British Values: Real and Imagined

David Cameron has been at it again. Following the brutal attacks on visitors to the Bardo museum in Tunisia last month, Cameron took the opportunity to repeat one of the most common and pernicious falsehoods of his premiership – that he is a staunch defender of a set of moral absolutes he calls ‘British values’. “In the end” he said, “our values – freedom of speech, democracy, the rule of law – … will win through”. That the Tunis attacks were a direct result of his own fateful decision in 2011 to turn Libya over to a hotchpotch of ultra-sectarian and racist death squads, who then trained the Bardo attackers, was of course conveniently glossed over. But this theme – of Cameron’s dogged pursuance of his British values in the face of an Islamist onslaught – has been trotted out every time any European joins the tens of thousands of Libyan, Nigerian, Malian, Syrian, Algerian, and Iraqi victims of his policy of recruiting sectarian militants as tools of regime change. Thus when Lee Rigby was killed in London by a man (Michael Adebolajo) who had been offered a job by MI5 just weeks earlier, Cameron opined that “the terrorists will never win because they can never beat the values we hold dear, the belief in freedom, in democracy, in free speech, in our British values, Western values”. And when Mohammed Emwazi was granted instant celebrity status by the British media following his youtube beheadings of journalists and aid workers, Cameron said that Emwazi’s actions were “the very opposite of everything this country stands for”, despite the fact that his own intelligence services headhunted Emwazi to work for them, just as they had facilitated the passage to Syria of the man who most probably trained him.

Cameron’s crucial role in creating and sustaining the death squads he claims to oppose, however, is well known to anyone paying attention to events in the Middle East, and has been written about extensively elsewhere by myself and others. What I want to critique here is Cameron’s claim that democracy, the rule of law and free speech and tolerance are indeed ‘British values’ in any meaningful sense. In fact, these values neither originated in Britain nor have ever been sincerely practiced by British governments.

Take democracy, for example. Even the mainstream textbooks don’t claim that it originated in Britain; Athens is generally supposed to be its birthplace (although there is increasing evidence that the Athenians based it on systems already in place in Africa). Cameron does have an answer for this, of course. In his article for the Daily Mail following the uproar over the mythical ‘Trojan Horse plot’, he writes that “People will say that these values are vital to other people in other countries…But what sets Britain apart are the traditions and history that anchors them and allows them to continue to flourish and develop. Our freedom doesn’t come from thin air. It is rooted in our parliamentary democracy”. What he doesn’t mention is that this particular version of democracy is based on a profound distrust of the people, and was consciously and openly designed to keep them out of decision making as far as possible. Also noteworthy is that the British government has only ever allowed a tiny privileged section of those subject to its power to vote for it – and still does. Only when non-aristocratic owners of business had become fabulously wealthy were they given the vote (in 1832), and when the franchise was extended to workers 35 years later, it was limited to those with the highest wages and living standards. When the universal male franchise was achieved in Britain in 1918, it was of course denied to the tens of millions of colonial subjects (including many Northern Irish Catholics) whose labour and resources were by then creating relatively privileged conditions for those in the ‘motherland’. Even today, British power extends far beyond Britain’s territorial borders, and yet the Iraqis, Afghans, Libyans, Somalis and others who are subject to its greatest abuses have no say in who forms the government. If democracy means that those who are the subjects of power have some influence over who wields it, Britain is still sorely lacking in this regard.

And what of the rule of law? Once again, despite the 800 year existence of the Magna Carta constantly trumpeted by Cameron, when it comes to international affairs, he has treated this apparently sacrosanct British principle with absolute contempt. From his support for Blair’s destruction of Iraq in 2003, to his own blitzkrieg against Libya in 2011, he has been a proud defender of the unprovoked war of aggression – defined by the Nuremberg tribunal, lest we forget, as “not only an international crime; [but] the supreme international crime, differing only from other war crimes in that it contains within itself the accumulated evil of the whole”. Even on the domestic front, he has been more than happy to violate the rule of law when it suits him. Thus at the slightest hint of civil unrest in 2011, Cameron’s government instructed magistrates to ignore their own sentencing guidelines and imprison everyone ‘involved’ in the youth insurrection, no matter how slight their offence, throwing judicial independence to the wind in the process. Worse still, every passing week produces more evidence of the apparent collusion between the intelligence services, police, and government ministers in facilitating and covering-up institutional child sex abuse on a horrific scale – and yet Cameron’s government appears to have done everything possible to delay an inquiry into the issue and limit its powers. The rule of law may well be valued in Britain – but it certainly isn’t applied to the higher echelons Cameron represents.

On tolerance and freedom of speech, Britain may seem to fare a little better. But this is only true if we ignore history, foreign policy and Cameron’s own ‘anti-terror’ legislation. Historically, Britain has hardly been a model of toleration. We needn’t go back to King Edward I’s expulsion of the Jews (many of whom sought refuge in the historically much more tolerant Islamic empires) or the anti-Catholic laws (in place until 1829 and only repealed in response to the threat of civil war in Ireland) to find institutionalised discrimination: racialised stop-and-searches have actually increased since the 1999 MacPherson Inquiry’s conclusion that the British police were “institutionally racist”. This is perhaps not surprising, however, given that the British Empire itself was built on intolerance and discrimination, stripping native peoples of political rights and often reducing them to a legal status little different from animals or property. In this regard, the 2012 laws passed by the NATO-installed Libyan government – laws which threaten life imprisonment for supporters of the previous government, and impunity for anyone who kills them – is fully in line with actual historical British practice abroad – but not with some mythical commitment to ‘tolerance’ and free speech. Back at home, Cameron’s redefinition of extremism to include ‘non-violent’ varieties, combined with draconian new proposals to ensure that all educational institutions rid themselves of all hints of such extremism, are the very antithesis of ‘freedom of speech’, as commentators of all political stripes have noted.

Perhaps most insidious of all, however, is Cameron’s claim that “The Western model of combining vibrant democracy with free enterprise has delivered great progress and prosperity”. In reality, the ‘Western model’ has not been based on ‘vibrant democracy’, but precisely on its opposite – on the dispossession of the vast majority of those subject to its power, from the native Americans and African slaves of yesteryear, to the countless millions subject to IMF structural adjustment or NATO bombardment today. But neither has it been based on ‘free enterprise’. As scholars such as Ha-Joon Chang have shown in detail, the truth is that every Western nation used massive protectionism during their rise to prosperity. Even today, the strongest industries in the West – from US agribusiness and pharmaceuticals to British finance – are completely dependent on massive government subsidies, demonstrated most clearly in the $15trillion global bankers bailout following the financial crash of 2007-8. Protectionism and colonialism/ neo-colonialism, then, are the real foundation, and continuing basis, of Western prosperity. To ascribe this prosperity to a set of ‘values’ which have never been taken seriously by Britain’s governing elites is not only a falsification of history, but a slander on those whose own dispossession and impoverishment was the flipside of this prosperity. Only by being honest about the role of Britain’s African, Asian and American colonies in creating Britain’s prosperity – and Britain’s role in creating and perpetuating their poverty – can we hope to genuinely build an inclusive society based on mutual respect and understanding for all those who find themselves here ‘because we were there’.

Britain’s governing elites, then, have consistently undermined the values they claim to espouse – and none more than their greatest advocate, Mr Cameron himself. But this does not make his narrative meaningless. In a sense, this article, by taking his sacred principles at face value and questioning whether the British government lives up to them, is completely missing the point. For the real purpose of the narrative is not, and has never been, to establish a standard which we should aspire to reach. Far from it. The purpose is solely to provide a stick with which to beat Islam. It is not that ‘we’, as Brits, are actually supposed to practice these ‘British values’ ourselves – the point is rather to provide solid grounds for hating the Islamic societies that are always presented as the greatest transgressors of these values. Don’t get me wrong – Cameron is constantly at pains to point out that ‘the vast majority of law abiding British Muslims’ share these values. But his very language leads us to believe that those Muslims who do share such values do so because of their Britishness, and despite their Islam. The danger of this narrative is multiple. Not only does it reinforce ignorant prejudices about Islam’s ‘aversion’ to democracy, the rule of law and tolerance – but it also justifies the rejection of such values by groups such as ISIS. For ISIS are the prime believers in Cameron’s message that such values are ‘British’ and ‘western’. And as people who hate Britain and the west and all it has done to the world, they feel duty bound to reject the values it espouses. Yet they forget that Islamic culture has a proud – and much longer – history of practicing them than does the ‘west’ itself. And why do they forget this? Because they believe the distortions of their own history perpetrated by Cameron and his ilk. The more, therefore, that Cameron claims democracy, tolerance and the rule of law to be distinctly British phenomenon – insinuating all the while that they are not indigenous to Islam – the more that angry young Muslims, who have seen their homelands torn apart by Britain, are drawn into the orbit of those militant groups who reject these values. But then, for Cameron, this is all fine. More Muslims joining ISIS means more fighters in his proxy war against Assad – and all without a single soldier returning home in a body bag. This, at least, gets us a little closer to understanding what Cameron really values.

Dan Glazebrook is author of Divide and Ruin: The West’s Imperial Strategy in an Age of Crisis. 

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Dan Glazebrook is a political commentator and agitator. He is the author of Divide and Ruin: The West’s Imperial Strategy in an Age of Crisis (Liberation Media, 2013) and Supremacy Unravelling: Crumbling Western Dominance and the Slide to Fascism (K and M, 2020)