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What's wrong with a British Values oath?

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Tim Dieppe comments on Sajid Javid's call for public officials to swear an oath to British Values. 

Dame Louise Casey’s report published last month highlighted the segregation of our society in stark terms. Her policy recommendations, however, were limited and weak. Nevertheless, Sajid Javid, Secretary of State for Communities and Local Government, has already said that he agrees that there is a problem, and is attracted to her recommendation of an oath to uphold British values for all holders of public office.

This initially seems like a benign idea whose worst fault would be to enable the government to feel like they are taking some action to tackle segregation, when in fact this gesture is unlikely to make any difference at all to the issues raised in the Casey review. There are deeper problems with this idea lurking just below the surface though.

Problems with definition

The problem is, just how do you define those British values? Sajid Javid listed several values which may seem uncontroversial, including tolerating the views of others that we disagree with, freedom of speech, freedom of religion, freedom from abuse, equality, democracy, and respect for the law even if you think the law is an ass. Javid acknowledges that these values are not uniquely British, but argues that we can’t expect immigrants to embrace these values if those of us already here don’t do so. 

Javid has promised a fuller response to the Casey review in the spring, when I expect there will be some further clarification of what such an oath would entail. Holders of public office who would be expected to swear the oath may include school governors, civil servants, councillors, parliamentarians, police and judiciary. The way this oath is likely to be interpreted risks becoming a formal bar on Christians from public office. It is very important to pressure the government to scrap the idea of a British values oath because it will cause many more problems than it is likely to solve.

'Equality' used to oppress

One value in particular, that is interpreted in a way that Christians would not agree with is the value of 'equality'. It sounds so uncontentious, but it is the Equality Commission in Northern Ireland that prosecuted Ashers bakery for not being willing to make a cake that would promote same-sex 'marriage'. It is this same doctrine of equality that has been used by Ofsted to interrogate pupils and teachers about their beliefs on same-sex 'marriage'.

Several of our cases highlight problems with how these 'British values' are defined. Felix Ngole was expelled from university after posting on Facebook in support of biblical teaching on marriage. This shows clear intolerance of views that the university disagrees with, and lack of respect for free speech by the university. But it is Felix who has been discriminated against. This case highlights how an 'equality' oath could easily bar Christians from multiple occupations and result in a society that is extremely intolerant of those who do not subscribe to state doctrine. 

The intolerance of 'equality'

Already, the state has closed down adoption agencies that are not willing to place children with same-sex couples. Now Christians who believe that children should have a mother and a father where possible are being threatened with a block from adopting children, or in the case of Richard Page, effectively barred from office. In other cases, a Christian nursery nurse was sacked after expressing her views on homosexuality and marriage, and a teaching assistant disciplined for telling a pupil she did not believe in 'gay marriage'. Both these cases have been resolved in favour of the Christians, with the help of Christian Concern, but they should not have arisen in the first place. 

Where is tolerance and free speech when it comes to same-sex 'marriage'? An expressed belief (which is backed up by research) that children are better off with a mother and a father, is not a harmful belief either for children, or for society. An 'equality' oath could take state oppression of Christians to a new level.

The intolerance of 'tolerance'

'Tolerance' itself has changed its meaning. It used to mean accepting the existence of ideas with which you disagree. It now tends to mean accepting all other ideas as equally valid, unless you happen to disagree with this meaning of 'tolerance' in which case you are not 'tolerated'. Those who hold that there are absolute truths and moral values are branded 'intolerant', though that is not what 'intolerance' used to mean. For example, if I say that sex outside marriage is morally wrong, then I may be branded 'intolerant'. Actually, I am merely expressing a moral opinion which bears no relation to how 'tolerant' of other opinions I am.

What is freedom of religion?

Exactly what is meant by 'freedom of religion'? Does it mean the freedom to run a quasi-parallel legal system based on sharia law? Does it mean that women can be forced to wear face veils? Does it mean guaranteed police protection for those who face threats for leaving Islam? How is religion defined? Does it mean freedom to preach that the country would be better off governed by sharia law? How would this square with the 'British value' of democracy?

Something to unite around

What the idea of an oath reveals is the need for our society to unite around some values that we all respect. We have lost our sense of national identity and status as a self-consciously Christian nation. In the absence of this, politicians are desperately trying to find something else to unite around. Dame Louise Casey actually said we "need to unite around unity" in an interview on the BBC Radio 4 Today programme last month. That is just fatuous nonsense. If we are to unite, we need something clear and concrete to unite around.

What is lacking is a shared identity and common values around which we can unite. We should realise that it is Christianity that has provided this identity and framework in the past, and Christianity has also been the foundation for the freedoms our society has enjoyed. As we abandon Christianity, we can expect to gradually lose those freedoms.

A bar from office

An oath is very unlikely to help reduce the segregation in our society. It is really a substitute policy in the absence of the Government having the stomach to do something more meaningful. Along the way, it risks creating far more problems than it seeks to solve. An oath could result in society becoming much more oppressive and intolerant. Christians are likely be branded 'intolerant' or 'anti-equality' for taking a traditional view of marriage and sexuality. This could bar Christians from public office if their views do not conform to state doctrine.The problem is that while Christians do agree with values like tolerance and equality, they have come to mean different things in our increasingly secular and pagan society. 

The government and politicians need to be told that this oath will cause more problems than it seeks to solve. It is very unlikely to make any difference to the segregation of society. There are many other more meaningful policies that would actually go some way to tacking the problem. The government should not seek to impose state doctrine on holders of public office, and thus create an effective bar for those who hold traditional views. This oath needs to be opposed.

Related links:
British values oath proposed for public office holders (BBC)
Our excluded need to feel more British, and we can help them (Times) (£)
The Casey review - a review into opportunity and integration (Gov UK)
Solutions for a segregated society - the Casey review and what to do about it