The struggle over ‘British Fundamental Values’

“British Fundamental Values”, a concept introduced almost five years ago, in June 2015, by the then-education secretary Michael Gove, has remained at the centre of policy and debate with regards to education, integration and the Muslim community in Britain.

The idea was introduced as part of the government’s response to the Trojan Horse Affair, where documents were leaked to the media, which alleged a conspiracy to “Islamise” Birmingham schools, by taking over local schools and running them according to strict Islamic principles. While these documents have been discredited, the impact of the affair remains, typifying a general approach and attitude taken towards its relationship with British Muslims, not only through the lens of counter-extremism, but as seemingly a general condition to belong in British society.

The British Government has defined five values as ‘British Values’. These are: democracy, the rule of law, individual liberty and mutual respect and tolerance of those with different faiths and beliefs. They were formally ‘introduced’ in the government’s Prevent counter-extremism strategy in 2011, which imposes a legal duty on teachers, faith leaders, doctors, and other public sector workers, to report any suspicions of so-called signs of radicalisation, or individuals at risk of being radicalised, whether a student, patient or even colleague. For teachers, this includes the duty to actively promote these British values, for example by: “includ[ing] in suitable parts of the curriculum – as appropriate for the age of pupils – material on […] how democracy and the law works in Britain, in contrast to other forms of government in other countries”. But the idea of “fundamental British values”, has permeated further than schools, as Carol Vincent and Myriam Hunter-Henin describe in The Conversation; feeding into broader narratives of “Britishness” and generating suspicion toward the “other”, which has played out, for example, in the rise in hate crimes across the UK after the EU referendum vote, which was characterised by this fixation of “Britishness”.

Khadijah El-Shayyal, writing in Al-Maydan, describes the phenomenon of what she describes as the “institutionalisation” of Fundamental British Values. By distinguishing between those and those who do no not ‘ascribe’ to these values, the government has “effectively blacklisting certain voices and positions”, and “the state dictates and delimits the parameters within which ‘legitimate’ conversation can be had.” While previously, for decades, interests groups including those representing faith communities have not only been acknowledged but encouraged by the state, and in the case of Muslim community this has included both grassroots communal organisations and specialised lobby groups, now, Muslim activists face a dilemma: between remaining within the parameters of the state set for the type of discourse and association with others that is considered appropriate, in order to cultivate a trusted state, and remaining authentic to the needs and interests of the community they are set up to represent. Many of whom amay face injustices as a result of policies enacted by the state. Those which present a dissenting voice, and therefore fall out of the ‘ideal’ set by the state, face public vilification, El-Shayyal argues, and are portrayed as subversive threats to the nation. She presents the example of then Home Secretary, Sajid Javid’s name-checking of four Muslim organisations, Hizb ut tahrir (HT), the Islamic Human Rights Commission (IHRC), MEND and CAGE in a speech on extremism last July.

The ‘fundamental values’ debate has also permeated the arts, with the theatre production ‘Trojan Horse’, exploring the scandal aforementioned and a deeper inquiry into the “fundamental British values” that were apparently at risk. The production received the Fringe First Award at Edinburgh Fringe Festival in 2018, and is now on its second UK run, suggesting that ‘fundamental British values’ is unlikely to fade into the background for both policy makers and those that face its repercussions.


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