Christmas is nearly here and everyone is tired and distracted. The last year and a half has been a tumultuous one for British and international politics, and in the UK MPs, Peers, Ministers and their officials are all looking forward to a break. Many are still trying to come to terms with what the events of the year mean – for themselves, for their policies, and their parties. Given the scale and speed of change a certain degree of disorientation is to be expected and accepted.
Mrs May, for example, is a very different Prime Minister to David Cameron, both in style and substance. Her team in No 10 is new. She and her team have taken over government unexpectedly and much more quickly than anyone could have foreseen. They have done so with admirable efficiency and effectiveness. It is, however, taking time for officials and Ministers to become used to the new way in which business is being conducted. That is also to be expected and accepted.
Barely a year on from the 2015 General Election Ministers found themselves shuffled in, out, up, and in some cases down. Mrs May’s Cabinet shuffle was so widespread that many Ministers for the second time in a year found themselves having to work their way into new jobs and master fresh briefs. This all takes time and stamina. Underneath all the churn it is remarkable how consistent and effective the roll out of the Government’s programme has continued to be. In addition, of course, the great tsunami that was the Brexit referendum result has washed through and over British politics. The impact of the result and the full consequences of it are still to be felt, but the consensus that has dominated British politics since 1997 has been swept away. As the UK’s leaders cast about looking for new ways to address voter concerns they are bound to come up with good ideas, and, of course, some stinkers. That is to be expected. The good ones should be accepted, the bad ones not. An Oath of Allegiance to British Values, proposed by ministers at the weekend, is a stinker of an idea.
Many public office holders in Britain already swear an oath on taking office, it is the Oath of Allegiance to the Sovereign. These include Peers, Judges, MPs, Magistrates, Privy Counsellors, Church of England Priests (yes all of them), and some members of the Armed Forces, among others. It is a promise of loyalty to the Queen, her heirs and successors. Not to the country. Not to the Government. Not to a set of values or customs, but a personal promise of loyalty to the Monarch.
The proposal now is that all public office holders should swear an Oath of Allegiance to British Values. But whose values? Yours? Mine? Who will say what is a British value and what is not?
My sense of Britishness may well be very different to yours. Queuing orderly and patiently is a well know British characteristic. Football is popular and cuts across social and economic groups. Should that be included too? What about not spitting in the street? Surely most of us would like to see that as an agreed value.
It is very difficult to agree precisely what British values are. Perhaps you know it when you see it, when you experience and encounter them, but it is so wide a collection of categories as to be almost meaningless. Perhaps it involves a sense of politeness and restraint, respect for peaceful elections, the acceptance of policing, the courts, the understanding that Parliament is sovereign, and that those who stand for election are offering public service. Perhaps it is about liberty and freedom of expression.
And who will be included? Presumably it will have to be sworn by every MP and Peer, every councillor, school governor, member of a Quango, everyone who works at the BBC and Channel 4 too because its owned by the Government, and every civil servant of course. Are doctors, nurses and classroom assistants to be compelled too? What about those providing public services – traffic wardens, road sweepers, for example?
An Oath of Allegiance is an idea, swiped from the United States. There they pledge allegiance to the flag of the United States and to the Constitution – which, unlike here, is written down clearly in one place. The American pledge is, and always has been, central to being a US citizen. Every morning in classrooms across the country children recite the pledge. There is not much evidence that sharing the same oath of allegiance has stopped American society from fracturing.
In essence, an oath of allegiance to a set of values is a profoundly un-British thing and totally unnecessary. Britain’s strengths manifest themselves in our politics, art, public life, respect for the courts and their processes, proper funding and use of the Armed Forces, in literature, in education, and in our respect for those holding religious, or no religious, belief. British values are broadly about how we treat each other, and how we conduct ourselves. It is about the quality of public discourse, as much as it is about respecting institutions. You can’t swear an oath to that.
An oath of allegiance to British values is an absolute stinker of an idea. It is gimmicky and unworkable.
Instead, extend the existing Oath of Allegiance to the Monarch if you like. That would be a different matter altogether. That’s the British Oath.