WTF? “The British value of privileging the individual over the collective arise from the institutions of the state.”


This morning on R4, in a conversation about immigration and integration, a Tory on Andrew Marr’s, Start The Week, said, “British values arise from the institutions of the state.”

In the same conversation he said that British values include “privileging the individual over the collective.”

These seem to me to be two contradictory propositions. The institutions of the state are ‘collective’ institutions by definition and if they were in fact determining our moral, political and civic ‘values’ then we would be living in some sort of totalitarian state.

The truth is ‘British values’, don’t exist and this Tory is trying to claim that his own Tory values ARE British values, which in his case I am sure do undoubtedly arise from institutions of the state such as the monarchy, the aristocracy and the public schools. By contrast my own moral, political and civic ‘values’ were developed despite the institutions of the state and in direct opposition to most of them. My own sense of ‘Britishness’ arises from The Peasants Revolt, The Levellers & Diggers; from Peterloo, Tolpuddle and The Chartists, from the suffragettes and the Jarrow marchers; from the Highland Clearances and the Irish Potato Famine and from Ghandi, Kenyata and the other freedom fighters of the British Empire. To me the great institutions of state are the NHS, The BBC and our public education system, NOT Parliament, the Foreign Office or The Monarchy.

His statements also illustrate the contradictions and incoherence at the heart of much Conservative thinking.

Conservatives often rhetorically valorise ‘individual freedom’ but simultaneously valorise conformity and ‘playing by the rules’. We are all ‘free’ in a Conservative society as long as we all behave and speak as if we were white, middle-class, heterosexual and educated at a private school.

Conservatives endlessly demonise the ‘state’ as  repressive and inefficient and yet simultaneously fetishise the symbols of state power like the monarchy and the aristocracy and valorise the coercive forces of the state like the police, security forces and armed services. They talk of ‘freedom’ while strictly imposing law and order. They privilege security and order over natural justice. They claim to hate bureaucracy yet insist that technocratic and bureaucratic ‘due process’ applied by the institutions of the state is the only way to resolve competing claims for status and resources. They claim ‘markets’ are the only fair and efficient way to distribute finite resources yet they despise and denigrate ‘the popular’.

This is because when a Conservative uses the word ‘freedom’ they are NOT referring to individual ‘autonomy’; Conservatives generally do not believe in individual autonomy, they believe in strictly imposed and hierarchical normative codes of behaviour, which if transgressed should be punishable by law. When a Conservative speaks of ‘freedom’ they are speaking only of the technocratic ‘freedom’ to make money free from regulation or taxation by the state. In commerce they want the ‘freedom’ to do what they want, when they want, and in order for them to do that they need strong forces of law and order to protect their property and their ‘freedom’ to acquire it. They also need to ensure that the rest of us must at all times do as we are told.

Hence a Tory can simultaneously hold the contradictory beliefs that the institutions of the state create our nations values AND that those values include privileging the individual over the collective.

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