By 2009 the government-inspired project to defi ne ‘Britishness’ appeared to take on a more specifi cally New Labour tinge when the former Prime Minister Gordon Brown wrote the introduction to a book on Being British. He claimed that whilst ‘liberty might be seen as a universal value . . . in its uniquely British incarnation’, which has evolved over the centuries through the ‘common law . . . the combination of duty and liberty, of rights and responsibilities, lives and breathes each day.’ 5

For a set of principles that are said to be timeless, or at least 800 years old, it is fascinating how quickly they can evolve at the hands of the state. New guidelines on ‘promoting fundamental British values’ in maintained schools, published by the Department for Education in November 2014 in the wake of the furore regarding Birmingham (and a few other) schools, mentions nothing about ‘rights and responsibilities’, which were a stock New Labour phrase. Instead schools in England will be expected to ‘actively’ promote ‘democracy, the rule of law, individual liberty and tolerance of those with different faiths and beliefs’ which ‘also means challenging opinions or behaviours in school that are contrary to fundamental British values’. 6 No explanation is given as to what makes these values specifi cally ‘ British ’, leading Abdool Karim Vakil, lecturer in European history at King’s College London, to comment:

Muslims are happy to sign up to common values of justice, fairness, equality and democracy, but understood as values that all of us need to strive to live up to and make a reality, not as the already achieved preserve of some primordial British population that the not-quite-British enough must be civilised into. 7

Next stop: rediscovering ‘Enlightenment values’

A whole host of time travellers, including the English ‘natural rights’ proponents John Locke and Tom Paine, the German philosopher Immanuel Kant and the French radicals Rousseau and Voltaire, would be intrigued by this debate were they to turn up in modern Britain. They would certainly recognize those principles that the government is now requiring its schools to promote. They sound remarkably similar to the so-called Enlightenment values of justice, liberty, freedom of religion, free speech and tolerance (or ‘toleration’ to use an Enlightenment-era term) which they championed so assiduously in their day. 8 By the end of the eighteenth century, democracy, as a principle in itself, was added to the mix. 9

These time travellers could be forgiven for wondering, therefore, why these ‘values’ are now being repackaged as specifi cally ‘British’ when the Enlightenment is fairly understood as a pan-European project. The apparent association between these ‘values’ and the Magna Carta might surprise them even more, given that beyond a common respect for ‘the rule of law’ there is not a great deal that links them (and even here there is a distinction between the ‘natural rights’ promoted by Enlightenment thinkers as the basis of a ‘just law’ and the more procedural ‘legality’ of the Great Charter). Tom Paine, for instance, whilst campaigning for democracy

and rights in Britain (for which he was charged with seditious libel, leading to his lifelong exile from British shores) wrote somewhat disdainfully of the disproportionate stature granted the Magna Carta. If the barons deserved a memorial at Runnymede, he argued, surely Wat Tyler, the leader of the 1381 Peasants Revolt, warranted a monument in Smithfi eld. 10

There is considerable historical dispute about whether the Enlightenment denotes an era spanning from roughly the mid-seventeenth century to the end of the eighteenth century (when ‘the terror’ following the French revolution created its own backlash) or a set of timeless ideas that still invigorate Western society today. Liberal commentators and authors such as Richard Dawkins, Martin Amis and the late Christopher Hitchens, who would presumably support the latter stance, have strongly asserted the need to protect so-called Enlightenment values since 9/11 (and the 7/7 London bombings on 7 July 2005) from what they, and many other commentators, call ‘Islamism’. 11 The implicit allegation is that liberal values are under signifi cant pressure and need reclaiming. According to author Dan Hind, the phrase ‘enlightenment values’ roughly quadrupled in the British press in the years after the 9/11 attack, but this did not prevent Dawkins from worrying that ‘the Enlightenment is under threat, so is reason, so is truth.’ 12 For Amis, 9/11 was ‘a day of de-Enlightenment’, inaugurating a ‘bipolar’ confrontation between ‘the West’ and ‘an irrationalist . . . system’ in a new ‘age of religion’, 13 whilst for Hitchens, 9/11 demanded an assertion of ‘some very important Enlightenment principles’. 14

It is interesting to refl ect, therefore, on why the current government is insistent on re-casting these Enlightenment values as specifi cally ‘British’ when many would agree with the Enlightenment critic John Gray that ‘the Enlightenment is part of the way we live and think.’ 15 Presumably it is its pan-European association that a largely Eurosceptic government wants to avoid in a project aimed at bolstering British identity.