On disagreement, debate and being British


The government’s plan to send illegal immigrants to Rwanda for processing has generated much angst among many. I do not intend here to opine about the potential rights and wrongs of the initiative. We have had plenty of that already.

What did catch my eye was that some people have criticised the policy on the basis of not being in line with British values. That got me thinking. What does that mean? Is there even such a thing as ‘British values’? Or, as a friend messaged me by WhatsApp in response to this policy: ‘What does it mean to be British any more? I am at a loss to know.’

In my response, I suggested that ‘being British’ means being most comfortable forming part of the political unit known as the United Kingdom and wanting to engage in the political debate of that unit. 

What it does NOT mean, on the other hand, is always being in agreement with every policy of the government of the day or believing that the imposition of one particular ideology or point of view should stifle political debate around alternative views. If anything, bothering to get involved in debate and disagreement about UK government policies, or even the simple fact of feeling offended by them, underlines one’s British identity.

The term ‘British values’ is much abused. Usually by people who invoke such ‘values’ in an attempt to put their own opinions and ideologies beyond political debate. Invoking ‘British values’ is populist trickery of the same order as invoking ‘the will of the people.’

And Archbishops should be wary of going even further by invoking the will of God around policies with which they happen to disagree.

We know that, in a pluralist society, there is no such thing as the will of ‘the people’. Similarly, while most people will have shared abstract values such as, to take one example, a belief in ‘fairness’, there will still be much disagreement as to how such an abstract idea ends up being interpreted in specific circumstances. 

In the case of the Rwanda policy, maybe the most important value to emerge is that the policy has been subject to fiery debate – including it being questioned by MPs in the government’s own party. It is that freedom of debate that maybe we should be defending at all costs – whether one agrees with a particular policy or not.

It is also in the nature of politics that sometimes our own ideas and wishes do not prevail. We lose the argument. Or, as Bernard Crick puts it: ‘Politics is often settling for less than what we want’ – because there are others who want other things.

Yet that ability to debate and disagree and our willingness to settle for less that we would want in the interests of maintaining a peaceful society are all under threat from movements such as the cancel culture, de-platforming, and so on – all too often driven by the antics of a very loud and vocal minority combined with weakness and ineptitude in institutional leadership.  

Maybe it is in resistance to these sorts of systemic developments that we should be invoking ‘British values’ rather than in debate around individual policies with which some may legitimately agree, others just as legitimately disagree.

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Radix is the radical centre think tank. We welcome all contributions which promote system change, challenge established notions and re-imagine our societies. The views expressed here are those of the individual contributor and not necessarily shared by Radix.

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