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19 July 2018

Oaths and British values: a victory for common sense

The Government has officially dropped plans to make public office holders swear an oath to British values, in a welcome move for freedom of conscience in the UK. 

It’s worth reminding ourselves that other political processes are happening apart from Brexit. One of the most significant is the Government’s ongoing development of an integration strategy for new migrants and for ethnic or religious minority communities. This strategy covers an incredibly broad range of issues: everything from helping people to learn English and supporting refugees to the contentious subjects of British values and extremism. 

Earlier this year, the Government published its Integration Green Paper and called for evidence on its proposals. This received more than 3,500 responses, and the Ministry of Housing, Communities and Local Government expects to respond in the autumn. The Evangelical Alliance submitted a response to this strategy and its implications for evangelical Christians in the UK. 

The strategy was written as the Government’s response to the Casey Review, which was published in 2016 and put forward many proposals on integration, some of them quite radical. One policy that caused some concern was for an oath for holders of public office to uphold British values. The review said: 

We should expect all in public office to uphold the fundamental British values of democracy, the rule of law, individual liberty, and mutual respect for and tolerance of those with different faiths and beliefs and for those without faith. The Government should work with the Committee for Standards in Public life to ensure these values are enshrined in the principles of public life, including a new oath for holders of public office

In responding to the Casey Review two years ago, Sajid Javid said that he was drawn to this idea.

However, after a long silence, we learned this week that such an oath has now been officially dropped by Government. According to Lord Nick Bourne, in comments to a parliamentary committee on Monday, the Government “considered [the oaths] in the round and decided that this was probably not the British way of achieving things.” He went on to note that many people in different communities had raised concerns about the proposed oath.  

Ironically, a British values oath appears, both to Government and the wider public, to be quite an un-British proposal. It’s true that MPs and new citizens swear an oath of allegiance, and others take oaths to perform certain actions; members of the armed forces swear to obey orders and witnesses swear to tell the truth in court, for example. But these are quite specific commitments. The discomfort here has more to do with the broad and vaguely defined set of ‘national values’ on which a new integration oath would be based. 

The proposed oath was a particular concern to many religious communities. Even among Christians comfortable with oaths, swearing one is a serious thing, and swearing an unclear one to ‘British values’ is hard to justify. This becomes even worse when many are quick to declare religious belief incompatible with these values.  

Furthermore, historically such oaths have a dubious record. As noted by the Christian Institute, an oath for office holders has been used to bar religious minorities (including Roman Catholics and Nonconformist Evangelicals) from such roles. As Evangelicals we know that religious freedom is recently won and easily lost.  

When we surveyed Evangelicals around the integration strategy, while 70 per cent of Evangelicals thought that the Government was right, in principle, to define and promote British values, 70 per cent disagreed that the Government could be trusted to do this. In addition, 84 per cent of those surveyed argued that free speech needed greater protection in this discussion. With this uncertainty and lack of trust, an oath is clearly not wise – more work needs to be done. The Government should now take the opportunity to explore more creative ways of describing what unites us than the current list of ‘British values’. 

Nonetheless, the outcome is a sign of how important it is to engage with Government. Lord Bourne explicitly cited the concerns of communities in his response. Ministers and civil servants do listen and change their minds, and we should welcome this when they make the right decision. We know that many of you have written to your MPs to express concerns around extremism, British values and religious liberty, so thank you for doing this! For more on raising concerns with your MP, please visit this page. And do thank your MP if they raised these concerns on your behalf.

The coming months will offer several opportunities to work with Government, national and local, on delivering integration. To give one example, Lord Bourne and others mentioned the vital importance of English language provision. Up and down the country Christian churches provide conversation clubs and other support to those learning English and to refugees and migrants – this is a fruitful area for working together. As the Government seeks to implement its integration strategy, we hope that such conversation and collaboration will thrive.