alternatives other than the Demos and Repubes (who basically sound the same) due to the fact that we have an electoral college that sustains the two party system; they are too tired from work to sit down and educate/inform themselves of candidates (we are working more and longer hours for less money).

    19. Desi Italiana — on 11th October, 2007 at 5:13 am  

      Another reason for voter apathy: people think elections and campaigns are just sheninigans. Which they kind of are.

      One thing I’ve noticed is that we Americans like to MARKET ourselves as BELIEVING in “democracy,” having the right to vote for our leaders, and being active participants, etc. But I’ve come across quite a few people- who weren’t leftist, Chomsky reading people but your average WASP- who spoke about disenchantment with the whole electoral process and not feeling too great about our choices.

      I’m totally going off on a tangent, so I’ll stop here :)

    20. sonia — on 11th October, 2007 at 1:00 pm  

      constitutions are marketing documents.

      like -you know - mission statements - and “principles” that large corporates ( and others) have - which usually you can take to mean what they do is the complete opposite to what they have in a mission statement.

      of course, does that mean one shouldn’t have a mission statement? Not necessarily, because people know most of the time it doesn’t really mean anything.

      by all means lets’ have a written constitution.
      however there seems to be an implication that because there isn’t a “thing” called a constitution, we dont know what we’re doing over here. Au contraire.

    21. justforfun — on 11th October, 2007 at 1:14 pm  

      Sonia - why limit our ambition to mere “Mission Statements”? The British have often been at the fore front of political thought and development. So lets go one better than a “Constitution”. Lets have Targets - we all know they are good for us.

      We would all be forced to subscribe to them and at the end of each year, each citizen can get a bigger or smaller tax rebate. We will of course be rigged up with my Orwell Machine (have I mentioned my Orwell machine before? - its in development at this very moment) - and on the 5th of April there will be a web based uploading of your yearly biometric files to HMRC. Beware missed Targets !!! (such as too much recorded racism or swearing. These will be penalized by immediate direct debit withdrawals from on-shore bank accounts)

      Justforfun

    22. justforfun — on 11th October, 2007 at 1:18 pm  

      Of course there will be scope for “Secret Targets” - but shhhhh …. I have built this capability into the Orwell Machine already, just in case their provision can be slipped into the Constitution (by using invisible ink as a last resort)

      Justforfun

    23. sonia — on 11th October, 2007 at 3:23 pm  

      :-) yep absolutely JFF..!

      perhaps Sunny already thinks PSA targets of each Borough Council/Unitary authority/district council what have you ought to be included in this constitution. and neighbourhood renewal floor targets too.

      because if they weren’t in the constititution, we wouldn’t know about them would we?

      :-@ mind you, the same kind of people who go around reading up on PSAs and floor targets are prob. the same people who actually know whats in the US constitution.

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