What are British values? Are they any good?

From this autumn, schools will be required to promote British values. It is the most popular and widely canvassed result of the Trojan Horse Schools enquiry, which found, perhaps, little evidence of the originally alleged conspiracy, but a lot of evidence — at least according to the report — that things were going wrong.

But what actually are British values? Complaining about the weather and not getting in the way? Or stiff upper lip and a devotion to international treaties? Who defines what is British, and how does that get to be challenged?

The Guardian, bless its heart, has put together a quiz to test yourself on this. I have to say that I got ‘so British that it hurts’, despite saying that I voted for Nick Clegg and would welcome immigrants. Not that I feel that passing a Guardian quiz makes me an authority on the matter, but, after all, as I’m British, I wouldn’t claim to be any authority even if I had a degree in authoritarianism from the Vatican. I would probably just mutter and say ‘read a book on authority once… didn’t make much of it… who’s for a drink?’

However, for my day job I am (and have for several years) been involved in creating Values statements for brands and for organisations, so I suppose I ought to have a bit of a go.

The most interesting thing you learn if you delve into the world of corporate values (to begin there) is that almost all companies that have an official set of corporate values claim in some way that it is their values which make them unique. However, according to some fairly robust research, about two thirds of all the companies in the world with official Values Statements share a sub-set of the same ten. Integrity, team work, and so on, are what set them apart from their competitors, who also have integrity and team work, and may well take a pride in what they produce aspire to be the leaders in their industry.

I do try to get organisations to look a bit further. We once (before I figured out how to do it, thanks to help from a bright young thing who had come to us from KPMG, where they know about all kinds of things) downloaded a list of 250 value-words. It didn’t help. The problem about looking at a list of values words (integrity, honesty, hard work, and so on) is that it’s easy to espouse qualities we admire, but don’t actually possess, rather like Bill Murray in Groundhog Day listening to Andie MacDowell’s list of what she looked for in a man. The result is rather like candy-floss: sugar-coated sugar.

If that doesn’t quite persuade you, then let me suggest that it’s rather like a rock guitarist listening to a symphony orchestra. You may admire the discipline, timing and tone of the orchestra, but that doesn’t mean you could actually play in one.

What we finally figured out is that values are what you or your organisation would die in a ditch over. They are more about the things you would never do than the things you always do. So, probably the easiest way to work out what your values are is to pick five things you absolutely hate, and get extremely annoyed if you ever find anyone in your organisation doing or suggesting. Then take the opposite of those.

It’s phrases that annoy us like “that’s not my job”, “nobody will notice”, “good enough is good enough”, or the unconscious “you don’t matter” revealed by letting a door close in someone’s face, or failing to thank them for holding it open for you, that tell us what it is we really care about.

Things that annoy the British include Americans boasting about our accomplishments as if their own (as seen in post 1990 war films), people not queuing properly, someone taking the last biscuit, people who complain too much or not at all, people who are too cunning or too earnest, and people who are fanatical about anything (though, strangely, not people who are fanatical about everything, whom we treat as harmless eccentrics).

Unfortunately, if we reverse those we don’t get a particularly glittering set of values: modesty, queuing, self-rationing, moderate complaining, bumbling on and indifference.  To be fair, they do seem eerily familiar, but do Michael Gove and the government really want those promoted in schools?

Old fashioned British values are more commonly said to be fair play and common sense. It’s questionable whether those could be said to be particularly British values, though. Show me a nation which believes in cheating and being daft (and simply being accused by us of cheating and being daft is not an acceptable answer).  Even then, fair play seems to be quite a flexible concept, as evidenced by bodyline bowling, phone hacking and our fondness for vote-by-phone popularity contests on the TV. Others might say ‘hard work’, but our national love of money-for-nothing via the Lottery hardly speaks for that one.

If I had to put my finger on what defines Britishness, I would probably have to reach for something like ‘affable eccentricity’, coupled with ‘refined awkwardness’. John Cleese, in almost any role, one might say. We are Vicar of Dibley more than we are James Bond, and Rik Mayall in the Young Ones much more than as Captain Flashheart.

So, will we be promoting quirkiness and bad timing from the autumn?

I rather think, and hope, not. The concepts that I hope we will be promoting will be fairness, self-sacrifice, service, kindness, honesty, looking out for each other and standing up for what’s right even when it’s unpopular. These are values, indeed, to be proud of. But they are not particularly British, neither in the sense that we have any prior say on them, nor even that we are particularly good at them. Humanists might say — with some reason — that these are humanistic values. We might even say that they are democratic and liberal values. I, as a Christian, might also want to point backwards in time, some two thousand years, to someone who not only espoused them but, I would argue, uniquely demonstrated them.

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