How 'British Values' Have Been Weaponised

Charting the progression of the phrase, from Tony Blair to Theresa May.

by Kieran Yates; illustrated by Jonny Mellor
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07 June 2017, 9:22am

This is the first instalment of "British Values", a new column by Kieran Yates examining what it means to live in a country that expects you to constantly prove your "Britishness".

We hear how they will prevail after a terrorist attack. We hear about them as we wage a zero tolerance approach to counter-terrorism in schools. We read about them in UKIP manifestos when they're pushed through our letterboxes and into our homes. "British Values" – the beliefs that make us who we are and define what we stand for, and also perhaps one of the most divisive phrases of our generation.

Of course, there aren't really a specific set of values that fall under this catch-all term. Sometimes "British Values" means compassion, tolerance and openness; other times, the phrase means colonial nostalgia, voluntarily cleaning rubbish from the streets for the Queen, surveilling teenagers at school and tweeting the quotes of lauded racist Winston Churchill.

But it hasn't always been this way. The phrase only really began creeping into modern political rhetoric via Tony Blair, in his famous speech on British identity in 2000, when he talked about British values meaning "fair play, creativity, tolerance and an outward-looking approach to the world".

David Cameron's now-infamous five-year plan to tackle extremism in 2009 really made the phrase a staple of politicking. Still, his was an "Oi, oi, I'm one of the lads – honest!" kind of nationalism; in a 2014 Mail On Sunday article he literally compares British values to "fish 'n' chips, football and the Union Jack", before tacking on a cheeky reference to ramping up school surveillance. A pointed Us and Them distinction was starting to be made, but it wasn't until Theresa May – then-Home Secretary – picked up the phrase and ran with it that it came to mean what it does today. Anyone she deemed to be an enemy of the state was instantly guilty of flouting British Values.

Her tactic worked. During the general election campaign in 2015, she pledged to Britain that if the Conservatives came to power she would introduce, among other things, "a positive campaign to promote British values". Her party was then re-elected, this time with a Tory majority. A couple of months later, then-Prime Minister David Cameron tweeted about a speech he'd be making that would lay out how we, the British people, could "tackle the poisonous Islamist ideology that is so hostile to British values".


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Since then, British Values as a political term has neatly trickled down into social policy and created the paranoid lens through which the government and certain sections of the media see non-white British citizens. It presents itself when propping up the Prevent strategy in education; it is used to flag up the need of funds to control migration; it galvanises people like Fergus Wilson, one of the UK's biggest Buy-to-Let landlords, to instruct estate agents not to rent to "coloured" people "because of the curry smell".

A soundbite is sometimes just a soundbite. But sometimes it's an aggressive tool used to silence, strangle and dispossess communities of colour – because after all, no white communities are ever accused of not being "British". Yes, you might be a "shirker", but you're still British.

In 2014, The Sun ran a cover that always comes to mind when I consider Us and Them Britishness. It features a woman in a Union Jack hijab with the headline "The Sun urges Brits of all faiths to stand up to extremists". On paper, this might have read as a rallying cry – a chance for the Big Society to come together and collectively fight the enemy with some good old fashioned Blitz spirit. But in reality, the implication is clear: unless you are proving cut-out-and-stick-on-your-window British allegiance – unless you're a Muslim reaching for a Union Jack and speaking out – you're the enemy.

The political landscape has taken that thinking and applied it to policy, the result being that the UK is becoming more divided than ever. Proving allegiance to "Britishness" has become a prerequisite for survival – not only for British Muslims, but for refugees and existing minority communities who are increasingly othered. This column will look at just how this is playing out across British society, via stories on everything from education, housing, media and culture, through policing, detention and deportation.

The government officially describes British Values as a belief in "freedom and democracy, tolerance of others, the rule of law, individual liberty and a mutual respect for and tolerance of those with different faiths and beliefs and for those without faith". Whatever way the election pendulum swings this Thursday, it will be interesting to see who exactly upholds these values in the way they're described.

@kieran_yates / jonnymellor.com