Brian Paddick writes: Swearing an oath to British values would be superficial and divisive

At the weekend the Conservative Government proposed that civil servants and other holders of public office should be required to swear an oath to “British values”.  I suggested that such a move would be superficial and divisive and here’s why.

This is a reaction to ‘The Casey Review: a review into opportunity and integration’ where she found small pockets of minority communities who were not integrating with the rest of society.  These people represent a tiny proportion of the UK population but the report had the effect of further demonising minority communities generally and the Muslim community in particular.  Of course, we should do everything we can to encourage people to integrate.  We need to provide English language courses for those who find it difficult to communicate and we need to tackle the racism and xenophobia that makes some people feel unsafe in their own communities.  Promoting “British values” is not the way forward.

For a start we are the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland.  Apart from the far more encouraging tone of a being a United Kingdom, and not excluding Northern Ireland, I personally find Great Britain has echoes of the inglorious past of the British Empire. While this may  not be relevant to many young people today, it may be significant for older generations whose origins are in the Indian sub-continent.  Some “British values” from colonial times are ones we have thankfully left behind.

The Government has not yet defined “British Values” but they say they include democracy, the rule of law, individual liberty and mutual respect, and tolerance of different faiths and beliefs.  These are not uniquely British and you do not have to delve too far back in our history to discover that some of them were not very British at all.

At least for the remaining weeks of the Obama administration, I would expect the Americans would claim that such values are “American values” and likewise the Canadians and the Australians would also claim that they are values that they share.  These are common values or universal values and if we are trying to encourage integration we should look at what unites us rather than use nationalistic terms that may make some people feel excluded.

Of course, some people do not believe in tolerating other faiths and beliefs but that is not something alien to Britain.  I remember the Pastor in a Baptist church I used to worship in, leading us in prayer, asking God to prevent the Pope from coming to the UK as the visit might encourage people to become Roman Catholics.  It might be a step on from burning Catholics at the stake but tolerance of different faiths and beliefs is not an inherently “British value” although it is one that should be a cornerstone of the common values we hold dear in a modern United Kingdom.

I am a great believer in Venn diagrams, those overlapping circles where common ground is found.  The government should be going into those isolated minority communities and understand what their values are.  It will be reassuring for them and reassuring for the rest of us to find that there are many that we share.  It is about finding common ground, the realisation that there is far more that binds us together than separates us that is going to encourage integration.  Imposing “British values” is not.


* Brian Paddick Is Liberal Democrat spokesperson on Home Affairs. He was Deputy Assistant Commissioner in London's Metropolitan Police Service until 2007, the Lib Dem candidate for the London mayoral election in 2008 and 2012, and a life peer since 2013. He is joint President of LGBT+ Lib Dems.

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  • Lorenzo Cherin 19th Dec '16 - 6:38pm

    I admire the stance of Brian Paddick on most things . Even here a more measured approach , than some ,in the criticism of Sajid Javid .

    I do not agree with regard to Great Britain . Doesn’t the Trump campaign flying in face of the man’s attitudes, but concentrating on his supposedly wanting to ” make America Great again, ” show those of us who think our country both great and , more importantly, good , should feel confident saying so. Why should the devil have the best tunes !

    As someone more vociferous than most in my support of the Union of this United Kingdom, and of greater emphasis on unity with Northern Ireland , I relate to Lord Paddick in those views , but do not reach the identical conclusion. We are all citizens , those who are that is , of the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland , subtitle , we are all British citizens , at least in our everyday linguistic useage.Also , why the assuming that Sajid Javit or Dame Louise Casey wants the wording to say exactly those things , the content of the weekend views of the Communities Secretary spoke more of his wanting good , decent , yes , universal respect for human rights values , what are they , too , if not British ?! The point bringing up President Obama defeats the argument in the article . Americans , and definitely Obama , wrap themselves in their values and appropriate internationally respected norms , as almost , special or particular to America on a regular basis .

    I have not read the Casey report , so cannot comment on that , other than from reportage . But I do think we should not accuse the author of demonising . This , another , mild but definite criticism of Lord Paddick’s comments. We should be radicals and moderates in tone and attitudes. We need both. It is ironic and odd and typical of a true Liberal Democrat , that , I do not want or agree with the oath proposal , but have expressed very many words defending the right to consider it and I do want a more , much more , measured approach on more debatable issues from this , our, party !

  • Richard Underhill 19th Dec '16 - 7:14pm

    Imagine a country in which Ministers had a xenophobic attitude and passed their views down the management chain by word of mouth. Staff recruited arrive with “common sense” views and develop a “canteen culture” shared by supervisors. This could easily happen in the police, and/or in the prison service and/or the Immigration Service. Independence of the Judiciary becomes very important.

  • I do not accept the argument that labeling values held in the UK but also held in many other countries as “British values” is an action to avoid. They are no less British values because they are also Australian (for example) values, and even if we each labelled them after our own country then what better way of uniting us than to find that we mostly believe in the same thing around the world. When there was distrust and a feeling of separation from the EU we could have found common ground by saying the UK factually has 99.9% the same values as Germany, Spain etc. etc. Likewise, what better way of welcoming immigrants than finding out that we have the same common ideas, or learning about the dangers of showing too little concern for foreign people than to show that our modern UK values weren’t always practiced and the consequences that had abroad.

    What may in fact may be divisive is that you have only suggested English classes for those struggling to integrate whereas even the application for UK citizenship allows for Welsh or Gaelic.

    There is a downside in that while we all quietly go about this regardless if we had to take an oath then that could theoretically lead to accusations of breaking that oath. There are clear examples where such an accusation could be a good thing but these are mostly covered also by British law, whereas walking around on tip-toes because you may not be acting British enough is not a UK to be proud of.

  • ” we are all British citizens , at least in our everyday linguistic useage”. Oh, aye ??

    Fàilte gu Alba and Croeso i Cymru to you, matey.

    Scottish Liberal Democrat MSP Alex Cole-Hamilton has today branded Conservative proposals for a British oath of allegiance as “gimmick politics” after the UK communities secretary Sajid Javid proposed that public servants could be required to swear an oath to British values.
    Nollaig Chridheil

  • Anyone serious about community “integration” should be getting rid of faith schools. Sending Christian children to one school and Muslim children to another is not only divisive for children in their formative years but also divisive for the communities formed by their parents.

    The divisive role of Protestant and Catholic schools in Northern Ireland I believe is widely acknowledged.

  • @ John Probert…….. “based on the Queen’s Coronation Oath (1953). Is anything wrong with that?” ……

    Just about everything. Ask Prince Charle. He wants to change it.

    As to detail, the hereditary principle is a nonsense, the Queen doesn’t ‘Govern’ us, half the territories of ‘the Empire’ are now Republics and the primacy of the Church of England in a multifaith and non-faith society ??

  • I distrust anything; party, oath, etc. that has ‘British’ in it’s title….

    Apart from the ‘British Legion’ most of the others I can think of are intolerant, fascist organisations….’Britishness’ was at the heart of the ‘Leave’ campaign (My ‘Britishness’, as a ‘Remainer’, was called into question on more than one occasion pre-referendum)…

    My values are far different from that of May, Johnson, Farage, etc……Most people of my generation (I’m 73) look back on a Britain of the Ealing Comedies where a council/borough could assert their Britishness by standing against intolerant authority…Sajid Javid overruled local democracy to impose ‘fracking’ on a Lancashire council…Hardly ‘cricket’!

  • Presumably such an oath would cause problems for the various nationalist parties throughout the UK, just as a proposal for an oath to uphold EU values would for Leave supporters.

    But, perhaps, that’s the whole point of the idea?

  • Martin Roche 20th Dec '16 - 3:47pm

    For government to decide what values should be sworn to sounds a most unlikely proposal from the Tories. Have they so strongly adopted the idea of the interventionist state that it now wants to tell us what to think? What happened to the robust individualism of Mrs T – “there is no such thing as society.”

    The most worrying of all is the idea that BBC employees would be obliged to take the oath. You can just hear the Tory Right screaming that a report was in breech of the oath. Such an oath would move the BBC from editorial independence to state broadcaster in an instant. Surely a far more powerful way of winning support for the values of liberal democracy is for politicians – particullarly senior ministers – to talk and write more about the values of liberal democracy. I can’t recall the last time I heard any leading political figure make a big set-piece speech about our precious rights. Apologies to any leading LibDem who has.

  • Sajid Javid wants people to swear an oath.

    I’d rather swear at an oaf.

    Someon will probably remove this comment as it’s not exactly in the Christmas spirit…hmmm.

  • In general terms, I see value in the intent of civil servants and other holders of public office in having to effectively commit to upholding the values of our society in their work.

    Particularly given many such people will already be signing the Official Secrets Act at commencement of their employment, agreeing to uphold the ‘Nolan principles’ (The 7 principles of Public life) in the way in which they conduct themselves.

    However, in saying the above, I agree getting the wording of any such commitment right is going to be challenging, particularly if we wish to be able to use them to hold people to account (as is the case with the Offical Secrets Acts and the Nolan Principles), but it is unlikely to be impossible.

    Thus the way forward isn’t to throw up hands and drag out all the usual ‘right-on’ hobby horses, which do the cause no good, but to engage and encourage the setting up of a commission along the lines of the Nolan Commission and hopefully resourced with people of equal caliber.

  • @ Roland The Nolan Principles and the Official Secrets Act are sufficient to deal with the issue – and at least we have systems in place to enforce any breach of them.

    Any additional ‘patriotic’ British values stuff is gratuitous and it will be seen as a gimmick. It will almost certainly be known as a “Javid”. What will enforce it ? The Star Chamber ? Can you imagine the 400 plus SNP Councillors in Scotland seeking martyrdom by refusing to do it – plus no doubt a fair few Lib Dems and Greens.

  • @David Raw – I’m not so sure it has already been covered: The Official Secrets Act covers the handling of information held by the state. The Nolan principles are more about the way in which people in public life should conduct themselves, rather than the principles that underpin the substantive content of their work – although I agree there is some overlap where Nolan references the “Public Interest”. Thus I think there is room for enlargement of just what the “Public Interest” may mean and some guiding principles against which we can assess the appropriateness of their work.

    I fully take on your points and hence why I think this needs some clarity of thinking of the sort Nolan clearly exhibited in his report. Because unless it enables us to hold people to account in ways not covered by existing practices and UK laws, without it being open to abuse (either by office holders or members of the public), it becomes largely meaningless. Hence why I think the way forward is to get a commission to look at it and so remove it from short-term political considerations.

    Thus in supporting the idea, I’m actually encouraging the idea to be taken somewhere where it can be developed into something more useful…

  • Seumas MacLaren 19th Jun '17 - 12:56am

    In regard to an oath of allegiance to a supposed set of values: It very much depends what is in it, which therefore would devalue the purpose. I am amazed that Mr Javed came up with this idea. It is quite unworkable in a society that believes and has enshrined in law (still, as far as I know) in the right of a person to have a free conscience and act accordingly under the law, without fear of discrimination at work or anywhere else. It would take us back to the era of the vile persecution by the State of Roman Catholics. This was a very bad thing, and did no good to this country. All it did was drive people to underground organizations, divide the nation, and and was a factor in eventually leading towards the dreadful English civil war. We don’t want that again. Mr Javed does not know his history.

    Today the same warning as to the practical outcome applies: The State will fail if it does not allow its people full freedom of conscience on moral issues, or on issue where a moral view can affect a decision. A Muslim man will never swear to uphold the religion of the Queen, which is protestant Christianity, and nor should he be required to (although some of us may wish he could be pursuaded). But neither should a Christian believer be required to swear that he will not proseletize for converts among his Muslim contacts, though some Muslims will try to prevent her/him. This would be anathema to the freedom of faith and practice in our free thinking country, but I fear that silly legislation might eventually be brought to promote other such ideas if an ‘oathing’ bill is ever passed. Brian Paddick is right; it will be seriously devisive for sectors of traditional society if it includes a requirement to accept the moral right-ness or wrongness on matters of conscience.

    The idea of swearing allegiance to a set of constantly shifting values is as worthless as getting people to sing the national anthem, and a lot more problematic. One has to ask: “What values, and how shall they be selected? Will these change with the time? In no circumstances will making immigrants swear any oath result in a safer or more integrated society. People integrate to an extent, to their best advantage, and yes, they should be encouraged to accept some core values such as respect for all, and respect for freedom of thought and faith. But we cannot force them to accept these values. Pharisee-like legalism will not promote the cohesion that we all want to see.

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