Terese Jonsson: the dangers of British fundamentalism

A panel discusses anti-racist perspectives on ‘fundamental British values’

Do you know your ‘fundamental British values’? According to the UK government, these are ‘democracy, the rule of law, individual liberty and mutual respect and tolerance of different faiths and beliefs’. Since 2014, the Department of Education advises all schools to ‘actively promote’ fundamental British values, and any school wishing to be graded as ‘outstanding’ by Ofsted must demonstrate that this promotion lies ‘at the heart’ of its work. Since the passing of the Counter-Terrorism and Security Act in 2015, school teachers, university lecturers and administrators, local authority workers, doctors, nurses, prison, probation and police officers must also be on the look-out for ‘vocal or active opposition’ to such values amongst their students, patients, clients, charges and colleagues, as part of their compliance with the Prevent duty.

To explore some of the concerns anti-racist scholars and activists have raised about the enforcement of a discourse of ‘fundamental British values’, The Citizenship, ‘Race’ and Belonging research network at the University of Portsmouth recently hosted a discussion on the topic with Moazzam Begg (Cage), Sarah Keenan (Birkbeck Law School), Kojo Koram (Essex Law School) and Dolapo Bolaji (University of Portsmouth Students Union). We wanted to examine what is concealed by the uncritical branding of values, political systems and ideals – which might in themselves be worth striving for – as ‘fundamentally British’, and the implications of policing adherence to such values within our education systems and public services.

Deconstructing ‘British values’ led us quickly to the history of Empire. As Koram pointed out, imperialism was foundational to Britain; there was no British nation-state functioning separately from Empire until decolonisation. With the dissolution of the Empire, Koram argued, Britain now ‘faces a void at its core’, and it is precisely this lack of substance, he suggested, which is at the root of the legislative enforcement of nationalistic values, as well as the swell of nationalism in both the lead-up and wake of Brexit.

And what were the values which underpinned the imperial project? Based on her research on land law and property in Australia, Keenan spoke of how the British rule of law legitimised the colonisation of Australia due to the land’s legal designation as ‘terra nullius’, enabling ‘the systematic and violent dispossession of Aboriginal people from their land and their culture’. In Australia and across the world, as Keenan’s work highlighted, the British rule of law has legitimated the taking of land and resources, and the imprisonment and enslavement of indigenous and racialised people, all the while claiming to bring ‘civilization’ (read: British values) to ‘uncivilized’ people.

The promotion of the rule of law as ‘fundamentally British’ not only conceals the violence which the British legal system has wrought; it is also hypocritical. As Moazzam Begg highlighted, Britain boasts of being the land of Magna Carta, yet the British state has both directly detained terror-suspects for years without charge or trial, as well as been complicit in such practices alongside ‘enhanced interrogation techniques’ (read: torture) by the United States, its chief ally in the ‘War on Terror’. As the surveillance and policing of Muslim communities through counter-terror legislation attests, ‘mutual respect and tolerance of religion’ only seems to apply to people who are not Muslim.

Yet the discourse of ‘British values’ denies any recognition of oppression or discrimination enacted in the name of Britishness. Speaking in response to the attack in Westminster last month, Theresa May claimed, without evidence, that Parliament was targeted because it represents ‘our’ values (‘democracy, freedom, human rights, the rule of law’); values which ‘command the admiration and respect of free people everywhere’ and which ‘the terrorists [sic] … reject’. The fantastical nature of this claim is either brazen or deluded; probably both.

Perhaps May forgot that Parliament is also where MPs vote for things such as airstrikes in Syria, extension of state surveillance powers, welfare cuts, and measures aimed at deliberately creating a ‘hostile environment’ for migrants.

While May spoke idealistically of the ‘people of all nationalities, religions and cultures [who] come together to celebrate’ ‘our’ values, whiteness is reinforced in the ‘British values’ discourse through its erasure of the structural and everyday racism faced by people of colour. Bolaji spoke, for instance, of the whiteness of university curriculums which leads a third of black and minority ethnic students to feel their perspectives are not reflected in the courses that they study. The right-wing media’s outrage and widespread derision at students’ attempts to address the lack of scholars of colour in their lecture theatres and on their reading lists attests to the forceful refusal within institutions of power such as universities and the press to address the white supremacy at their heart (Akwugo Emejulu’s analysis) on this matter is on point).

The uncertainty which characterises the national mood in the wake of Brexit presents opportunities for the opening up of debates about ‘Britishness’, nationalism and racism – for reassessments and reckonings with the past. Such debates cannot be had if what is considered ‘fundamentally British’ is not up for debate; when people, particularly those who are Muslim, are fearful of speaking critically at all due to the surveillance they are under. As our panellists advocated, if politicians and policy makers really wish to end violence (whether that designated as ‘terrorist’ or not), understanding the devastating effects and legacies of British imperialism, the dangers of all forms of nationalism, and people of colour’s central contribution and belonging in this country must be the fundamental starting points.

Terese Jonsson works at the University of Portsmouth

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