|Justice, forced to take on tree surgery on a zero-hours contract because it has become too expensive to live in London|
I shall set out here to make a simple case: that democracy, freedom, tolerance, the rule of law and respect for human rights are not British values. That is, there is nothing about them in any way present in, or exclusive to, Britain’s national essence.
As far as democracy is concerned, let us be clear. What this country did have, emerging from Anglo-Saxon practices then formalized in its beloved Magna Carta of 1215, was one thing: the idea and norm that power had to be accountable. In other words, that the person in charge of the country was obligated in some sense to do right by his or her people, and could be challenged, held to task, or even rightfully kicked out, if he or she failed in this duty. Many societies have had their own variants of this basic political principle, of course.
In Britain this idea was contested right from the beginning by practically every new generation of monarchs. Kings roared one after another that their power was absolute, flipping over the table of documents designed to constrain them, and provoking wars and coups and foreign interventions to drag their noses and signatures back to it. Not even the monstrous civil war of the seventeenth century sufficed to settle this matter, despite reducing much of the British Isles to ruins and mutilated corpses in the attempt. On top of that, the “people” to which the rulers were so obliged only ever referred, until more recent times, to an extreme minority of privileged elites, from the medieval barons to the early-modern parliamentary plutocrats whose conflicts with the crown tended to be more about protecting their own interests than any concern for some general principle of liberty.
To the extent that Britain is free, inclusive and tolerant, it is because such basic humanity had to be pried piece by piece from the tentacles of an establishment that kicked, screamed, hanged, beheaded and fired from all cylinders all the way. Those British who dared to think, fight and suffer in this struggle faced tyranny and bigotry towards women, foreigners, children, poor people, disabled people, people of unsanctioned religious beliefs or sexualities or ways of thinking and goodness knows what else – oppressive hierarchies and us-versus-them tribalisms, that is, that many and perhaps most people in British society would have considered normal. Many still do.
For those so left behind, taking back recognition as human beings has taken literally centuries. Every real victory in the struggle to win that recognition, and the rights that come with it, has had its corresponding price in blood and anguish. Peasants’ revolts, workers’ marches, slave rebellions, dissident literature, conscientious objectors, secret religious meetings, colonial independence struggles, hunger strikes in prison – a great deal of those who won the British their liberty – or won their liberty from the British – did not make it out alive, and the enemy that trampled their carcasses into this country’s cemeteries was entirely native.
Most of their victories, such as of women, are relatively recent in this story and are not yet complete. Many more, as of people of marginalized sexualities or family structures, have barely begun or have yet to come at all. All are under perpetual threat of rollback if not for the constant vigilance of British civil society. That such a civil society has emerged is to Britain’s credit, formidably so, but the reason it has been so needed in the first place is the historical fact that British values, in practice, have most often meant violence, exclusion, and utterly shameless dehumanization.
What we recognize today as Britain’s parliamentary system, in which the country’s politics are argued over by competing factions without resort to violence, began to take shape following the revolution of 1688. Yet another king had been thrown out (for appearing tolerant of Catholics, which to most people meant tyrannical – the way all this was framed is fascinatingly instructive on the almighty mess that Britishness has always been, but it is too involved a chapter to go into here). A new bill of rights officially gave parliament more power than it had ever held before – even insisting these rights were ancient and fundamental, from before the monarchy existed – and effectively bound the monarch’s own power to parliament’s will.
But within that parliament, there had emerged a faction which disliked this intensely. They wanted a supreme king or queen with whom final authority lay, even if they were gradually distancing themselves from the old idea, still popular on the continent, that the monarch was the representative of God and every right or freedom was granted by the monarch as an entirely optional favour, not by any natural entitlement on one's own part. This faction was ridiculed by its opponents, who called them tóraidhe, a term for Irish bandits (notice again the use of foreignness as a scorn factor).
Tóraidhe. Tory. These were the ancestors of today’s Conservative Party.
And they have been through all kinds of transformations since, those Tories. In a diverse and balanced British politics they very much had their place, and it may be fairly argued that valuable intellectual and political contributions to the shaping of this country emerged on account of them. But in our day, through a process begun under Margaret Thatcher and now consummated by its present and recent leadership, the Conservative Party has arisen as the prime inheritors of those coercive, exclusionary, prejudice-driven and physically and structurally violent British values whose proponents have considered the country their own arbitrary property for as long as Britain, indeed England, has existed.
What “British values” means to this Conservative Party has been made plain by its record. It means scapegoating Europeans, Muslims, migrants and people of darker skin pigmentation for problems of the country’s own creation. It means traumatically tearing people from those they love and summarily deporting them on various pretexts of foreignness, even if they have lived in good standing in Britain for decades. It means cutting support for the most vulnerable members of society, whether physically disabled, economically devastated, mentally shattered or sexually violated: mocking and reprimanding them like criminals or wayward infants, burying them in meaningless paperwork, pronouncing them fit to work where they lie comatose, in some cases tormenting them to the point of suicide. It means allowing refugees – refugees! – to be called cockroaches, and treating them like cockroaches. It means abuse and exploitation as core dynamics of the very concept of work. It means free rein for a sadistic and predatory tabloid media that rampages around the country in a storm of slavering prejudices, reshaping the public discourse into a carnival of toxic ignorance and hysteria. And it means the willingness to slaughter millions of foreigners with nuclear weapons, should it at any point deem it necessary, as a reasonable price to “keep the country safe”, while at the same time furnishing violent and oppressive regimes and fuelling conflict and hatred around the world, as in the Saudi destruction of Yemen, under the same pretext.
In other words, for today’s Conservative Party, to be British is to be gloriously cruel and proud of it.
The point here is not that they are merely nasty. It is that their nastiness is a British nastiness. Because none of this is new; Britain has always had people like them. Each of their abuses is but another strand in of a sprawling web of callousness and revelry in others’ pain that clings to every page of the British story, extensions of a structure that produced so many miserable slave ships, poorhouses, smokestacks, mental asylums and scaffolds for dissidents and dreamers. Infused into every brick of this structure are the same British values the Conservative Party has now taken it on itself to stand for: the belief that society, defined as it is by relationships of mutual care and support, should not exist; the attitude that your fellow human beings are beneath you; and that conviction that the more you can get away with wringing their hearts, minds and bodies dry for your own benefit, the better.
It is the fact that millions of British are satisfied with a country like that, and so eagerly prepared to vote for it, that more than anything challenges the notion that liberty, tolerance, respect and free thought are the real British values. There is very much a Britain of compassion, righteous rebellion and support for the vulnerable too, but it is there because exceptional people have fought to the death for it, maligned and threatened and ridiculed all the way. But beneath that vision, or that façade depending on who is talking, sits the same rump of nastiness that has occupied this land for centuries, and replacing it will likely take centuries more.
I am a stranger in this land, and make these observations as an outsider who has experienced the worst of this country but also seen what it is capable of at its best. So it is at the level of a human being, no more and no less, that I make this condemnation of the Conservative Party, whose leaders and adherents have abused their power to inflict misery and hurt upon those who most needed – most *obliged* – their protection, and responded to their cries for help by manufacturing a culture of unrelenting mass hatred and contempt, a tide of bile to drown them in the insistence that they are inferior vermin whose suffering is their own fault.
The history makes clear that this barbarity did not begin with the Conservative Party, and it certainly will not end with it. But the party is terminally corrupted. A true conservative, including many who have stood among the Tories in each generation, even today’s, is one who seeks to preserve the best things from his or her people’s past. Such people have a vital place in any society. But the party now belongs to impostors who would preserve Britain’s worst. The torch they carry is the torch of authoritarianism, forced conformity and submission, slavery, colonialism, heteronormative patriarchy, the terrorization of the different, and a destruction of people’s lives for fun and profit that will not stop till they have ground from our veins the final impulses of love and care, and all submit to joining in their social cannibalism and human sacrifice on the altar of the cult of the nasty world. That is not conservatism. It is an unspeakable thing that has no legitimate place among human beings – not now, not anywhere, not forever.
I will not call for the overthrow of the Conservative Party in the coming election, although that would be a good start. The response to what it has visited upon Britain, and to its choice of British values, must go far deeper if the hope that these can mean good things is to be safeguarded. The party in its present form should be considered a constitutional threat and never be permitted near power again. Their atrocities over the last seven years must be documented, exposed, memorialized and never forgotten. Their true crime has been to normalize these deeds, to blend them into the mundanity of everyday life, and only when the British de-normalize them will they awaken as a nation to the true magnitude of what has been suffered in this country. Thus a special tribunal should be set up to hold the party’s leaders and enforcers to account, with the power to jail them if deemed appropriate, for their abuse of the United Kingdom through violent austerity; the destruction of vital public services and support systems; forced deportations and separation of families; collaboration with the media to create a conducive environment for hate crimes and dehumanization of the vulnerable and unpopular; and support for murderous regimes which all together, as intended consequences of systematic policy, constitute a failure in their responsibility as a government to protect their people and could in sum amount to crimes against humanity.
Part of the importance of this is that other peoples, too, could then learn from yet another case study of how easily the disqualification of segments of the people from consideration as human beings, especially the most unheard, unloved and invisible, leads to depravities of indifference that damn a whole generation. But for the British, it is only through such a reckoning that British values can stand up to the greatest threat that faces them, which, as ever, comes not from foreigners but from the depths of their own national soul. The greatest threat to British values is British values.