Are there such things as Scottish values? Are there such things as British values? And, if there are, how do they differ – if at all?
A senior civil servant, Louise Casey, called yesterday for 'British values’ – which she defined as tolerance, democracy and respect – to be taught in schools, with the aim of fostering social integration. It is surprising that Dame Louise seems to be unaware that, as long ago as November 2014, the UK Department of Education issued an edict to schools – in England – to promote ‘British values’ and even issued advice about how to go about it.
The DoE directive was based on Ofsted’s desire to see 'a school ethos and climate that promotes British values at every level’. Ofsted’s definition two years ago was not so different from the newer Casey brand: 'democracy; the rule of law; individual liberty; mutual respect for, and tolerance of, those with different faiths and beliefs and for
those without faith’.
On closer examination, however, these ‘British’ values start to fall apart and it becomes clear from the advice given to schools – in England – that the values being espoused are not generally British but specifically English. Schools, for example, are to ‘enable students to distinguish right from wrong and to respect the civil and criminal law of England’; ‘enable students to acquire a broad general knowledge of, and respect for, public institutions and services in England’; and 'encourage respect for democracy and support for participation in the democratic processes, including respect for the basis on which the law is made and applied in England’.
Setting aside the turgid language in which these sentiments are expressed (a language that crosses many national boundaries), what is ‘British’ about any of this? Although there is a tacit recognition that Scotland maintains its own distinctive legal system, it is not spelled out; so we end up with the usual conflation of England and Scotland – as England. But there is even less excuse for the demand that schoolchildren respect the 'public institutions and services in England’, as if it were the only constituent part of the disuniting kingdom that had any public institutions or services – or, at any rate, ones worth respecting.
Louise Casey’s repetition of the mantra 'British values’ is just as messy. She too means English values, addressing mostly English problems, but has found it expedient to invoke an increasingly vague Britishness. It is not so much that we cannot easily say what British values amount to these days; Britishness itself has become an elusive,
some would say obsolete, concept.
Which takes us, with some relief, to the notion of Scottish values, assuming they exist. But we quickly discover that there is no unanimity about Scottish values either. The former secretary of state for Scotland, Alistair Carmichael, said in the year of the independence referendum: ‘There is no more a set of homogenous Scottish values than there is a set of homogenous English values’. He could be wrong about that – I’ll tell him why in a minute – but it has to be admitted that some of the defenders of Scottish values don’t do a particularly impressive job. In that same year, 2014, the foreign correspondent Angus Roxburgh, in a piece for the New Statesman magazine,
had a go:
Over the centuries of the union with England, we have preserved our culture, music, literature, dialects, customs, laws and Church – and all of that has created a set of Scottish values. Most of us are what I would call ‘Burnsian’ in our scorn of privilege and our pursuit of fairness and would rather spend taxes on schools and hospitals than
cosset bankers or project our might around the world with nuclear missiles and foreign wars. These are rather high-minded values and they rarely guide the governments we get lumbered with in Westminster.
Only Mr Roxburgh can say where he was in the autumn of 2008 when Scotland’s very own cosseted bankers, led by Fred the Unforgettable Shred, came within hours of crashing the entire British banking system, leaving me with a useless RBS cheque to pay off a hotel bill for a conference. Fortunately, that under-rated chap, Alistair Darling, intervened in the nick of time, hours before the cosseted bankers ran out of cash. The evidence of several decades before that terrifying morning was that Scotland was more than happy to cosset bankers, and pay them outrageous loot for their avarice and incompetence.
Burnsian? The cult is meaningless. Even the right-wing of the Conservative Party claim Robert as their own. He is everybody’s and nobody’s. I would not go quite as far as Edwin Muir who proposed the demolition of his birthplace in Alloway as a service to Scottish literature, but the idea that being ‘Burnsian’ inevitably means that we scorn privilege and pursue fairness is the sort of nice little illusion that we’d expect from a foreign correspondent. A quarter of all children in Edinburgh go to selective fee-paying schools; I guarantee that, among their parents, there will be many daddies who
attend the posher Burns Suppers in that place.
As to such assets as ‘laws and Church’, the latter seems to be a spent force, while the Scottish legal system – noble in theory – has been responsible for a disproportionate number of miscarriages of justice and miscellaneous cock-ups, all the way from Lockerbie to Orkney and back (via Dunblane). We must be grateful that Mr Roxburgh did not go on to cheer the ‘lad o’ pairts’ – the upwardly mobile Scot (apparently always a man) on his single-minded pursuit of the high road to London – as an exemplar of Scottish values when the only values the lad o’ pairts champions tend to be his own.
I shall, nonetheless, make a small case for distinctive Scottish values. I believe we are more idealistic about preserving a public health service and a decent welfare system and more alert to the iniquity of such impositions as the bedroom tax than our neighbours in the deep south. But the rest is mainly motherhood and apple pie, about which we can all agree.
Sadly I have lost my copy of Edwin Muir’s 'Scottish Journey’, but I seem to recall that he opened with a statement that Scotland was a small country that had never met. Muir could see no real connection between the Scotlands of the Northern Isles and Airdrie, between the Scotlands of the Borders and Bonnybridge, between the Scotlands of Glasgow and Edinburgh. Pressed to define Scottish values, he might well have responded that each of the many Scotlands has its own.