This weekend, I listened to the panel of Question Time being quizzed on what they believed to be the definition of 'Britishness'. Similar views were echoed, of tolerance, fair play, as though there already was consensus on a textbook definition. Then we had the Home Secretary Theresa May, come in on Monday to clarify exactly what British values meant to her and her future Government, should they come in next term - Democracy, rule of law, freedom of speech, equality and respect of minorities, to be exact.
And I thought the same thing as I went through her speech, as I did whilst sitting listening to the radio in my traffic jam on Saturday. When did ideas like respect and tolerance for example, that are being bounded about whenever the topic of British values comes up, become exclusively British values? Has Britain patented these ideas within the global community and become the model of best practice?
Just looking at the value of tolerance and respect - It could be safely said that if a nation is to model these values, then this should on a basic level be reflected in the people who make that nation. In Britain we know the ethos of the Magna Carta, and the British legal system specifically, aims to create justice, equality and tolerance. The legal system is there to ensure people's rights in society are safeguarded and equality is maintained. But then laws signify the ideals of a society and are the means to correct the inequality and intolerance that people carry out. Laws do not signify the actual values and views of British people on the street.
If we want to look at real British values, we find that only last year, the British Social Attitudes Survey reported that the percentage of British people who actually described themselves as prejudiced against those of other races, had increased since 2001. And according to the Home Office, there has been a 5% increase in hate crime in 2013/14 compared to the previous year; numbering at over 44,000. The rise of the EDL, and even UKIP in recent years all alert to the fact, that figures signifying intolerance are increasing. And in a time where the Government is claiming the opposite should be true.
But it could be argued, as May did, that the history of Britain highlights a struggle for such values. No one will deny that there have been people throughout British history who have struggled to represent the needs of different people, fought for equality in many spheres and so forth. But in the same vein it is true that history has also witnessed the absence of tolerance, equality and respect carried out by Britain. And not even that long ago. Channel 4 drama 'Indian Summers' might be providing us with some exotic Sunday night entertainment, but the experience of the British Raj in the Indian Subcontinent couldn't exactly be pitted as an example of tolerance and equality. That's if we mean free access to the resources of another people without their consent and an enforced authority over them, is tolerance. Thus claiming history has provided the foundation for these British values, isn't wholly correct.
Then there is the growing debate around British values and immigration. From public speeches to the Citizenship test itself, there is a demand articulated that anyone coming to these shores must embrace British values, respect and tolerance. But such a demand holds within it a gross assumption. That it is Britain who teaches equality, tolerance and respect to others. But Britain doesn't even feature in the top ten countries of the global gender gap report of 2014, when countries like Rwanda and the Phillipines do. So shouldn't we be going to them for lessons on equality? And what about tolerance - I came across a social media post by a British man who had moved to a UAE country and was amazed by how safe he felt there since he arrived. How helpful and accepting people were of him. Could it be then that equality, tolerance could be even more definitively embodied elsewhere? And they are in actual fact not really exclusively British values at all?
Finally let's be frank about this entire discussion, and why it arose in the first place. The British values debate, we know has been steam rolled as part of the Government's Counter-Terrorism policy. This is held up through a narrative. That the acts of violence conducted by a handful of Muslims must be counteracted by shaping up an entire community and ensuring it upholds British values, such as tolerance. But to assume because a handful of people were 'intolerant', to prevent further attacks the entire adherent Muslim community needs to learn tolerance, is like saying - We must teach the idea children are not sexual objects to the entire white British population, because a handful of people in a child sex abuse ring, didn't understand it. This collective criminalisation doesn't happen with any other crime, or community.
The British values debate has refused to look with the open mind it claims to be shaped by, upon Islamic values and honestly ask why such a wide range of Islamic practices and views have been seen as a problem for life in Britain. This is not tolerance, but a sweeping wave of intolerance in the name of security, instead.
People from many walks of life and backgrounds do live together, across Britain and that cannot be denied. But to imply that respect and tolerance are exclusively upheld and even created within the borders of Britain isn't really an open and honest narrative, nor is it true to the agenda behind the discussion of British values itself.