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Artillery Row

The fallacy of “British values”

Nationhood cannot be reduced to abstractions

In an election campaign marked by generationally stupid blunders, Rishi Sunak’s decision to ditch D-Day commemorations early will surely go down in history as the most foolish. 

Much ink has been spilled about the Prime Minister’s decision to skip an opportunity to present himself as a dignified statesman in favour of a run-of-the-mill TV interview. Worry not — I will spare you another tired take about how Sunak is horrifically out of touch, or about how his team is hilariously ill-prepared for the rigours of an election campaign. True as these things are, they’re also painfully obvious. 

No, the most interesting takeaway from this whole affair is what it implies about Britain’s sense of nationhood. Reform leader Nigel Farage was quick to jump on Sunak’s blunder, suggesting that his premature departure was a sign of insufficient patriotism. The Spectator’s Fraser Nelson hit back, describing Farage’s comments as a “revolting slur”, and provoking a broader conversation about what it means to be a patriotic Briton in 2024. 

Farage himself was castigated earlier in the campaign for claims that many young British Muslims did not share “British values”. Though he correctly identifies the enormous gap that has emerged between many Muslims and the British mainstream, it is interesting that he chooses to do so using the sanitised language of Tony Blair and David Cameron. Even a red-blooded patriot like Farage is beholden to the idea that “Britishness” can be adequately described by an identifiable set of common values, a political meme which bears little relationship to reality. 

After all, what are these values, and when did they come about? Who decided that Britain was a country defined by tolerance, liberalism, and diversity? Were these ideas handed down by William when he landed at Hastings, or agreed upon by the Anglo-Saxons who settled here after the Romans departed? You certainly won’t find them in the Acts of Union, or the 1689 Bill of Rights, or in Magna Carta. In contrast to countries such as the United States, whose foundation was explicitly inspired by the ideas of the French Revolution, Britain’s story is one of organic, evolving nationhood. 

Despite the insistence of some commentators that the British — and specifically the English — are a “thin” culture with few binding ties, the widespread backlash to Sunak’s D-Day debacle suggests otherwise. Like it or not, Sunak’s ostentatious fondness for America and his cosiness with India’s business elite leaves many voters doubting the sincerity of his patriotic conviction. For many, his hasty exit from a commemoration of this country’s war dead will only have confirmed this prior suspicion — for a nation as old as ours, history matters.

For most Britons, ours is a nation still defined by common culture, common history, and common habit

Even as nationalist politicians prattle on about ill-defined British values, it is clear that, for most Britons, ours is a nation still defined by common culture, common history, and common habit. Integration means more than a transactional willingness to obey the law, tolerate one’s neighbour, and pay the appropriate amount of tax. 

That said, it is too simple to say that “British values” do not exist at all. While state-sanctioned credos such as tolerance, pluralism, and diversity fail to capture any unique sense of British nationhood, there are certainly identifiable traits that connect us to one another, and to our ancestors. 

A non-exhaustive list would probably point to our abiding belief in the importance of contract, our pragmatic approach to reform, and our traditional belief that rules ought to be created carefully but applied ruthlessly. A love of privacy, an innate fascination with the exotic, an overriding commercialism — ask any educated foreigner to tell you what makes the British unique, and you’ll find no shortage of national peculiarities that set us apart. 

The mistake is not in assuming that Britons are united by common threads, but in assuming that these common threads are what make us Britons. Rather, these are the observed habits of an organic national community, which have accrued over time like sediment at the bottom of a river. 

To be truly integrated, most Britons expect newcomers to present themselves as culturally indistinguishable from their peers, even if many would not necessarily articulate their instincts in this way. This level of integration is patently impossible to achieve at anything like the current scale of migration — but it can be done. Few in Britain today can accurately identify which of their kinsmen is descended from the 50,000 Huguenot refugees who came to Britain following the Revocation of the Edict of Nantes in 1685. 

With Farage now likely to steer Reform to some level of electoral success, and with our current unprecedented levels of mass migration set to continue under a Labour government, expect to see more conversations about patriotism, integration, and nationhood in the years to come. As we conduct those conversations, patriotic conservatives should bear in mind the deficiencies of a values-based understanding of nationhood. Our roots run far deeper than the modish, touchy-feely prescriptions cooked up by our political class over the past thirty years.

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