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Gove urges schools to teach British values. But what are they?

Liberal or pluralist multiculturalism?

Michael Gove about to make a speech on education earlier this year.
Education secretary Michael Gove about to make a speech on education earlier this year. Photo: Oli Scarff, Getty

Michael Gove has announced that the government will require all 20,000 primary and secondary schools to “promote British values”.

The decision follows a watershed series of inspectorate reports into 21 Birmingham secular schools, which uncovered a limited, Islam-based ideology; rigged staff appointments; inappropriate use of school funds; and a "culture of fear and intimidation".

So the education secretary's exhortation that British schools should embody and teach the values that underpin our society is a reactionary, but understandable (and I would add commendable) command.

Only, the question remains: what are our values? It does not appear obvious to me that we, as a society, have decided collectively what they are.

For a start, isn't there a plurality of value systems in the UK, since we boast a vibrant variety of cultural, religious and ideological communities? Or, at the most basic level, could we count as a single set of coherent values those principles that are embodied by our multiculturalist outlook? That is, our respect for and tolerance towards diverse cultures.

Well no, I don't think we can point to such generic attitudes as being the heart of our value system. Not without a public debate about, and a clearer breakdown of, these values. Not least because our attitude towards multiculturalism - itself too wide an umbrella term - and the values it indicates, have become so confused.

It seems a muffled retreat has been staged from the policy of multiculturalism, which was rolled out by local authorities in the UK from the 1970s onwards. But it has been a fudged retreat without any indepth debate around what modifications we want to the policy.

David Cameron announced in 2011, for example, that multiculturalism had "failed" in the UK. Yet generally speaking, respect is still accorded to a diverse swathe of religions and cultures in Britain – that is, a multitude of cultures still persist throughout the nation.

So, we are multicultural whether you like it or not (and I happen to think it’s a good thing). The debate about the future now needs to centre around the kind of multicultural society we want to be – whether it be a liberal- or pluralist-multiculturalism that prevails.

The former describes a society in which all cultures are respected, but liberal human and civil rights remain an immutable standard overriding other cultural practices and ideologies. A society in which tolerance is a primary value, but, crucially, does not extend to the extreme beliefs of intolerant faiths and cultures, which could threaten the very existence of the tolerant society itself.

Pluralist multiculturalism, however, affords all cultures equal legal and moral status. Such a society extends respect for all faiths and ideologies so far as to accept cultural mores and practices, such as, say, the subjugation of women, that are at directly at odds with our own.

Ministers have reportedly described Gove’s announcement last night as a decisive shift away from moral relativism.

That suggests that the moral subjectivity intrinsic to pluralist multiculturalism (which prescribes respect for the "truth" of all belief systems even if they are mutually exclusive) is being eschewed and, instead, the government is affirming the moral objectivity of liberal multiculturalism (the idea that there is one objective moral "truth" - which, in Britain, is summed up by our defence of human and civil rights - which should prevail over differing belief systems).

But we need the conversation about these fundamental principles, crucial as they are to our society’s identity and soul, to be less opaque and unclear.

It isn’t good enough for Department for Education (DfE) sources to point vaguely at concepts such as tolerance, as they did last night, when alluding to British values. Because isn’t it precisely the British establishment's intolerance of Islamist ideology that has led the department to prescribe the promotion of British values?

Ditto the concepts of "liberty" and "mutual respect", which were also touted as chief British values. The question is, how far should individual liberty extend (should one have the liberty to inculcate children with extreme ideologies?), and how much respect should we afford to other cultures (should we have respect for cultures that have no respect for - would rather override - our own?).

I'm glad the education secretary has called for British values to be taught in schools, in part because the demand will hopefully provoke a society-wide dialogue about these issues.

We need a meaningful debate in order to remove the mystery from our value system. Otherwise good luck to those charged with promoting them in British schools.