In his article on Mail on Sunday, the British Prime Minister explains that values such as freedom, tolerance, social responsibility and the rule of law are virtues distinctively British that should be taught in schools. Cameron is factually, conceptually, historically and empirically wrong.
These values he describes — tolerance, freedom, social responsibility, the rule of law — are desirable and worth upholding, but they are not ‘British’. They are global values that feature at the core documents of the biggest intergovernmental organisations like the Charter of the United Nations and the Lisbon Treaty. At best, they could be described as ‘Western Values’; an equally misguided conclusion since it assumes that non-Western countries endorse slavery, which is the opposite of freedom.
Cameron is not only appropriating the whole of liberal political thought, he is also sterilising it by cutting it off from the historical developments and philosophical waves that have influenced it. Cameron’s analysis is therefore conceptually naive. It cannot capture the evolution of concepts such as freedom and toleration. A useful reading for the PM would be Lord Parekh’s book Rethinking Multiculturalism, which traces the historical, geographical and philosophical evolution of the concept of diversity, demonstrating its cross-cultural character. As the law professor John Tasioulas wrote: “real values, unlike good cheese and wine, are not geographically specified.” Britain did not invent these concepts and there is nothing distinctively British about them. The most we can say is that the UK provides a successful example for the application of some of these values; for instance, by providing religious exceptions to Sikhs, it has set a precedent for the accommodation of cultural and religious minorities in the EU.
Cameron’s appropriation of values such as freedom and toleration is not only conceptually challenged, it is also ahistorical, or even worse, historically selective. James Tully, a Canadian philosopher and one of the most celebrated Lockean scholars, has explained how John Locke’s philosophy was written at the back of British imperialism and how it was used to explain the appropriation of Aboriginal peoples’ land in the colonies. David Cameron appropriates the liberal values that philosophers like Locke have pioneered, but he does not explain the historical context that brought them about. He does not talk about British imperialism, slavery and racism, which are fundamental characteristics of the British Empire. If Britain is to be proclaimed the originator of these values, then it is only fair to highlight its other contributions to human civilisation rather than to cherry-pick the bits of history that make Britain proud.
Cameron’s rhetoric on British Values is also empirically misguided. It misrepresents the current debates in British society. The PM used a fabricated letter — a hoax — to argue that Britain is threatened by Islamic extremists. Within this narrative, the non-extremists are described as moderates. And moderate is what you are before you become an extremist. He is making a double division: on the one hand he divides British society between those that are properly British and uphold the values of Britain and those that are not; and on the other hand, he divides Muslims into moderates and extremists.
In doing so he is silencing the overwhelming majority of Muslims living in the UK; people who are political liberals that accept the main premises upon which the British society is structured. These people are making demands on the grounds of liberal equality. They ask for the same treatment as the members of the majority societal culture, whose culture is engrained into the institutions of the state. The most obvious example of the ethnocultural bias of the British state can be seen in the appointments at the House of Lords: it has 26 Anglican Bishops as Spiritual Peers that influence the law on ‘moral’ issues such as homosexuality. Another example is the debate on faith schools, which is presented as a distinctively Muslim demand, obscuring away from the fact that Christian Schools of the Anglican church that receive money from the state far precede and outnumber their Muslim equivalents. David Cameron does not accept that (a) his country is a multi-nation country and (b) that all states are ethnoculturally biased in favour of the members of the dominant societal culture. In doing so, he is silencing the liberal demands brought forward by members of minority groups.
David Cameron not only misrepresents minority groups and the nature of the demands that they make, he is also skewing the whole debate on minority rights. The debate is not whether someone says “oh, and by the way, I don’t accept freedom of speech”. The debate is about how to balance different ‘liberal’ and ‘desirable’ principles with each other. How to balance, for instance, the liberal principles of freedom and equality. The government should enter into a productive dialogue with these cultures in order to find a way to accommodate their demands within the bounds of liberal principles.
David Cameron and most of his colleagues have studied PPE at one of the best universities in the world. They know very well that cross-cultural dialogue can only be meaningful when the groups and their demands are not misrepresented. Their handling of the Trojan Horse fake letter demonstrates that they have no such inclinations. What worries me the most is that the debate on British Values came only weeks after the Prime Minister declared that the UK is a christian country. This lets me wondering: what does Mr Cameron want? Does he want a liberal country that respects all its citizens or a religious country that discriminates according to the religious beliefs of its citizens? If it’s the former, then he should stop calling people unpatriotic.