Why we need a British values test

This year we’ve had a flurry of articles on Sajid Javid’s proposal in 2018 for a British Values Test (BVT) to be added to the Life in the UK test (see here, here and here.)  The Life in the UK test itself is already mandatory but the BVT would be a further requirement for UK citizenship.

The former Home Secretary seemed to say the current test was more pub quiz than Immigration quiz.

Of course, the press on all sides likes to mock its contents. One can sympathise. A new citizen might not need to know  “Who is Dame Kelly Holmes?” to navigate modern Britain. Even asking a British citizen “Who was Henry VIII’s sixth wife?” might cause a related sharp intake of breath before presumably they, of course, got to the right answer.

Whether that’s true or not, there does seem to be a growing belief that the Life in the UK test needs some looking at. The suggestion from Government is to put British values at the forefront. The Home Office is already apparently preparing to make such a shift within the redesigned test.

This sort of thing generally polarises along anti-immigration and pro-immigration lines and indeed the predictable happened with Mr Javid’s proposal. Those on the left were generally against (one interesting source claiming it was mere energetic self-flagellation from British Pakistanis) while those on the right were supportive.

But is such a test actually a good idea? This all comes back to purpose. What is the purpose of such a test?

According to the new Chancellor the purpose was to help people “understand the liberal, democratic values that bind our society together” as he put it in the speech. As the Integrated Communities Strategy Green Paper has it, such a test could help new immigrants ‘integrate into society and play a full role in (their) local community ’. In short, the purpose was to help people integrate.

In such polarised times, this needs some unpicking so two further questions are in order. Should immigrants be forced to be familiar with the UK when they move here? Should the state teach values at all?

It is important to know the stage on which the drama of society takes place.

The first question is the easiest one to assent to. A reasonable concern is that we’re drifting apart after the biggest peace-time migration in history. Therefore, immigrants being familiar with the UK meets the desirable goal of a shared understanding of social mores, customs, and history that unite citizens of a country. This kind of integration facilitates cooperation and cooperation is what society is all about. We can’t function as a society if this shared background isn’t there.

Who would disagree that a newcomer would be better off knowing more about the society in which they live? And that society would work better as a result?

As such, many across the political spectrum nod to a minimal understanding of life in the UK for immigrants and encourage government spending money on things like ESOL lessons. They get that it makes sense practically.

However, with current government policy emphasising a values component to this, the bar seems to be set higher. The state is trying to produce a change in something very fundamental. What people prioritise, see as valuable and ultimately orientate their life towards is an emblematic focus for non-interference. It’s an area where there’s common agreement for an absolute right to make up one’s own mind. So even in the abstract, how can such an initiative be legitimate?

Should the state teach values?

Left-leaning liberals and libertarians may have common cause to rebut this. The former retort that we’re a pluralist country, and no one should be forced to change their values by fiat. They emphasise that to remove the different cultural values of immigrants against their will adds to their disadvantage. The latter add that the UK is defined by our liberal tradition. All of them point out that it’s difficult to define such things as values anyway (remember Cameron and Clegg’s face off about them during the coalition?)

Indeed, some of these inclinations would carry mainstream support especially along the lines of tolerance. Most of us would accept some level of disagreement between people as part of a free society. We want to find some way of healthily living with those with whom we disagree. A quick twitter poll of mine (@thsopinions) suggests that people’s support for this goes deep.

Yet often those on the right (perhaps on the authoritarian end of the spectrum) point out that disagreeing healthily means we have to insist on some values. If they want to live in a democracy, immigrants must be accepting of the rules of the game. Nationalists might then go further that their national ways of life be protected so as to guarantee an even higher level of similarity.  However, these measures could be justified in the name of healthy disagreement as having a shared sense of identity may even facilitate difference. By encouraging integration, it makes people more likely to accept some divergence between the incomer and the citizen. The sphere of possible disagreement is just drawn tighter.

Defenders of such an approach also point out there’s already state intervention in this area. There’s a values component in schools guidance and they say the British Values Test should be along those lines. We would teach incomers about democracy, the rule of law, individual liberty and mutual respect and tolerance of those with different faiths and beliefs. This is not unreasonable nor racist. It does, in fact, allow us all to rub along together.

So, we have our two reasonable positions. Where does the legitimate role of the state lie?

One philosopher who was keen to explore how to develop maximum pluralism under conditions of democratic rule-making was Michael Oakeshott.

Civitas, in his understanding, is the way that people relate in democracies. This mode of social relations allows us to be a ‘civil association’.  “Civil association implies a state whose laws leave citizens free to pursue their own self-chosen goals within limits that secure that freedom for all” according to the  Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy .

To actually be a democracy, Oakeshott argued, laws must be ‘non instrumental’.  Laws in this sense don’t have a purpose (as dictated by the state) but guarantee us the same freedom as our fellow citizens in pursuit of our own self-directed ends.

If civility (in the sense of Civitas) is a desirable feature of British life, the state itself (as a non-totalitarian body) has no business in the direction of individuals to a particular end or ‘common purpose’, no matter how desirable. The state’s only business is enforcing the just and legitimate rules that have the character of encouraging individual freedom for all. As such, what makes the individual sovereign over their own life shouldn’t be compromised by being a pawn. That way leads to tyranny.

Oakeshott argues further that The Rule of Law is this set of rules (and here it’s a concept rather than a set of definitive rules). By assenting to limit my freedom by acquiescing to be governed in such a way (by rules that bind me but only in such a way that allows liberty for all) we bring about a truly democratic form of association. This is the only political association which allows us to choose our own ends and values.

He was clear that no state could actually meet this very high bar (as they go about their business of collecting taxes and emptying bins etc.) but this was something to strive for and to be alert to when it was being violated.

So pluralist instincts underlie the fact that the state doesn’t make my values, I do. Any attempt to do so is illegitimate coercion. Might we then simply argue that therefore the government should just stand back from the Values Test?

Well, we must note first that the Rule of Law is the guarantor of our freedom to make our own individual values. This means we must have means of applying it and encouraging its adoption. These are the real world legal and statutory institutions that allow the Rule of Law to actually bite. This includes things like judges, a legal system and a police force that will maintain the conditions of our freedom by constraining those forces in society which do not accord with the Rule of Law.

So here we stumble into a paradox of liberalism. If Oakeshott is correct, no good pluralist can ever doubt the Rule of Law. It’s the antecedent condition which allows for pluralism in the first place. This meta-value stands above our cherished personal values. We can’t therefore start by saying all values are negotiable because they’re contingent or Western imperialist creations or simply that people have different ideas of the good life. If we want to live in a democracy we have to sign up to the Rule of Law.

And in a complex messy world to actually bring about such a state we would need a level of force and even coercion (limited only to those who violate this particular principle). The state should use its institutions to ensure that citizens have that higher order value of the Rule of Law. Such institutions that do the coercing are in fact those which allow the conditions for freedom.

This justification is to counter the tendency of people to want to control others via the institutions of society. This tendency itself is what marks out, for example, Islamists (look at the Trojan Horse episode) and hardcore nationalist authoritarians from their democratic fellows. We’d also be right to reject those seeking to enforce fascist or communist ideologies for the same reason. They would be undermining our collective freedom by rejecting the value of the Rule of Law.

Where does this leave the values test?

If so, and if we care about pluralism, we should look to install this single value. Such an approach is not incompatible with allowing people different values. It would actually ensure that none of us seeks to compel others, allowing Civil Association to flourish.

We could then relate to the new immigrant as a full citizen because we know they accept that we are going to respect each other’s freedom of belief and being. No one would readily admit a non-democratic citizen to a community of free individuals.

With the biggest ever peace-time migration into a democratic UK, there’s more likelihood of encountering a person who has not been living in a country where the Rule of Law is fully present. This is especially true from countries where the civil tradition is less developed and democracy hasn’t been a historic feature. As such, it may be that some people have not internalised this essential feature of our collective life.

With the right focus, the BVT could be something much more valuable than the pub quiz it replaces. It could be the state’s imperfect attempt to ensure that we all remain free and no one subverts the institutions of the state to their own private vision.

Non-instrumentality is what makes us who we are as a liberal, pluralist nation. We need to move to ensure that remains constant hence the need for such a test.

The only difficulty is to make a test that is effective for newcomers and has the support and recognition of their fellow citizens.

Over to the new Home Secretary…

Thomas Hamilton-Shaw

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