A little while ago, somebody called Amy Boone commented on a Times column by Alice Thomson, citing the following as examples of what might be called British Values:
- Fair play, including how to be a good loser. Means elections do not lead to bloodshed.
- Chivalry towards the weak. Means quality of life is kinder on a daily basis.
- Rule-of-law and doing your duty. Means courts and the political system are (generally) not corrupt, or at least that corruption is an exception and vulnerable to exposure. Means police do not seek bribes, nor routinely beat you up.
- Stiff upper lip. Means grievances are not nursed and that feuds are frowned upon as self-indulgent.
- Queuing up. Means you will be respected and get your turn, and not get an elbow in the face by the stronger one in a crush and end up empty-handed and very aggrieved.
- One last point: humourful self-effacement. Which means Brits are too shy to identify any of the above or define them as British, so may be eclipsed as a culture (and, honestly, wouldn’t that be a terrible loss for the world?).
This, written by somebody who obviously and carefully loved her experience of living in this culture, is thoughtful and full of insight. What I notice about these things are that they all lead to a certain sort of communal action. There is a real awareness of other people and their space. I notice this often in London on the tube. Visitors from cultures where things like other-awareness and queuing are not so obvious often just push past you. They are not being rude – they just do not have this amazing other-awareness that has been bred into us.
This is a truly British value, and one that, for instance, the Belgians (or at least the Flemish) do not seem to possess. Time without number when we were in Ghent in 2013 on our first Comenius visit of our recently completed project, we tried to move along a bus, go along a platform, move to a table in a restaurant, get to the waiting door of a tram, and our way was blocked each time by excessively other-unaware Belgians. It got to be a joke amongst us, so obvious was the lack of social antennae in this population. So I am of one mind with Ms Boone, that these are characteristics that bespeak other values that we ought to think harder about, and in understanding them, might give us a sense of how to articulate further the things we truly feel are our deepest national values. It is an intriguing list, especially when one considers how few in the way of refugees and immigrants we have been willing to absorb – possibly a case of Criteria 3 & 5 above overpowering Criterion 2. Many of our national neuroses arise when these well-founded values come into conflict with each other!
I have just finished reading Ben Ryan’s essay “A Soul for the Union” published as a report for the Theos think-tank, and co-sponsored by the Christian Political Foundation for Europe. It is a very readable summary of the history of the foundation of the EU and particularly the Christian Democrat imperative that was argued for by Adenauer, Schumann and De Gasperi and Monnet in the 1950s (and that led to the creation of the European Coal and Steel Community). He argues that the moral reasons for union (peace in Europe, particularly between Germany and France, social justice and better employment conditions for Europe’s workers) have been replaced by economic ones (mainly) and traces the loss of the Catholic Christian democratic purpose in the 1970s and 1980s and the impact of that loss on the current set up where the European elite is no longer trusted and the principle of subsidiarity (that decisions should be taken as closely as possible to the populations they affect) is seen as less important than the creation of a European superstate. I recommend the paper as a good read, even if the conclusions (see below) seem more contentious.
All of this, by the way, is debated thoroughly on the excellent website and blog Reimagining Europe, which is a good source for further reading as well.
Ryan’s argument is that there is a way of putting the soul back into the EU – through a reconsideration or reframing of those policies and political imperatives that were vital at the beginning of the EU, and which made it the global success story that it has been. He suggests, in the third chapter of his paper, some possible ways forward:
- To re-create the sense of European identity, so lost in the last 20 years: Europe needs “concrete achievements (that) need to be focused on actively building real loyalty, identity and re-establishing the moral purpose of Europe”
- To re-frame Europe as a Christan continent: arguing that Europe is only a continent at all if it is imagined around values and ideals (otherwise it stretches all the way to the Urals, or even to China!), Ryan argues that (Europe) is not, to be sure, defined only by Christianity, but neither is it possible to remove Christianity from the equation…this is to argue that a Europe that does not remember what it is and what it has come from is weaker for that failure. To develop a really meaningful identity for Europe (as a successful Union surely must if it is to have real longevity) the Christian element must be remembered.
- To recreate European solidarity: Ryan suggests a number of areas where Europe-wide measures that effectively re-balanced the burden some states face from the current migration/refugee crisis, could be agreed upon. These he suggests should include the reform of the Dublin System (where applicants must apply in the first state they arrive in once they have arrived and not before they set sail), the setting up of safe spaces in North Africa and the Middle East to house and process refugees whilst they make visa and asylum applications, and a better system for patrolling the Mediterranean and Aegean to ensure that those making the hazardous journeys do so safely and not at the whim of people smugglers.
- To re-focus subsidiarity: whilst Ryan sees the need for this at local level, the structural issues he suggests might be more open to debate. As a minimum, he writes, the establishment of a directly elected President of the Commission whose programme and performance would be accountable to European citizens seems sensible. Similarly essential is a clear separation of powers established in the treaty between Council, Commission and Parliament to prevent confusion of roles and unwarranted interference.
- To improve working conditions and employment across the Union: This was one of the original intentions, rooted in Catholic social teaching, of the European project. It was a startling success to begin with but it ran out of steam once the mechanisms erected to ensure it began to be of no use. Tony Judt argues this point well in Postwar. The current application of this issue, Ryan argues, is to the issue of Greek (and other Southern European) debt. In this case, he believes that a re-balancing of the way that the creditor nations demand interest from the debtor nations is a serious undermining of the original purpose that all European workers should be able to get by. Whilst it is possible that what Judt calls the “social democratic moment” has passed, Ryan believes that there are mechanisms, such as linking debt repayments to GDP via GDP-indexed bonds, would be a just and morally defensible way out of the crisis.
- To build the moral identity of the union through a renewed commitment to peace: after the disasters of Bosnia and Kosovo, and the somewhat pathetic response to Russian aggression, the ability of the EU to secure peace anywhere is in doubt. However, the basic democratic commitment of western European countries means that deploying their armies is safer than allowing other regional armies with much greater corruption records, in areas of conflict as peacekeepers. Whilst as the UK, we tend to be gravely suspicious of this, we ought not to be. Underpinning the commitment to peace has been “the great success of the European project…to create a political and economic environment in which peace flourishes…”, underpinned by a commitment to human rights and liberal democracy.
- To re-establish a common concern for environmental health: Ryan argues that this is the “great partial success story” of the EU and he is right. Countless environmental goods have been made possible through targeted environmental funding, across the continent, so that the difference between those countries that are in the EU and those just outside it often are most clearly differentiated by the efficiency of their fossil-fuel energy policies. He advocates (in a protectionist way?) the refusal to import coal from countries with poor environmental records, such as Serbia and Ukraine as giving the EU a “stronger moral identity”.
I was left feeling as though this paper, as thorough as it is in its survey and as clear as it is in its analysis, failed to address the heart of the matter, even obliquely, which is the health of the national churches. It is our failure as churches to have addressed the social picture emerging in Europe – worse, to correct the mistakes that led to the two world wars themselves and for which the EU was a necessary healing – that has led us to the present situation where of all the vital social institutions that contributed to the thinking in the early EU (“Catholic social teaching”), it is the church that has come off the worst. There has also been a failure, I think, to address the extent to which national churches were made to serve national interests through two wars.
I have wandered well away from British values now, but between starting this post and finishing it, we have been given a date for the EU “remain/leave” referendum. All of these “value” issues are in the front of people’s minds. Perhaps my hope is that the richest values we have as British citizens, long inculcated, need to be shared with our European brothers and sisters, whilst in turn we learn from them. However, the most characteristic British value (one that came from both feudalism and from the Protestant Reformation) – the reduction of everything to monetary value, that Napoleon recognised when he called us a nation of shopkeepers – is not something I would be so keen to share, and we have much to learn from our continental neighbours about what else it is in life that brings the richer value.