On “British Values”…

There are, periodically, attempts to define “British values”: both so that our governments can promote integration and so they can do their gallant best to appear patriotic. These tend to be lists of superficial progressive virtues – gender equality, religious tolerance and so on – which ignore other elements such as local diversity, mental acquisitiveness and ironic humour. Nonetheless, however it is done, I am sceptical of attempts to systematise a nation’s “values”. It seems optimistically, obnoxiously rationalistic.

To list a nation’s values and believe one has defined it is a bit like listing ingredients such as “flour”, “eggs” and “sugar” and believing that one has defined a Christmas cake. A national culture is sustained by subtle interactions of its elements and is not easily reduced to them. Both Britain and India value religious tolerance, for example, but they mean very different things.

Even once we have admitted this we face the problem that national traits are more complex than national values. Social trust, for example, is something we have rather than something that we believe in and is difficult to analyse let alone reproduce.

One can write effectively on a national culture but I think the people best placed to do it are poets.

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3 Responses to On “British Values”…

  1. Whyaxye says:

    I think you are right to be sceptical. Such attempts stem from what Alasdair MacIntyre (in “After Virtue”) called the interminable character of our moral and political disagreements. There now being no settled values upon which we can base our arguments, such lists function as a type of beauty parade in which people try to show how their favourite values are somehow deeper or more appealing than those of their real and actual opponents. It is interesting that the “progressive virtues” which you mention and link to are most usually held by relativists. Knowing that their favoured values can always be undercut by a simple question as to why such values are ultimately important, they often need shrillness, irony, and denunciations of others in order to anchor their own position.

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  2. Simon says:

    I’m reminded of G. W. F. Hegel’s concept of “Volksgeist”, usually translated into “national character” though the literal meaning in German is “spirit of the people”. The idea is that what makes every culture unique is a distinctive worldview (and narrative about its own history) that can be reflected in all activity within its boundaries: Not just moral norms, religious practices and political/economic systems of organization but also its arts and crafts.

    I guess under Hegel’s view, both those abstract values and the more defined characteristic traits of local culture manifest the same overall ideology. The question is then, as you ask, whether a country’s extant cultural heritage really lines up that neatly into a coherent systematic ideology. I think the stuff you mentioned about Britain and India defining “religious tolerance” very differently could be an example of different Volksgeists at work, though?

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  3. Ben Sixsmith says:

    Thank you both for your excellent comments. Much to consider. I think the significance, and coherence, of a “Volksgeist” can be overstated but there is something to it. Few could easily define the “values” of their families but few would deny having a familial character.

    One thing I will add is that the character of nations has often been a patchwork. In the past, people would have attributed to a regional “character” to Yorkshire, Cornwall et cetera. Cultural and political centralisation has made this less significant, which, I think, has contributed to our identity crisis.

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