Tuesday, June 17, 2014

1066 and all that

Owen Jones takes on David Cameron's assertion that Magna Carta is a good thing, by trotting out his own list of good things. It is hard to read either without cringing. One historical myth is replaced with another. Both are Whig theories, in that they assume incremental progress, one through paternalism, the other through struggle.

This leads Jones to say that,
The government's crusade to embed "British values" in our education system is meaningless at best, dangerous at worst, and a perversion of British history in any case.
And here we come face-to-face with the complete muddle informing the whole debate about jihadi entryism in British schools.

There are two main problems. The first is the use of history and the second is the ascription of nationality to a specific set of values, usually without defining them in anything other than the vaguest terms.

What we are talking about are not British values at at all, but a cluster of universal rights, liberties and values that fall into several categories. First are human and legal rights, such as the right to life, to liberty, habeas corpus (which indeed appears in Magna Carta, though not much else does), freedom of speech, freedom of assembly, freedom from torture, no punishment without due process, etc. Secondly, there are democratic rights, the institutional arrangements that limit state power and allow for some form of popular representation. Third are social values, such as freedom from discrimination, toleration, social equality and liberty of lifestyle. Finally, there are economic rights - welfare, health and, yes, education. You can probably add many more to the list. None of these belong specifically to any nation, though some are at better practicing them than others.

Broadly speaking, these are liberal values and what is being proposed is their defence against a totalitarian movement and its relativist allies. The strength of the argument has been undermined by foolish nationalist sentiment.

But what of history? Well what any national or international history is doing is not defining these values but looking at the ways that they have been developed, implemented, violated, challenged and defended. It is full of ambiguities. For instance, Britain both profited from and abolished the slave trade. Polemicists seize on one or the other, historians look at the interrelation and the reasons for both.

I find history endlessly fascinating, but nothing disturbs me more than it being cherry-picked to create partisan narratives. Some of the worst offenders are nationalists, which is why talk of inculcating British values instead of promoting human rights is so inappropriate. And please, let's leave history out of it.

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