"British values" mean thinking harder about "British values"
It is hard to believe that Sajid Javid has actually really thought through this proposal (if “proposal” it actually is) to make all public servants swear an oath (or presumably affirm if they prefer) that they will uphold the great British values of democracy, tolerance, freedom of speech etc.
Now I am not wholly unused to promise making. When you become a fellow of my college in Cambridge (and I suspect the same goes for others) you publicly promise to do various, well judged,things: to obey the Principal in the exercise of her statutory powers (the qualification is important: you don’t have to obey her tout court, and she doesn’t have that many statutory powers), and to uphold the college as a place of “education, learning and research”. It’s a promise that does well enough in a small community, reasserting the values that those elected had anyway.
But it is a million miles away from the Javid proposals, which are the worst kind of knee-jerk reactions to a complicated problem, and much akin to the questions you get on visa application forms: “Do you support terrorism?” (Presumably if you turn out to be a terrorist, they get you for perjury as well). Or even more akin perhaps to what you swear or affirm in the witness box in court – and there it really a case not so much of a moral terror of telling an untruth, but a looming perjury trial.
But what Javid suggests may have well-meaning roots (yes, I also think that people living in the UK should speak English, and as many other languages as possible), but is plain silly. For a start, who counts as a public servant? I hope they wont have the nerve to impose this on university teachers, given the fact that we are now effectively paid for by the students.
But more to the point, it would be making people swear up to something much more contentious than education, learning and research (whose boundaries are capacious and only occasionally problematic… “I am spending every evening getting sloshed in the pub, as I am researching the culture of drunkenness” . . . ??) Anyone who has thought about this a minute longer than Sajid Javid would realise, for example, that “free speech” was one of the most contentious of all modern slogans. It is used by some of the fiercest trolls online to justify spreading poison – while most of the rest of us would have no doubt that it was not the same as a licence to preach anything you fancied, but would differ on where the boundaries lay (from no platforming to anti-racism). And it’s a question as old as we can trace: Socrates, criminal or martyr?
What on earth is the point of making people mouth acceptance of such disputed platitudes? And it would be the same for “democracy” and “tolerance” (isn't sometimes “no tolerance” OK?).
Surely the point is that British values are a process not a thing one can avow on a tick box form. Or, as Lord West put it on the radio this morning, aren’t British values partly about not swearing an oath to uphold British values? And anyway, aren’t they brought more into disrepute by being mouthed as the price of a “job” as a public servant? And couldn’t the money (on drafting the damn oath, on creating the appeals procedure for the refuseniks, etc etc ) be better spent? Answer: yes.