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29 October 2015

Why doesn’t the government think “compassion” is a British value?

The Department for Education is now insisting that British values are taught in schools - but the most important one of all is missing. 

By Liam Byrne

You don’t get more British than James Bond. On the big screen this week he’ll be showing the world how it’s done. Tough, fearless, likes a drink and loves his country. For many of us, he’s Britain at it’s best.
But ask people what they love about Britain and you’ll hear a lot more than the qualities of the world’s greatest super-spy.
I’ve been asking people for years just what it is they love about our country. What I tend to hear is a brilliant list of old favourites. The BBC. Beer in a decent British pub. Fashion and fish and chips. Our stunning countryside, chocolate, cider, our seasons and our sense of humour. The great English language. Family, friends, friendliness and football. Law and order, common sense, community spirit. The Royals and rugby. Good manners, queuing and a nice cup of tea. All the things you’d miss if you were scooped up and plonked on a desert island to talk musical favourites with that nice Kirsty Young.
This term, the government has asked schools to step up their work teaching British values to our children – and the nice people from Ofsted will be wandering round with their clipboards to make sure everyone is “with the programme”.
The government’s list of British values does indeed have many of the things we want to teach our children. Set out in the 2011 Prevent plan, the ‘official’ list includes democracy, the rule of law, individual liberty and mutual respect and tolerance of those with different faiths and beliefs, and this is the list schools are asked to teach. It’s vital work, because as the prime minister says, we’re in a generational struggle with extremism – and our values – not James Bond – are ultimately are most important weapon.
But is the Government’s list of “British values” right? And does it work in every corner of the country? My constituency has the biggest Muslim community in Britain, and I’ve been asking asking residents – young and old alike – what are the values they hold dear?
In multi-cultural Birmingham, people hold the same values dear as the rest of the country; freedom, equality, diversity “tolerance”, and “respect”. Brummies love our city’s people, history, diversity and sense of community spirit. They believe that what makes Birmingham great is that people work twice as hard because of the challenges the city faces.
But all my research tells me, the government is missing something fundamental from the list: good old-fashioned British compassion.
In every survey I’ve ever done on “British” values, kindness, compassion, “looking after the needy” – and indeed one another – is something people think makes our country special. It’s why in poll after poll on our favourite institutions, up there with the Queen and our magnificent armed forces is the amazing NHS. It’s compassion in action.
So why don’t we add “compassion” to the official list of British values? I think there would two distinct advantages.
First, it would honour the role of faith in our national life. For many, faith is the source of the compassion they put to work making our country an amazing place to live. As one of my constituents put it to me: “Respect for one another, kindness, helping our neighbours, working to do good in our community these are human values that are British and Christian and Islamic”.
But second, compassion is one of the ways we can bring people together in civil society, volunteering and charity work. As the former chief rabbi Jonathan Sacks once out it, compassion teaches us how “to build a home together”. What better lesson could we teach our children – never mind each other.
On Monday I asked Nicky Morgan to add “compassion” to the list; in a somewhat lukewarm response, she’s promised to “look at it” – and now there’s now growing support amongst MP’s for an Early Day Motion calling for the change. “Compassion” may not be very James Bond. But “compassion” is Britain at its best. 

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