October 20th 2016 is the first international World Values Day. And it is a good time to talk about values.
It feels like the old story about a man and a horse.
The horse is galloping quickly across the land, and it seems to all the world that the rider and his horse are going somewhere urgent and important. But when another man, standing along the way, calls out “Where are you going?”,
the rider replies “I don’t know! Ask the horse!”
To date, Brexit has been treated as a political decision – a complex, technical challenge for negotiation and a high risk period of adjustment. The deeper question, and one that can start to root us and allow us to act with purpose, is what country we want to live in, what nation or nations do we want to be part of. What, in short, are our values?
The USA talks about the American Dream. The UK appears quietly proud of being neither a dreamer nor, as one of the few nations in the world without a written constitution, a draftsman. The success of devolution in recent years means too that the UK is a complex and perhaps fragile assembly of nations, not as united a kingdom as our name suggests.
The UK is often characterised by a sense of tolerance, fair play and support for the underdog – values perhaps that will never make for footballing greatness, even if we can certainly shine with sporting prowess in the more eccentric diversity of the Olympics.
The UK government has had, since 2011, a definition of “fundamental British values”, which are those of democracy, the rule of law, individual liberty, and mutual respect and tolerance of those with different faiths and beliefs. This encapsulation first appeared in 2011 alongside the government’s ‘Prevent’ strategy, designed to stop people being drawn into terrorism.
Schools are now asked to promote these British core values, but they have had little success so far. A survey of secondary school children published last month showed that they were far more likely to choose ‘fish and chips’, ‘drinking tea’ and ‘celebrating the Queen’s birthday’. In a culturally diverse society, the concept of core British values, beloved perhaps of politicians, meant little or nothing to them, in contrast to ideas of Christian, or Muslim or humanitarian values.
However, there is recent research from a dedicated non-profit, the Common Cause Foundation that offers a rich profile of the values in practice that people in the UK have. What emerges overall is that the UK has strong and positive values, but also, that this is not the story that we tell ourselves.
The Common Cause report suggests that 74% of people (higher for women, higher for men and women in Wales and Northern Ireland, lower in London) tend to put values of compassion above values of self-interest.
Compassionate values include ‘broadmindedness’, ‘a world of beauty’, ‘a world at peace’, ‘equality’, ‘protecting the environment’, ‘helpfulness’, ‘forgiveness’, ‘honesty’ and ‘responsibility’. Values of self-interest include values of ‘wealth’, ‘social recognition’, ‘social status’, ‘authority’, ‘control’, ‘popularity’, ‘influence’ and ‘ambition’.
But when it comes to their perception of other people and the values they hold, the reverse holds true – others are seen, unfairly perhaps, as putting self-interest higher than compassion. We risk as a result becoming a nation of private integrity, but public suspicion. The Common Cause team point the finger at politicians, media and economists who spread the message that most other people are out for themselves. The story that we tell of our values as a nation is upside down, whereas the reality is far more hopeful.
So, if this is a time of great uncertainty, not just Brexit as we could add in environmental risk, climate change and migration into the picture, with the horse cantering off to we don’t know where, then it is not just the right time but an urgent task to start more of a national conversation on values.
We have precedents. The philosopher and writer Iris Murdoch helped in the 1990s to pioneer public dialogue around some of the ethical challenges around new genetic technologies. That has now become a world-renowned programme of public engagement, Sciencewise, led by agencies such as Involve, that has helped the UK to develop the most forward thinking policy framework for new technologies, from genetics and nanotechnology to new challenges such as machine learning.
Further back, of course, questions of values are central to theatre, literature and art. The tussle between values and money, for example, is a timeless concern.
For children, there are the spoilt brats in English, overindulged or overprivileged, like Veruca Salt in Charlie and the Chocolate Factory. In the Netherlands, there is the equivalent term verwend nest, although, curiously, it applies to girls alone. In France, there are the enfants gâtés, the generation post Second World War that never had it so good. But we can all be ‘spoiled’. The fear that any of us puts possessions above people or money before God is something that each of the great faith traditions talks about, each with its own, enduring framework of insight and reflection to offer.
Values are what make us who we are. They are the compass guiding everything we do – our choices and our actions. When we forget that compass, we take the wrong turn. It’s the same for us as individuals, as a nation and as a world.
It is time to talk values.
I am delighted to be launching my new book, Values: how to bring values to life in your business on World Values Day.
Values is published by Greenleaf and available on http://www.greenleaf-publishing.com/online-collections/values
And, for family values, I’m also happy to say that the illustrations are by Frankie Mayo.