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This week there has been a big debate about British values following the Trojan Horse controversy in some Birmingham schools – about what these values are, and the role they should play in education.
The values I’m talking about – a belief in freedom, tolerance of others, accepting personal and social responsibility, respecting and upholding the rule of law – are the things we should try to live by every day. To me they’re as British as the Union Flag, as football, as fish and chips. Of course, people will say that these values are vital to other people in other countries. And, of course, they’re right. 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 and free press. Our sense of responsibility and the rule of law is attached to our courts and independent judiciary. Our belief in tolerance was won through struggle and is linked to the various churches and faith groups that have come to call Britain home.
These are the institutions that help to enforce our values, keep them in check and make sure they apply to everyone equally. And taken together, I believe this combination – our values and our respect for the history that helped deliver them and the institutions that uphold them – forms the bedrock of Britishness. Without it, we wouldn’t be able to walk down the street freely, to say what we think, to be who we are, or do what we want. Newspapers like this wouldn’t exist. MPs like me would not have been democratically elected. And our property wouldn’t be our own.
The question is: should we actively promote this? I absolutely think we should. For a start this is a matter of pride and patriotism. Sometimes in this country we can be a bit squeamish about our achievements, even bashful about our Britishness. We shouldn’t be. Of course, we should teach history with warts and all. But we should be proud of what Britain has done to defend freedom and develop these institutions – Parliamentary democracy, a free press, the rule of law - that are so essential for people all over the world. This is the country that helped fight fascism, topple communism and abolish slavery; we invented the steam engine, the light bulb, the internet; and we also gave so much of the world the way of life that they hold so dear. As President Obama put it when he addressed MPs and peers in Parliament, “What began on this island would inspire millions throughout the continent of Europe and across the world.”
But there are 2 other reasons why we should promote these values. The first is economic.
I strongly believe that our values form the foundation of our prosperity. The Western model of combining vibrant democracy with free enterprise has delivered great progress and prosperity, but it faces a challenge from more authoritarian models of economic development, like in Russia.
Now is the time to demonstrate confidence. The simple yet profound facts that, in our system, governments can be defeated in a court of law, politicians can be voted out of power, and newspapers can publish what they choose: these things aren’t weaknesses, they are fundamental strengths. Put another way, promoting our values is a key way to economic success – and that’s why we will stick to our long-term economic plan of cutting the deficit, cutting taxes and backing businesses and families to get on in life.
The second is social. Our values have a vital role to play in uniting us. They should help to ensure that Britain not only brings together people from different countries, cultures and ethnicities, but also ensures that, together, we build a common home.
In recent years we have been in danger of sending out a worrying message: that if you don’t want to believe in democracy, that’s fine; that if equality isn’t your bag, don’t worry about it; that if you’re completely intolerant of others, we will still tolerate you. As I’ve said before, this has not just led to division, it has also allowed extremism – of both the violent and non-violent kind – to flourish. So I believe we need to be far more muscular in promoting British values and the institutions that uphold them. That’s what a genuinely liberal country does: it believes in certain values and actively promotes them. It says to its citizens: this is what defines us as a society.
What does that mean in practice? We have already taken some big steps.
We are making sure new immigrants can speak English, because it will be more difficult for them to understand these values, and the history of our institutions, if they can’t speak our language.
We are bringing proper narrative history back to the curriculum, so our children really learn our island’s story – and where our freedoms and things like our Parliament and constitutional monarchy came from.
And as we announced this week, we are changing our approach further in schools. We are saying it isn’t enough simply to respect these values in schools – we’re saying that teachers should actively promote them. They’re not optional; they’re the core of what it is to live in Britain.
Finally, we need to make the most of the things that bring us together as a diverse, unified nation. We’ve had a real run of events in recent years that have exemplified our national pride – the Diamond Jubilee, the Olympic and Paralympic Games; and this year the commemorations of the First World War and D-Day. Events like these remind us just how much Britain has to be proud of.
Next year, it will be the 800th anniversary of Magna Carta. Indeed, it was on this very day, 799 years ago, that the Great Charter was sealed on the banks of Runnymede in Surrey. It’s a great document in our history – what my favourite book, ‘Our Island Story’, describes as “foundation of all our laws and liberties”. In sealing it, King John had to accept his subjects were citizens – for the first time giving them rights, protections and security. The remaining copies of that charter may have faded, but its principles shine as brightly as ever, and they paved the way for the democracy, the equality, the respect and the laws that make Britain, Britain. So I want to use this upcoming 800th anniversary as an opportunity for every child to learn about the Magna Carta, for towns to commemorate it, for events to celebrate it. I’m even holding my own ‘one year to go’ reception at Downing Street tomorrow.
Britain has a lot to be proud of, and our values and institutions are right at the top of that list. It’s not just important to promote, understand and celebrate these things for their own sake; it is absolutely vital to our future. And that is why I’m absolutely committed to doing so.