Education secretary Michael Gove about to make a speech on education earlier this year. Photo: Oli Scarff, Getty
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Gove urges schools to teach British values. But what are they?

Liberal or pluralist multiculturalism?

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.

Lucy Fisher writes about politics and is the winner of the Anthony Howard Award 2013. She tweets @LOS_Fisher.


Photo: Getty
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The big problem for the NHS? Local government cuts

Even a U-Turn on planned cuts to the service itself will still leave the NHS under heavy pressure. 

38Degrees has uncovered a series of grisly plans for the NHS over the coming years. Among the highlights: severe cuts to frontline services at the Midland Metropolitan Hospital, including but limited to the closure of its Accident and Emergency department. Elsewhere, one of three hospitals in Leicester, Leicestershire and Rutland are to be shuttered, while there will be cuts to acute services in Suffolk and North East Essex.

These cuts come despite an additional £8bn annual cash injection into the NHS, characterised as the bare minimum needed by Simon Stevens, the head of NHS England.

The cuts are outlined in draft sustainability and transformation plans (STP) that will be approved in October before kicking off a period of wider consultation.

The problem for the NHS is twofold: although its funding remains ringfenced, healthcare inflation means that in reality, the health service requires above-inflation increases to stand still. But the second, bigger problem aren’t cuts to the NHS but to the rest of government spending, particularly local government cuts.

That has seen more pressure on hospital beds as outpatients who require further non-emergency care have nowhere to go, increasing lifestyle problems as cash-strapped councils either close or increase prices at subsidised local authority gyms, build on green space to make the best out of Britain’s booming property market, and cut other corners to manage the growing backlog of devolved cuts.

All of which means even a bigger supply of cash for the NHS than the £8bn promised at the last election – even the bonanza pledged by Vote Leave in the referendum, in fact – will still find itself disappearing down the cracks left by cuts elsewhere. 

Stephen Bush is special correspondent at the New Statesman. He usually writes about politics.