Most commentators have been over-hasty in ridiculing Sajid Javid’s proposal of an oath of allegiance to British values, to be sworn by those holding public office. It’s an opportunity to go right back to basics and ask a huge and naïve-sounding question. What is our public creed? What do we as a society hold in common?
Some sneer that there is nothing particularly British about respect for the law, tolerance, human rights. True enough, but the alternative is to call them ‘Western values’ which is more contentious, more clash-of-civilisations-ey. Those who rubbish any attempt to articulate such values make the mistake of implying that such values are just natural, shared by all decent folk everywhere. They are not. We in the West have a very precious tradition that must in some way or other be affirmed. Of course it must be affirmed in a very general way, so that people don’t get all uppity.
But can any verbal formula do the trick? I think one of the core difficulties is whether to mention religion, or rather how to mention religion. What’s wrong with this?
‘I promise to respect UK law, and I will strive to affirm the humanist values that have shaped that law, including respect for the principle of a secular political realm. I also acknowledge that this public creed has gradually emerged from Britain’s Christian tradition. I promise to learn more about this paradoxical relationship between Christianity and secular humanism, starting with Theo Hobson’s forthcoming book ‘God Created Humanism: the Christian Basis of Secular Values’.