Debating British Values … Why bother?

Last week I took part in a survey by the Evangelical Alliance on British values. The survey was in response to assertions by the British Government on what the Nation’s values are. This subject is one that is close to my heart so I thought I would share three short reflections.

Values don’t just happen, they come from somewhere. The children’s charity Barnardos has a value never to turn away a destitute child. If you were to ask a member of the charity why this was so, they would tell you how in 1870 an 11-year old boy, John Somers (nicknamed ‘Carrots’) was turned away because the shelter was full. Two days later Carrots was found dead, the cause malnutrition and exposure.  From then on Barnardo vowed never to turn another child away.

Sociologists have defined values as ‘self limiting choices that we express at least 80% of the time’. To never turn a child away is a costly commitment, at times inconvenient and often stretching beyond current means. But because we know why we do it, we know the story (and we have reflected on the outcomes from alternative course of action), we keep making the choice.

The second thing is that values aren’t just things we aspire to, they determine how we act and shape the culture within which we exist. This one value of Barnardos’ would have had a huge impact on every area of the work from the day to day running of shelters to fundraising and training of staff; it will impact policy and procedure at every level. Values aren’t just nice ideas they shape current and future reality by determining the choices we make. As a nation, in thinking about what values we want to hold, we need to consider what kind of a culture we want to create; our values will (and do) permeate every area of public and social life.

One of the many issues we face as a nation is the weakening of some core values which we have held for generations. This in part is because we have stopped telling the stories that remind us why we have those values. I do not believe for a moment that we need to ‘go back to the good old days’; but I do believe the nation needs to have a conversation about what is important and why.

Which brings me onto the third thing. Values cannot be imposed, they must be chosen. It is strange indeed for any unrepresentative group to come up with a list of ‘values’ for the nation to subscribe to. To review or shape our nation’s values requires not a directive but a movement; storytelling and reflection: we need the space to seriously consider what the outcomes will be a couple of generations down the line if we adopt or drop certain values. Only after all that will come the decisions and policy making…

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