Prospect OCTOBER 2007 - by Brian Eno & others


In July, Gordon Brown published a green paper called "The Governance of Britain." The final section said that we need to be clearer about the rights and responsibilities of citizenship and what it means to be British. It proposed "to work with the public to develop a British statement of values." We asked fifty writers and intellectuals to give us their thoughts on this statement and what should inform it.

Rushanara Ali Think-tanker

The government's initiatives on citizenship and a statement of British values have been met with a mix of encouragement and scepticism. Inevitably, the scepticism revolves around whether there are such things as British values given that so many of our values are shaped by more universal values, and no single nation has a monopoly over the ideas of democracy, equality and the principles of human rights. But the real test of whether a statement of values is meaningful will be based on our everyday experience, whether we are genuinely treated equally as citizens, whether we feel a sense of belonging and pride in who are as a nation. That means taking practical steps to enable the whole population to be a part of the national story, as opposed to the current situation, where many feel they are outsiders and lack a sense of belonging.

Paul Barker Journalist

In his great work The Civilising Process, the German Jewish sociologist Norbert Elias (1897-1990) - who took refuge in Britain from the Nazis - made it clear that the highest achievement in any society was to evolve ways of resolving differences without resort to violence. This achievement, where it is attained, is a spectrum which ranges from everyday civility to the protections of legislation. The laws are part of an entire ethos. They do not, in themselves, create that ethos; but they do help to ratify it. On the Elias criterion, Britain is much less civilised than when he wrote. (The Civilising Process was published in German in 1939; translated into English in 1978-82.) In-growing alienation in the suburbs of Leeds leads to bombs on the London underground. The creation of so-called "vibrant" cities - but let's give that creepy adjective a rest - goes hand in hand with riotous city centres that many local people go to great lengths to avoid. (Have you recently seen Leicester Square, or Sunderland High Street, on a Friday night?) On a Halifax housing estate, two sisters quarrel about a boyfriend; each girl stabs the other. In London and Manchester, murders of teenagers by other teenagers are starting to drift down into routine inside-paragraphs in the newspapers; this was something that astonished me when I first saw it in the Chicago press, but everything crosses the Atlantic eventually. Civilisation, in Elias's sense, is the value we need to move back to.

Vernon Bogdanor Political scientist

Knowledge advances when philosophical questions are turned into manageable ones. Academics can have a splendid time debating the nature of Britishness ad infinitum. But perhaps we are not dealing with a philosophical question at all. To be British, surely, is to wish to be represented in the House of Commons. Paradoxically, the nationalist parties provide a useful indicator of the strength of Britishness. In 2005, the SNP gained around eighteen percent of the Scottish vote, two percent less than in 2001. Thus, eighty-two percent of Scots voted unionist. In fact, the Scots feel more British now than they did in the 1970s, when the SNP gained thirty percent of the Scottish vote. Britain's ethnic communities also support, by and large, parties which, far from repudiating parliament, seek better representation there. In Ireland, by contrast, in every election between 1885 and 1914, the nationalists won at least eighty of the one hundred and one seats. The Irish were delivering a very clear message which was ignored for far too long.

The question of Britishness is really a surrogate for two quite different problems. The first is that of holding together the post-devolution, multicultural United Kingdom. The second, which has troubled the Labour party since its foundation, is that of strengthening the bonds of community so that we can live more happily together. Gordon Brown is squarely within the socialist tradition in arguing that we should learn to realign rights and responsibilities. The trouble is, however, that neither philosophers nor politicians have been able to show how this can be achieved in a society whose dominant ethic is that of individual aspiration.

Rodric Braithwaite Ex-diplomat

People spend much more time than they used to trying to work out who they are, trying to find their "identity." It is a sign of insecurity in a changing world. What makes a Frenchman? Is it to be steeped in French civilisation, to have - like De Gaulle - "a certain idea of France" whatever your race or religion? The old Soviet Union was known as the "prison of nations" in the west and, true enough, it flew apart once the imperial bonds were loosened. But while it still existed, most of its inhabitants felt comfortable that they were citizens of one of the world's two superpowers, and it was under the red banner that they fought and won the war. In Israel they argue about whether you can properly be regarded as Israeli if you are not Jewish. Perhaps only in America are people still reasonably secure in their identity, in the knowledge that they are the children of the constitution, citizens of the city on the hill, Irish Americans, Japanese Americans, Italo-Americans, but Americans for all that.

Linda Colley pointed out years ago that "Britain" and "Britishness" were artificial constructs, which went with the unification of the isles and the expansion of the empire. In Scotland you were a Scot. But in London you took part in a British political process, and in the far-flung corners of the globe it was Britain you represented.

Much of the current debate is about the values that this "Britishness" allegedly represents: democracy, decency, tolerance; but not, God help us, binge-drinking, football hooliganism and Big Brother. But the attempt to nail down an identity on a set of national characteristics is a fool's game. There are Germans, and Americans and French people: but once your start talking about "the Germans", "the Americans" or "the French" you will soon begin to stumble among national stereotypes and prejudices.

"Britishness" nevertheless remains as important as ever, and its function is not all that different from what it used to be. Though I never expected to find myself saying so, the Union Jack is still a symbol of unity. If you are a Bangladeshi whose family is from the subcontinent, you may feel a connection with that flag that you could hardly feel for the red cross of England's national saint. For the future well-being of these islands, the important task is not to engage in philosophical debate about values, but by legislation where necessary, and by common everyday practice, to enable everyone who lives here to feel they that they share as of right a common allegiance and a common citizenship. If you can do that - and it is obviously not at all easy - the values will take care of themselves.

Lesley Chamberlain Writer

The real problem seems to me not values but that Britain has become a country that can't enforce its own rules. Try asking someone in a designated quiet carriage on the train to switch his phone off. Britain's social strength used to rest on unwritten rules passed down the generations, but this can no longer happen in a global society where experience differs so widely. Nor does peer pressure work any more. A good residual British attitude is dislike of telling other people what to do, but a mixture of political correctness and fear have turned it into auto-paralysis on the part of social institutions. The British Library went temporarily insane in 2005 when it talked of accommodating "new behaviours" - phoning, texting, eating and chatting - in the reading room. More recently it simply banned un-library-like behaviour. A few years ago, the tube sported silly posters suggesting, for instance, that love is not eating smelly food in the tube. Transport for London has since moved to displaying notices saying outright: don't! Still, people are too scared of their fellow citizens to enforce such rules. The first question for contemporary culture - I don't think it's primarily a matter for government - is how to set guidelines for what is unacceptable and, having made rules based on "our values," to require them to be followed. (Uniquely the smoking ban works. Perhaps we can learn from it.)

Stephen Chan Political scientist

I was a child of the Chinese refugee diaspora in New Zealand and, my host country having then a bruising environment, I decided after the early harassments that I did not want to be Kiwi, and became instead a staunch Anglophile, for three reasons. First, a petty one-upmanship, affecting the outlook of the "mother country" better than my antagonists; second, I never learned French well enough to indulge myself properly as a Francophile; and third, because I was much taken by Defoe's description of the English, indeed the British, as a miscegenated race. I thought I could go to Britain and be whatever I wanted to be.

What brought me to Britishness was that I didn't have to swear allegiance to anything. Not a goddamned thing. This was meant to be the most tolerant society on earth and, even now, when I return from escapades in dictatorships, I always walk to Westminster and pay my respect to the Houses of Parliament for letting me live as a different person.

So I treat talk of "core values" and "what it means to be British" with suspicion. I don't mean that I do not subscribe to the values of tolerance, plurality and their expression in debate and democracy. I do mean I am intensely suspicious of any suggestion that "core values" were arrived at by "British means" - by which is meant via Britain's attachment to the western rationalist and Enlightenment tradition. I would be happier if those British "core values" were also seen as influenced by Islam, Hinduism, African philosophy, Chinese polyglot mixtures of Buddhism, Taoism and Confucianism - and that Nasir Khusraw's defence of intellectual freedom is seen as important as Milton's defence of free expression.

Michael Collins Writer

This need to define a "Britishness" that will see us through the twenty-first century, and not offend anyone's sensibilities, echoes an attempt by writers and parliamentarians to define "England" in the early days of the last century. Back then the question was in what locality, what class did "England" reside. The masses were by then a mixed bunch. The Liberal minister Charles Masterman, in his book The Condition of England, wondered what "spirit" would unite the nation at a time of adversity, with the threat from a foreign invader. These days the diversity of the masses is due to ethnicity, faith and nationality rather than dialect and locality. And the issue now is one of values rather than spirit. Whatever these values are, they were previously taken as a given. Rarely was there a need to define or document them. The prime minister argues this was because the relative stability of the nation meant there was no call for precision on what it means to be British. His desire to officially define "Britishness" for new arrivals and the nation's rising generation comes at a time when it has little bearing on most of us. Actually, a time when many British citizens from all classes - notably those that never needed their citizenship prescribed - are heading for the airports in a desperate bid to escape, by emigrating.

Philip Collins Ex-Blair adviser

There is a good idea and a bad idea in these proposals. The bad idea is that we can articulate the principles that bind us together. There aren't any. We're not bound together by abstraction.

The only nations that are ever bound together by a principle - and then so imperfectly as to impugn the very idea - are those which are made, as de Tocqueville said of America, "in broad daylight". It takes a revolution to gather people round a principle.

The kind of Britain that would emerge from any such process is pure wish fulfilment. We will be liberty-loving, tolerant, decent democrats. I suspect some of our other characteristics might not make the cut: drink-loving, lawless, bored by politics.

We do, however, all owe allegiance to certain institutions. The better argument is to discuss which institutions count in the formation of national character. The principles matter not in the seminar room but in the way they are encoded into institutions. We will find that the truly shared values are both rare and Olympian. They will come down, essentially, to the basic tenets of liberal democracy.

The good idea is to clarify what is expected from citizens in a liberal democracy. But a word of caution: the things that the state can reasonably demand of me are not very extensive. If a white paper emerges in which I am not encouraged to go to a lot of meetings I will be astonished.

Robert Colls Historian

Government thinking is muddled. It says we are a more stable society because we have been imprecise about our values, but at the same time need to be more precise if we wish to be more stable. It says we have drawn strength from an evolving constitution, but need a full programme of change if we wish to be stronger. It says national identity should be overarching, but is not clear what that identity is, and proposes a national "conversation" to find out.

National values come out of social systems, and are similar across similar societies. In the modern global era, even when societies are different there is a tendency for governments to claim the same values. No government says it stands for unfairness, inequality, and oligarchy (although in truth most do). The British government proposes a "statement of values" setting out what binds us together. But if the values do bind us, why do we need a statement? And if they don't bind us, in what sense are they our values?

National identity is different. It is an historical relationship, not a set of values. Not all nations have identities and only a few have them strong enough to exist more or less independently of the state. National identities, therefore, happen when nations see themselves as one, regardless of all that divides them, which can include the state. In the British case, national identity was built over a long line of political compromises at home, and a talent for military victory abroad. The result was an identity based on an overarching sense of English liberty at home and British power abroad. In such circumstances it was claimed that a written constitution was unnecessary. And so it proved. The remarkable thing was not that the modern British sustained a union of sentiment, but how well they sustained a union of sentiment. Only Catholic Ireland ran counter, and only decisively so late in the day.

Our current predicament is that the conditions in which this identity thrived have more or less disappeared. The state, whose job it is to secure the nation and express its identity, is no longer sure who that nation is. The old historical relationship, or at least its articulation, has ceased to matter, and British hegemony has ceased to exist. It was not that the British people ceased believing in this relationship; it is more that over a very short period its conditions evaporated. At the same time, with mass immigration promoted by a metropolitan elite, the ethnic relationships of the country changed. To fill the historical vacuum, "diversity" became New Labour's watchword. But diversity pleased no one and left nothing to build on. A mildly racist society was turned into an intensely racialised one. To say the least, slavery, imperialism, and Islamicism are not promising historical relationships on which to build a new national identity.

Brown ought to understand that for over one hundred and fifty years the political class in this country has had it easy. Everything is going to get more difficult. In place of history, sentiment, and an unnecessary (and therefore unwritten) constitution, we are going to end up needing a written constitution that spells out who gets what. This going to be made more difficult by membership of a EU that will insist on its own constitutional way of doing things and an even more open immigration policy.

Whatever happens, national identity will not go away because, except for the Euro-Utopians, nation states show no sign of going away. So, like religion, the question is not whether national identity is true but whether it is useful. The government believes we are living between two identities - the national and the post-national. In the interim, expect morbid symptoms to appear.

Robert Cooper Diplomat

Britons never, never, never shall be slaves. The Magna Carta. An Englishman's home is his castle. Independence, privacy, eccentricity. Britain alone against tyranny from the continent. The other side of independence is unreliability. No permanent allies; no permanent friends. Perfidious Albion, dropping out of the alliance with the Dutch to make a separate peace at Utrecht, dropping out of the Concert of Europe to pursue its own policies in the new world, keeping its options open before the first world war, failing to support France in the 1930s. Opting out of this and that in the EU. Splendid isolation, avoiding commitment. Never quite trusted.

But independence also implies tolerance. Mind your own business and I'll mind mine. A nation of shopkeepers. An Englishman's word is his bond. The English gentleman who does business with a shake of the hand. Honour as a commercial value. Values or mythology? Or the self-image of the upper class? Talk about values is usually cant. Real values are things you do without thinking, like queuing - reflecting some sense of fairness, or (mostly) not taking bribes, reflecting loyalty, or saying sorry when someone else bumps into you, reflecting a general mildness. But of course there are the yobs, oafs, thugs and other idiots who are also British. You don't like us and we don't care.

Tom Devine Historian

Not again! Gordon Brown has been down this road several times in the past. That in itself is clear evidence that the values of Britishness are not possible of widely acceptable definition and/or make little impact on the general public.

There are several flaws in the Brown campaign - and, it pains me to say it, it is orchestrated by a very able historian, trained to doctoral level, in my own distinguished university. He should know better.

Britishness was a construct developed in the eighteenth century to serve the ideology of an aggressively expansionist empire and at the same secure the joint interest of the peoples of the British mainland against foreign attack. Virtually all of the foundations of that idea have crumbled long ago: the imperial project, the shared loyalty to Protestantism, the seduction of protected markets across the Atlantic and Asia for the many thousands of Scots "on the make" and, not least, the fear of "the other," be it the threat of France before 1815, the German menace culminating in the possibility of invasion in 1940, and then, finally, the Soviet empire with its nuclear arsenal. Only the welfare state remains of those forces which moulded Britishness and for how long will it survive in its present form?

Given the absence of the historical roots of Britishness, some unionist politicians fall back on the notion of "shared values" which in their view can provide a new foundation for the British state into the future. This a false trail. Few are convinced by the assertion that those values espoused are uniquely or mainly British; instead they are the commonplace principles of most modern democratic societies. So, if Britishness is to survive, it needs a new formulation: one which accepts the inevitability of federalism and equality within these islands and, at the same time promotes the pragmatic advantages of the union connection within that evolving structure. The stress on shared values is intellectually dishonest and a waste of time.

Brian Eno Musician

A country's values are revealed more by what it does than by what it claims. In our recent market-fundamentalist phase, we have come to regard prosperity as an exclusively economic issue - a growing economy is considered good, although it says almost nothing about anyone's quality of life. America and England have a lot of money sloshing around - but also the west's highest proportions of prisoners and teenage pregnancies, the most rapidly increasing wealth gaps, the greatest rates of youth crime, the worst public education systems, decreasing social mobility, and miserable public transport. Whatever we might claim our values to be, this is what's actually happening.

Our infatuation with the American capitalist model has misled us. After Iraq it's time to acknowledge that the special relationship we have with America is not as special as the one we have with Europe. We should gather the courage to say: "we're Europeans, and proud of it. We're proud to be part of a continent that regards military power as a last resort, that pursues negotiation and co-operation in the name of peace." And if we really valued peace we could be the first nuclear power to renounce those weapons: many of the scientists now engaged on defence could be usefully redirected towards the real threat of climate change. What an example that would be!

The values we usually claim as ours: democracy, peaceableness, equality of opportunity, pluralism, social responsibility, diplomacy, fair play, the rule of law - are all fine by me. Now let's try them.

Duncan Fallowell Writer

You should hate liars and cheats and those who won't play the game. You should be able to take a joke. You should dislike extremes. You should be bad at dancing and sex and incapable of either without being drunk. You should resist invasion of your personal or national space. You should ignore what you dislike but give to charity. You should protect the countryside. You should respect the sovereign. You should say what you think. You should be classical on the outside and romantic within. You should put religion in the back seat and make sure it bloody well stays there. You should acknowledge your amazingly good fortune.

Michael Fry Historian

The question of British values is bedevilled, like so many others, by the inability of the English to distinguish between England and Britain. When the English make up eighty percent of the British, this may not seem to them important. When they are trying to keep the other twenty percent on board, it is.

Ask an Englishman to define English values, and he will no doubt say fair play, decency, that sort of thing. Ask him to define British values, and he will no doubt say exactly the same.

But fair play is a large nation's value. A level playing field always favours the big battalions. The wee fellow gets his way by stealth and guile, by the garrotte from behind, the shot out of the darkness, or else by sheer nimbleness of mind and body. Just ask the Celts. It is the only way to beat the plodding English. Fair play is not, cannot be, a Celtic value.

As for decency, well, there are various vices anglais regarded with horror north of the border, where I am writing this. The Scots' own besetting sin of drunkenness is indulged as harmless or amusing among themselves (see the poems of Robert Burns), while causing moral outrage when they see it on the streets of London.

What precisely are the British canons of conduct that can transcend and sublimate these merely national norms? Would they not have to challenge the national norms in some way: say, to prompt the English to be less arrogant, the Celts to be less irresponsible? If not, they are scarcely worth the formulation.

Thanks to the English, Britishness still has to be created. That is Gordon Brown's problem. It is too late in the day.

Timothy Garton Ash Writer

This proposal conflates three things: citizenship, values and identity. I am strongly in favour of spelling out more clearly the rights and duties that go with British citizenship. That's something we badly need - and by no means just for immigrants and their children.

Values are more complicated - as the green paper itself shows, in its multiple, conflicting formulations. If "the Human Rights Act provides a contemporary set of common values to which all our communities can subscribe" (paragraph 206) then those core values are not distinctively British but common to all European liberal democracies. Beyond these minimum core values, however, men and women in free countries can subscribe to very different values (conservative or socialist, Christian or atheist) while living together in a civilised way. Isaiah Berlin's "value pluralism" might even be considered a very British philosophy. "Live and let live" is a British motto.

"Shared values are the bedrock on which the elements of our nation are built," says paragraph 196. Uggh. As so often, bad English signals muddled thinking. In truth, national identities are even more complicated than values. If you really think French national identity is defined by Liberté, Egalité, Fraternité, you know little about France. I have two national identities: English and British. For me, the English identity has most of the warmth, the emotion, the poetry; yet I also value the British one. Gordon Brown is very Scottish as well as British. Britain is a multinational nation, and one should not let in daylight upon this magic. To define Britishness is an un-British activity.

My conclusion: less would be more. A statement, in plain English, of the rights and duties of British citizens is what we need. Lawyers should combine with poets to write it. Rather than entering the swamp of defining values, or the jungle of national identity, it would suffice to introduce this statement with a paragraph saying that British citizens have long prided themselves on living together peacefully in freedom. This peaceful freedom, rare in the world, has been buttressed by habits such as tolerance, common decency, respect for the law, an instinct for fair play, good-neighbourliness, a tendency to support the underdog, a love of sport, much shared complaining about the weather and, last but not least, a highly developed national sense of humour. It is this list of everyday British qualities or traits - not some contorted decalogue of high philosophical values - that should be widely debated. The resulting catalogue must be brief, open-ended, accessible, and presented with a light touch.

Conor Gearty Human rights professor

British values have emerged from a myriad of sources which are rooted in the history and tradition of the nations concerned; no one source has a monopoly of foundational wisdom. Various broad phenomena such as the movement of peoples, the depth of particular patriotic feelings and the economic health of the nations involved interact with deeply rooted religious faiths and with developments in contemporary culture to produce a set of values which are capable of being crystallised as specific to this group of nation states organised in this supra-national structure at this point in time. Values can change but they do so slowly, sometimes imperceptibly. They represent the collective common sense of a particular generation on how it is best to behave. They can be identified by careful scrutiny of a culture's best habits and by examining how prevailing systems of government (representative democracy; respect for human rights; the rule of law) implicitly reflect agreement about a range of core ideals.

The United Kingdom is committed to: (i) the freedom of every person to thrive, both individually and by way of the various belongings (family, gender, faith, club, country and so on) through which his or her personhood is more fully realised;

(ii) the principle of social justice which guarantees to everyone their basic needs and wants;

(iii) the flourishing of all persons and groups within the United Kingdom, including those ethnic and other minorities whose ways of prospering may differ from those of the majority cultures;

(iv) fairness in the legal process, including respect for the rule of law (national, regional and international) and no unjustifiable discrimination in the application of law;

(v) the sustainability of our cultural heritage, and our urban, rural and marine environment so that we pass on to our children a world that has not been damaged during the period of our trusteeship.

Maggie Gee Novelist

Let's pretend that there are distinctively British values. At any rate here is what I value about being British, my own flattering sketch of what might bind the British together in a better future. We are an old democracy; that means our sense of civic entitlement cannot be rooted out. We don't like over-zealous or intrusive governments. We don't like being bossed about in our private lives (and we didn't like being lied to by Tony Blair, especially when he smiled). We don't expect our leaders to be charmers. Though absurdly snobbish, the British are funny, eccentric and forgiving of difference. Humour makes us great mockers, deflaters and improvisers, liking the small scale: fundamentalisms, Muslim and Christian, won't find the British natural converts. We are not American. Too late for imperial dreams of policing the planet. From our lost empire, though, comes a great asset especially visible in London: it's a city of great racial mixing, sexually if not always socially, and it's doing well at growing Londoners from all over the world. Lastly, I value my Britishness because of British literature, art and theatre, which comes from, and shapes, the national character and history I have just described. We are good at it because we are unrepressed, playful, inventive and cynical. Keep reading books, Gordon, unlike your predecessor, restock the public libraries and keep them open.

Carlo Gébler Writer

The Brown government's enunciation of the ideals and principles that bind the British as a nation may be brilliant. Or not. But it will certainly be in the form of a statement in prose. And that's the problem. These things have to come into us in a story and happily there is already a brilliant story that dramatises those values: Robin Hood.

More than any other character I can think of, Robin best embodies the key British virtues - a belief in natural justice; a passion for self-effacement; and a deep, almost perverse attachment to secrecy. Robin lives in a wood, hidden from view. When necessary he emerges from the shadows; he punishes wrongdoers and helps the marginal; then he returns to Sherwood, having no desire for acclamation or power; both, he knows are corrupting.

While it is one thing to be told something, it is quite another for that something to be decanted into the psyche in a story. When values come grounded in narrative and wrapped up in language, they can reach where plain common-or-garden prose never penetrates.

So my counsel to Mr Brown is simple: don't bother trying to write a summary of British values. Instead, have The Adventures of Robin Hood (the Roger Lancelyn Green version, still the best in my opinion) distributed to every household in the nation and then pass an Act of Parliament to make reading it mandatory.

Paul Gilroy Sociologist

The proposal that we codify Britain's distinguishing values into a national mission statement is doomed to fail. People everywhere aspire to the same things. The bid to freeze our particularity would end up inadvertently joining Britons to the world from which this exercise is designed to separate them. To be plausible, the code would have to be tied to a specific historical sense of what marks Brits out. There is no prospect of consensus over what that core might be. A rather tentative conversation has been dominated by morbid and melancholic voices repeating the backward-looking mantra of little Englandism that has generated such a powerful electoral payoff since Enoch first coined it. Potentially, the lack of easy agreement about our values is a source of strength, a sign that reflection on what we'd like to become might be a way to find the solidarity that everyday life does not yield. Instead, we're hostage to fantasies of greatness, influence and imperial power. People snuggle up to watch The Dambusters, while the flag-draped coffins pile up out of sight.

National values would have to guide corporate actors as well as individuals. If not, even the mildest ethical advice would instantly conflict with the neoliberal habits that supply New Labour's corporate populism with its economic signature. On the other hand, if the demotic legacies of English radicalism are going to anchor the worthy content, then the real value being celebrated will be the capacity to set all principles aside in the name of pragmatic political advantage. We are to be connected by adherence to values as abstract principles while being prepared simultaneously to abnegate them in practice.

Dean Godson Think-tanker

One of the keys to constructing, consolidating and reviving national identity - Britishness - is a positive view of national history. We need a Royal Commission to look at how the Island Story can be imparted to new generations in a way that unites us. In so many schools it either isn't taught at all, or if it is, it too often portrays our past in distinctly unflattering light.

The Governance of Britain green paper is a curious mix in this respect. Its rather favourable account of national constitutional development and social reform is pleasantly traditional, even conventional - the sort of thing which David Cameron might have been brought to believe in the Berkshire stockbroker belt. It contains mercifully little self-flagellation. It is also refreshingly free of the historical errors which disfigure so many other government accounts of our history. But there is little about the actual teaching of history in this document. Instead, it paddles about in the soapy, shallow waters of citizenship classes. Thus, as in the Blair era, it identifies support for the NHS as a key British value to be subscribed (at one stage, it is even mentioned ahead of parliament itself). Does that mean that opponents of nationalised healthcare are in some way "un-British"?

Oddly, one key component of Britishness is largely missing from the green paper: the sovereign. Considering the pleasure which new immigrants and others still derive from the monarchy, even in its "slimmed-down" version it would seem that the government is potentially missing a trick here. Soldiers still die for her, not for the "'ere today, gone tomorrow" politicians as Robin Day would describe them. And, after all, even Alex Salmond says that he only has the Act of Union in his sights - not the Union of the Crowns.

Michael Gove Politician

There is something rather unBritish about seeking to define Britishness. Rather like trying to define leadership, it's a quality which is best appreciated when demonstrated through action rather than described in the abstract.

As a Scot who, like Brown, has made his career in London and whose family are now rooted in England, I feel immensely fortunate to be a citizen of a cosmopolitan state where nationality is defined not by ethnicity but sustained by the subtle interweaving of traditions and given life by a spirit of liberty.

Britishness is best understood as an identity shaped by an understanding of the common law, refined by the struggle between the people's representatives and arbitrary power, rooted in a presumption in favour of individual freedom, enriched by a love of the quirky, local and unique, buttressed by anger at injustice, constantly open to the world and engaged with suffering of others, sustained through adversity by subversive humour and better understood through literature than any other art.

But if you really want to understand Britishness you need to ask why the British find Tracey Emin loveable, regard Ealing comedies as sacred, look on the world of Wodehouse as a lost Eden, always vote for the underdog on Big Brother, make the landscape the central character in their Sunday evening dramas, respect doctors more than lawyers and venerate their army but have never had a soldier as leader since the Duke of Wellington.

David Green Think-tanker

We should focus on the divide between liberalism and absolutism and clarify the confused distinction between public and private that pervades our politics. For liberals there are two public spheres: one the realm of the state, which has monopoly powers of compulsion; and the other the realm of concerted private action for the common good, such as philanthropy.

Liberals thought that the power to compel should be limited because it had been used by rulers to advance selfish private interests. And they favoured a large sphere of free action, inquiry and conscience because private individuals, without powers of compulsion, might act more effectively for the common good. The neglected writer Michael Polanyi called this tradition "public liberty" and contrasted it with "private liberty," the pursuit of purely personal ends. Behind the hope of liberals for an open society was their awareness of the fallibility of human knowledge. They believed, with Milton, that free discussion allowed truth to prevail over error.

To guard against the abuse of political power for private ends, Locke argued that rulers should govern by known established laws, applied equally to all and designed solely for the good of the people. But as Mill taught, a constitution is not just about limits, it is also a device for increasing the thoughtfulness of collective decision making in pursuit of the common good. At its (rarely achieved) best our system has discouraged crude majoritarianism and encouraged deliberative democracy in which debate advances public learning by challenging and changing initial opinions.

Nick Groom Writer

It is fashionable to claim that British identity is imprecise; in fact, it is no more vague than the Liberté, Egalité, Fraternité of the French, or the "Land of the Free" of the Americans. British identity is characterised by "fair play": the refusal of dogma and ideology, and a reliance on compromise and pragmatism through convention and organic evolution - whether in government by parliamentary democracy, or culturally in the infinite flexibility of the English language. This is also apparent in the design of the Union Jack flag, where each component - the crosses variously of Sts George, Andrew and Patrick - is adapted in relation to the others.

This flag (which Gordon Brown wants to be flown more prominently) should be a reminder that Britain is a union between England, Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland. However, a disparity has crept into the relationship between these constituent identities, with the latter three enjoying a degree of devolution from British government while still voting on English legislation in Westminster.

But a strong British identity can only be founded on a strong English identity. From the seventeenth century onwards, England has submerged its own national identity and institutions into the larger concept of Britain - not only because England is much bigger, more populous and wealthier than its sister nations, but because English values are precisely those values of contingency that enable a diverse society to flourish. Englishness, in other words, is the key component of Britishness: indeed, Britain needs an England more than England itself needs the Union.

Eric Hobsbawm Historian

Since British citizens are not alone in cherishing mother-love, being kind to children or public honesty and the right to vote, there is less scope than one might think for statements of values which are specific to the inhabitants of a particular state, especially a pluri-national one like the United Kingdom. Indeed, the important and positive green paper on "The Governance of Britain" admits as much when it points out that the European Convention of Human Rights covers much of the same ground and asks whether we should add a specifically British supplement. Nevertheless, it recommends the formulation of a British statement of values.

This project appears to have two overlapping but not congruent objects: the maintenance of the unity of the United Kingdom and the establishment of a single overarching sense of Britishness (and state loyalty) for an increasingly large and culturally heterogeneous body of immigrants who (unlike those of earlier periods) are in a position to maintain a constant connection with their original countries, cultures and religions. The first is clearly central, since it is undoubtedly correct in the claim that it is as citizens "from the United Kingdom and its institutions we draw our national identity." A national debate is unlikely to produce a single consensual statement about British values, though it is welcome on other grounds. Nor can our values be summarised in anything like programmatic slogans as in the US and France, states born of revolution. While some of the appeal of Britishness rests on presumptions about law (habeas corpus, for example) more of it rests on a long history, a record of stability and the ostensible continuity of institutions, capable of absorbing change and transformation without irreparable politico-ideological ruptures. Britons have more in common than a definable set of "values." History is central to what unites us, but even admirable governments should refrain from recommending, let alone imposing, an officially approved version of it.

Godfrey Hodgson Writer

My first instinct is that the current fashion for trying to define Britishness is inappropriate. It is very hard to generalise usefully about 60m people, or about a culture that for better and worse has had such an impact on the world for so long. The same would apply to an attempt to define "Americanness" or "Frenchness."

I think, however, that there are two ways in which this debate can be useful. For one thing, we do now have a large population of immigrants and the children of immigrants from many backgrounds. Many of them, when not actually disaffected, are somewhat at a loss to know what to make of Britain and British culture, all the more so because quite a lot of people, some British and some not, are quite busy putting about some unflattering and no more than partially true stereotypes about us.

It would be, I think, useful to offer, probably not on a compulsory basis, classes on British life, culture and history to immigrants, and it would be sensible to provide some sort of "carrot" to those who chose to take part.

Second, I think there is much to be said for the American practice of teaching "civics," by that or some other name, in secondary school. Many British people, by no means all of them immigrants or their children, have not the slightest idea about the British constitution, law or electoral system. (It is usual to say this is not written down, when in fact it is written in hundreds of statutes and judgements; what is meant by this is that there is no single text like the American constitution.)

It is possible that the reason we do not teach young people about our constitution is that many teachers and some others do not feel they can justify certain aspects of it, such as the Act of Succession, the hereditary peerage or even the monarchy itself. Perhaps teaching the constitution in school might act as an incentive to politicians to - for example - remove anomalies like the half-reformed House of Lords.

The semi-official religion of American exceptionalism has contributed to recent errors in US policy and to unattractive aspects of America's attitude to the rest of the world. But I do, also, recognise that widespread understanding of and belief in the American system has been a strength for the US and has motivated American leaders and others to set themselves high standards.

It would be good to teach British teenagers about our virtues and our failings as a society, and about their rights and responsibilities, and to encourage them to discuss these matters. I do not think it is a good idea to tell young people that, for example, "we are a tolerant society" - that suggests that others are not, and saying so does not make it so. But certainly young people in Britain ought to have a clear idea of how things are supposed to work. Perhaps they would later help to make the practice approach more closely to the theory, and failing that to refine the theory.

Sunny Hundal Journalist

A British statement of values that can help form a common bond across our increasingly mobile and diverse nation cannot be expressed in anything other than a new constitution.

There are two compelling reasons for this. First, that there is no alternative, and second, that a constitution fulfils all the requirements in this debate.

Britishness has slowly but surely moved away from being a race-based identity. What will Gordon Brown replace it with? He briefly ventured into "our way of life" territory before realising that football, queuing, jam on toast and morning tea were neither helpful nor a good starting point.

A discussion of common values is a step in the right direction but there is a danger it will flounder in a circular discussion of commonly held cultural and social values. Suffice to say, there can never be any agreement on those.

The only viable option for the prime minister is to emphasise common political values, expressed through things such as a strong parliamentary democracy, freedom of speech and expression, secularism, stronger civil liberties and more transparent political engagement.

Such political values are the only markers that can unite a diverse nation. This is also why a new constitution, which explicitly codifies these sentiments, is so important. If executed in the right way it kills several birds with one stone. It encourages citizens to take ownership of their rights as a source of empowerment; helps form a common bond in the way it does with Americans; and most importantly encourages further political engagement.

Ed Husain Writer

I was born and raised in Britain, but never felt British. In fact, I actively rejected any notion of Britishness. At the age of twenty-five, I went to live in the middle east for three years and it was there, while living among Arabs, that I discovered that, despite being Muslim, I was distinctly different in many ways.

Back in Britain, I am concerned that the need to develop a British statement of values is taking place under the dark clouds of home-grown extremism and terrorism. Britishness is an emotion, an experience, a flavour that does not lend itself to empirical definition. But if we must draw up a British statement of values, it should mention the following. The English language, with its inherent modes of thought, culture and expression, binds us together as a nation; it roots us to British culture. And Britain has an exceptional history. The Magna Carta set in motion our heritage as a nation ruled by constitutional law, committed to justice for all. As a country, we want other nations to enjoy the same honour. Britain is a secular, Christian nation with a commitment to religious freedom. Britishness is not Englishness: it is many identities merged to form one nationality.

Ian Jack Journalist

I would be wary of trying to articulate "British values" other than by putting some flesh on the bones of the green paper's paragraph 204: that Britain is a society based on laws that reflect the rights of citizens, including the right to participate in the making of these laws, and the responsibilities that go with the rights, and so on. "Values" are quite hard things to pin down - even as gifted and thoughtful a writer as Orwell was happier depicting national characteristics than national values, though many of the qualities he prized ("The gentleness of England is perhaps its most marked characteristic") have not survived. The green paper mentions France and the US as countries that have clearer perceptions of their values: "liberty, equality, fraternity," "the land of the free." But those are vivid slogans created by revolutions. A Spaniard or a Swede has nothing similar, but I don't think that means Spaniards and Swedes have a less certain idea of what good citizenship entails. It may even mean that they have a clearer appreciation of their nations because they haven't been suckered by Enlightenment rhetoric into idealising themselves.

Are Scottish values the same as English values - or are they different and united by some overarching British values, in turn overarched by European values? Are values aspirations, or do they describe a historic and existing reality? Anyone who has witnessed the collapse of the London bus queue - they existed 20 years ago - would be puzzled by the notion that "fair play" or "women and children first" is a distinctly British value. This is very muddy territory and best left alone by governments. The rights and duties of the citizen are what need spelling out, with a heavy stress that no one can escape them on grounds of gender, colour or creed.

Josef Joffe Editor-publisher, Die Zeit

"If you have to ask, you can't afford it," was JP Morgan's fabled reply to a friend who asked the millionaire banker about the price of his yacht, thinking he might want to buy one himself.

Gordon Brown's question about citizenship and identity raises the same problem: if you have to ask, it's not for you. Britons used to know what "Britishness" was; hence, they did not have to ask. It was pork pie and monarchy, the Union Jack and the stiff upper lip, the glorious revolution and the empire, Shakespeare and cricket, Wellington and Waterloo - a sense of national exceptionalism wrapped in pride.

In a post-national, post-heroic, postmodern age you are flummoxed. By invoking specialness, you disrespect and exclude the Other as well as his/her culture and history. (Shakespeare is "wordism," and the empire is colonialism.) Hence you are reduced, as is Brown, to a universal catalogue of equal rights and procedures - bland stuff that is valid from Cork to Canberra, thus not worthy of particular affection. Not even English works, for that is the global language par excellence.

But take heart. Albion is better off than Germany. At least the Brits still have unbesmirched national symbols: The trooping of the colour, Big Ben, Runnymede, the Beefeaters, Diana... But we Germans have the better beer.

Michael Lind Writer

Unlike the US, which is a nation state, Britain is a multinational state with a common broad political creed shared by four constituent cultural nations - the English, Scots, (Northern) Irish and Welsh. The question of political creed and the question of extra-political national cultural identity are therefore two different issues.

It is perfectly reasonable for Britain to expect immigrants to share the values of the common, historic British political creed, as it has evolved up to the present. If they don't want to live in a liberal, democratic, pluralist, feminist society, immigrants with incompatible religious or secular values should stay home or go somewhere else.

But settling the question of the political creed does not settle the question of the extra-political national culture - or rather, in the British case, the national cultures. The British must decide whether to continue as a coalition of four cultural nations, or to add a fifth or sixth or seventh cultural nation by policies which, by default or design, encourage the conversion of immigrant diaspora communities into permanently distinct nationalities on British soil.

Immigration is compatible with the perpetuation of four permanent British cultural nations in Britain, as long as the immigrants gradually merge with the English, Scots, Welsh and Irish by assimilation (in which the immigrants simply lose their own cultures) or by "melting-pot" amalgamation (in which immigrants and native cultures fuse to form a hybrid culture).

From this American's perspective, a Britain with a common liberal and democratic political creed and four distinct national melting pots open to newcomers - English, Scots, Irish and Welsh - might strike the right balance between continuity and dynamism.

Magnus Linklater Journalist

Gordon Brown's plea for us to develop "a British statement of values" is well intentioned, but smacks of attempting to force the identity genie back into the bottle. His green paper on our constitutional future finds itself arguing against Alex Salmond's white paper on an independence referendum in Scotland - and, whatever views one might hold on that, it has one great advantage. It looks forward to the possibility of change rather than backwards at the desirability of tradition. It is no good wringing our hands over the loss of a sense of Britishness, because that has faded, is fading and will continue to fade. Rather we should be confronting the reality of the new arrangement that has emerged within these islands, and recognise its potential for a more healthy set of relationships. In Wales, Scotland and Northern Ireland, people are far more taken up with their own new and developing political situations than they are in rediscovering a set of British values that are increasingly hard to define. What comes out of all this should be a partnership of equals rather than something imposed from the centre. This may result in a far looser union than we are accustomed to, and that may be a matter of regret for Brown. But the good news is that the majority of voters show no inclination to break it.

John Lloyd Journalist

There are two issues which have become demonstrably urgent in the last decade, and they intertwine. In any discussion of citizenship and the state, both need to be deployed.

The first is citizenship itself. It needs to be made more difficult to acquire: that is, both people born into British citizenship and those wishing to acquire it must be made aware, through education, that it cannot be taken for granted. It must be "studied for": a study which includes, of course, proficiency in the English language, but also a skeletal knowledge of British history and a grasp of the rights granted and responsibilities expected of an active citizen. There has been progress made in making these necessary for the acquisition of citizenship by immigrants wishing to become British: the rules should become stricter still, and the necessity of acquiring the fundamentals of citizenship spread to the population as a whole.

The second is stewardship, by which is meant an active understanding of the nature of a modern world, in which resources are clearly limited, interdependence is a pressing part of life and no national decisions of any importance can be taken in a global vacuum. This also requires education: it must be linked to the elements required of citizenship; and it should seek to impart a sense of at least potential fellowship with other cultures, so that some idea of both diversity and mutual reliance is gained.

Michael Maclay Writer

Start with young people. The new strand of the citizenship education curriculum, on identity and diversity, provides the perfect context for young people of all ages to come up with ideas of what unites us alongside what might seem to divide us. Young people usually experience more directly and vividly than their parents the multiple identities that characterise modern Britain. At the same time, they have a pretty shrewd idea of the things we need to agree on to get along. The young also have a strong feeling, through the mass media and cyberspace, of our interconnectedness with others. Perhaps the Citizenship Foundation (of which I am chairman) could run a national competition, in tandem with Prospect, to seek out the spikiest, most imaginative and most relevant ideas. The historians and the philosophers, the poets and the professors, will have plenty of grand thoughts to offer further down the line. But start with those who are living British identity day by day, not those talking about it. The British have always been better at practice than theory.

Noel Malcolm Historian

Drawing up a "statement of British values" could easily become an intellectual parlour game. For a historian, however, it could be a mug's game: few generalisations are likely to hold true over long periods, or to be valid within any one period for all parts of Britain, or all levels of society. But still, to talk of values is to be normative, not descriptive. And when foreigners comment on what has struck them about British ways of doing things, I get the impression that my notion of these values may still have some empirical basis. So here goes.

There are two fundamental principles: respect for rules, and respect for individuals. Respect for rules concerns not only the laws of the land, but also social procedures of many kinds (the most exemplary being the queue). It also involves an expectation that those who exercise power will follow the rules, so that bribery and string-pulling are not the natural ways of approaching them. Respect for individuals includes much that is loosely described as tolerance; it involves non-interference (which sometimes strikes foreigners as coldness), and the expectation of such respect promotes non-conformism, even eccentricity. Some might think there is a basic conflict between respecting rules and respecting individuals; I think there is a fundamental connection between them (just consider the principle of equal treatment under the law). But in practice there may sometimes be friction between them, and in such cases two mediating values are also important: fairness, and common sense.

However, I do not believe for a moment that these values can be learned from government "statements." Values are learned, mostly, by living among those who practise them.

Kenan Malik Writer

"French citizens have a clear understanding of their values of liberty, equality and fraternity. America has a strong national perception of itself as the 'land of the free.' But there is a less clear sense among British citizens of the values that bind groups and communities who make up the body of the British people."

The government's green paper is good at stating the obvious. It is less good at solving the problem. The paper's vision of "local, regional and national events and opportunities for debate and deliberation" sounds more like a process to decide where to site a new airport than an attempt to define the values to which a people should cleave.

The comparison with France and America is instructive. Notions of liberté, fraternité, egalité and of inalienable rights emerged not through consultations, but through collective, fractious struggles to define - and create - a better society, struggles that give those values historical depth and emotional punch.

Today, of course, the very idea of "collective struggle" seems quaint. Whatever list of virtues the government's final "statement of values" endorses - and no doubt it will be a pick 'n' mix of the usual suspects such democracy, diversity, liberty, tolerance, fairness - people in Britain will have neither actively engaged in shaping them, nor have any true emotional or ideological attachment to them. It is time we recognised that the problem of defining values and forging identities requires not blunt policy measures but a transformation of our relationship, both individual and collective, with the political process.

Iain McLean Political scientist

I was in France during the July floods. Our house in Oxford was very nearly flooded. We were saved by our neighbours, who moved the furniture, and built the great wall of Osney to divert the river. Meanwhile Le Monde had a front-page picture of three neighbours in thigh-deep Gloucester sharing a nice cup of tea. Perhaps the only time Gloucester has made the front page of Le Monde and a good start for a statement of British values.

Munira Mirza Think-tanker

This government states that it wants to conduct "an inclusive process of national debate... to develop a British statement of values." It will use "a range of methods to support a national conversation and debate" ranging from "citizens juries to deliberative polling and electronic and media-based outreach." But then, this is the same government that refuses to hold a referendum on the EU treaty. On an issue that affects the economy, legal system and political decision-making, we the people are not trusted to make "the right decision." Well, if that's what it means to be a citizen today, no wonder many people seem so indifferent to it.

The problem with these endless consultations is that they ignore the real basis for citizenship - a sense of ownership over society and control over its direction. We can talk till kingdom come about tolerance, fairness and justice, but citizenship is in the doing of politics, not the talking around it. If Brown wants to start a debate, let's just get straight to it - the economy, civil liberties, the environment, Europe, healthcare, education and a whole lot more besides. When we believe as a society that we share our future and can exercise democratic power, then we will also feel a sense of identity that is real, and not just written down on paper.

Tom Nairn Writer

Since Gordon Brown's appearance as United Kingdom premier, assorted premonitions have surfaced in the gloom. Britlanders now inhabit a haunted house on the edge of a cemetery, where such terminology seems appropriate. Brown was not of course elected or installed by an indignant mob: over many years he materialised in fits and starts, glimpsed intermittently like a ghost from times past, brooding but saying almost nothing. Then suddenly the spirit was there, seated all too comfortably in the Anglo-Brit living room, account books and Britannic sermons to hand. The armchair's previous occupant had left for Jerusalem.

Such is death-in-life. The funniest sequence in Edgar Wright's movie Shaun of the Dead (2004) was where Shaun, seeing that the living were now besieged by zombies, organises a pretend-resurrection class at which people learn to stumble and stare properly, groaning in broken graveyard English. But that was just prediction: reality is worse. No Shaun has appeared to rally the English. David Cameron seems convinced the mausoleum can be maintained by New-Dawn-speak - itself another trait of the late-Brit times, perfected by Blair. "Better yesterday" had long been the UK's chosen route to modernity. Under Brown it has reached its terminus.

The key zombie aim is graveyard peace: a new consensus to leave the sacred essence unaltered amid ritual round-table acclaim, all-change orations and deference-tours of the Washington Beltway. Serious constitutional commentators like Anthony King and Vernon Bogdanor have been appalled not by Brown's radicalism but by his timidity. However, what the famed indecisiveness masks is death wish: Posthumous greatness at all costs, including Trident and two new super-super-aircraft-carriers.

In Shaun the graveyard ghouls came back for another try - and set about devouring the living to do so. Brown's immediate aim will be a funerary binge, at which the creaking Westminster gates will be locked up for many years: general election is the term. Such is the man's appeal for everything times-past that under twenty percent of voters might pull it off (in 2005, twenty-one point five percent got him where he is today). All Brown-Britland needs is enough non-voters - plus just enough Lib Dems to furnish a reluctant alibi for the gnarled gatekeeper, as the rusting bolt grinds home.

Could it have been different? Well of course, had thorough reform of the central apparatus accompanied devolution - and all that. In hypothetical retrospect, perfectly modest changes like a fairer electoral system might have partly freed the English people. Now, however, the sole possible answer is condemned by all true Brits as completely unthinkable. Which merely returns one to the point, the only one that matters. Plausible as a confederated Council of the Isles (or something like that) might have been, it's now too late. Failed states can reach the buffers at the end of their track, Brownism is zomboid victory, and that's that.

This has begun to dawn on both the Scots and the Welsh, and (even more surprisingly) the Northern Irish. Michael Fry argued in Prospect a year ago that for Scots the only way out from Britland Cemetery is out; and I wholeheartedly agree with him. But what about the English? Well...Shaun, Shaun, where are you?

Musa Okwonga Writer

As the son of immigrants from Idi Amin's Uganda I largely see Britain as a safe haven from cultural supremacists, be they religious or secular. Refugees flock here because they covet the great prize that is British citizenship - it allows them to live lives of freedom that are unimaginable in many of the lands that they are fleeing. For that reason, Britain - though no longer great in any pompous imperial sense - is incredible.

That said, I'm sceptical as to whether Britons should adopt anything so formal or specific as a statement of values. Britishness as a concept has always had a beautiful vagueness about it, and that's why this country is so inclusive. But if the government will draft such a statement, then I think there's one key aspect of Britishness that it should bear in mind: and that's a fundamental respect for everyone's basic humanity. Without that respect, we wouldn't have seen women, minorities and working-class people flourish as they have in our society. It's unthinkable, even in some other European countries, to have had a female prime minister, a black captain of the national football team; to have civil partnerships for gay people; to see people from disadvantaged backgrounds scaling the heights of their professions. As the wealth gap grows, and as the rumblings of extremism grow a little too loud for comfort, we shouldn't be complacent about the reputation for open arms that Britain has acquired.

Mark Pagel Biologist

Value systems evolve within human societies to protect individuals from others' self-interest, or to serve powerful social structures. The vulnerable rely on values to protect themselves from neighbours, strangers and institutions. Think of values of decency, honesty or freedom of expression. The powerful or charismatic often have less need of these values, tending instead to promulgate values that encourage or even coerce people to conform to their social systems - think of revolutionaries, politicians, shamans, popes, archbishops and mullahs. Everyone uses value systems somehow to promote their self-interest. Shared values only evolve from shared interests in making society work. If the government is serious about promoting Britishness it has to get everyone into a shared British boat where our self-interests more or less converge. That is much harder than producing bits of paper, but if they do it, some form of Britishness will emerge.

Bhikhu Parekh Political scientist

In much of the discussion of British identity, as of national identity in general, two related but separate questions are often conflated. First, what should Britain mean to its citizens or how should they relate to it? Second, what kind of Britain should they aim to create? The first admits of a uniform answer. The second is moral and inherently contested. When Gordon Brown says that national identity is founded in our common values, he confuses the two questions and creates difficulties for himself. He says, for example, that fairness is part of being British. Margaret Thatcher and many on the new right set little store by it, but it would be wrong to say that they are not British. Some British Muslims do not place much value on free speech in its standard liberal form, but it would be wrong to dismiss them as un-British or showing an insufficient degree of "Britishness."

Being British is basically a matter of belonging and commitment. It involves recognising Britain as one's political home, committing oneself to its wellbeing, and accepting certain fundamental obligations to its government and other members. Being British is a matter of degree. Minimally it involves loyalty to the country and respect for its institutions and laws. Maximally it involves a deep love of the country and doing all one can to help it flourish. Traditionally this has been called patriotism. Since this term has aggressive and exclusive associations, I prefer to call it demophilia.

We can rightly insist on the minimum, and hope that more would be offered as citizens come to identify with the country and make their national identity an integral part of their personal identity. Being British then means making Britain an object of one's loyalty and conducting oneself as its good citizen. However much one may disagree with its dominant values, one may never be disloyal to it.

As for the values that should inform British society, almost all of them, such as liberty, tolerance, equality and peaceful resolution of differences, are common to liberal democracies and indeed to all decently constituted societies. What makes them British is twofold. First, British people have chosen to commit themselves to them and make them their own. Second, given their history and traditions, they necessarily define, relate to and prioritise them differently. They, for example, value freedom of expression, but do not define its contents and limits in the same way as the Americans do. We can have a British statement of values, though not a statement of British values.

Such a statement should meet three conditions if it is to be relevant and inspirational. First, it should be relatively thin, as otherwise it won't carry the various communities that compose our multicultural society. While laying down those values that are integral to all forms of moral life, it should leave space for legitimate moral and cultural differences. Second, it needs to take full account of the new challenges presented by our increasingly interdependent world, climate change, responsibility for the environment, and so on, and should have an international and ecological dimension. Third, the individualist and consumerist ethos has gone too far, partly as a result of an excessive emphasis on individual rights. We need to rethink the relation between the individual and society, and find a way of balancing rights with duties and responsibilities.

Simon Parker Think-tanker

Common values emerge from honest debate, disagreement and shared endeavour, not from consultation exercises. Instead of obsessing about the high politics of national values, Brown should be looking at the low politics of local government, healthcare and housing.

Citizenship will always be framed by a set of national rules, but it is lived out in towns, cities and villages, and experienced in the relationship between people and their local institutions. So bringing the people of, say, Manchester together to identify shared priorities and develop shared solutions is probably a more valuable exercise than discussing whether or not we still have a sense of fair play.

And if public services are going to become the frontline of citizenship building, we need to ditch the "citizen as consumer" paradigm that dominated the Blair years. Choice between hospitals is fine, but the British public is not just a collection of customers. The priority needs to be developing a richer and more coherent definition of the way people relate to the state, and a more sophisticated debate about the rights and responsibilities that go with that relationship.

Tariq Ramadan Philosopher

In these times of mutual mistrust it is useful to try to set a clear, inclusive framework of British values and what it means to be British - we do need a reminder of "our commonalities." It is, of course, easy to say that we value democracy, freedom, tolerance, the rule of law, justice, equality, fairness, solidarity and so on, and that everyone is expected to hold to these values. Millions of British Muslim citizens and residents have no problem with these values and are clearly respecting them in their daily life. There is thus little point in repeating this mantra - it will not help us to build trust between citizens or to marginalise the extremists. To combat radicalisation, British civil society needs more confidence and trust between citizens of different histories, memories and religions. We need to work upstream from the list of British values: we need "civility" as much as "civic commitment" to be able to live together. The problem is not the values but the mindset that welcomes them. It is essential to speak about "humility," "respect" and "consistency" and to avoid ending up speaking in an arrogant way about "our" values... speaking intolerantly about tolerance or from a position of power about equality. We need, as citizens, to reconcile ourselves with a kind of public decency to nurture a common and constructive sense of belonging. Values set within a confident civility are welcoming and inclusive; values promoted by a frightened national identity are excluding and exclusive.

Chakravarthi Ram-Prasad Political scientist

Instead of talking of values as if they were exclusive features of the citizens of one nation state that can distinguish them from all others, the government should be concentrating on strengthening the institutions through which human dignity can be secured: a bill of rights and a written constitution. But a British statement of values is silly. The idea of national values died with the dismissal of "motherhood and apple pie": anything sufficiently morally robust to serve as guide to human conduct is so universally applicable as to serve no role in distinguishing one person or group from another. (They serve apple pie in the restaurants of Beijing, so what does that tell us of the difference between America and China?). The green paper talks enviously of America's self-image as the "land of the free," but that did not stop the brutalisation of blacks - what did that was the civil rights movement. It is entirely unclear how and why a list of values is going to make a difference: how is fair play (one of the terms listed as a British value) to be proceduralised? And what of pluralism - one of the most contested concepts in British thought and politics today? (Note that this is in a document that immediately states that no identity should take precedence over core democratic values: isn't pluralism exactly the idea that there are no "core" values?) To act in accordance with democratically enacted laws is already a requirement; so it is not clear how defining someone as British through a values-list makes any difference. Let us discuss human rights, NHS culture, local representation, all the demands of governance - that would be truly British; but talk of values is a rhetorical gesture with no practical significance and possibly dangerous ideological consequences, especially of exclusion of those mysteriously deemed to fail meeting certain values.

Frederic Raphael Writer

When I was brought to England, from the US, in 1938, the great creeper-clad institutions which had recruited Henry James to Englishness (Britishness came later) were still dominant. Kipling's If, in which Success and Failure were both impostors, enshrined notions of modest manliness which kept the Buffs - my father's regiment in 1918 - steady. The "values" which he incited me to absorb were expressed in the rules of the professions, in which, for instance, a gentleman's word was his bond. The more like the real thing the outsider could become, the more accessible might be those glittering prizes which FE Smith had advertised.

Gordon Brown's call for some kind of poll to choose a modernised set of values to renovate the national sense of identity (and honour) is either an exercise in condescension (cf Lenin humbly consulting the peasants before confiscating their land) or what the philosopher Gilbert Ryle called a "category mistake": since when can "values" be selected from a brochure and the poll-toppers inserted as moral uplift into the body politic like prosthetic implants? Don't values have to be implicit in acts and arts, not applied like make-up? Can an all-vote-now selection from a rigged menu barcode the fractious British with cohesive values and recruit the "cultures" of local/ethnic "communities" with their own laws and presiding "clerics" to a common standard of civility? What a suite of "c" words comes after cant!

Ben Rogers Writer

Gordon Brown is not alone in believing that, with the decline in religion, the development of liberal attitudes to "private" behaviour, the rise of consumerist values and lifestyles, and Britain's growing ethnic and cultural diversity, we as a society don't really believe in anything any more - that "nothing binds us," that "anything goes." To counter this trend Brown wants to promote a British culture of citizenship - somewhat like American civic culture, only more social democratic, even more perhaps (though Brown would never say this) like French civic culture, only less assimilationist.

I think Brown is right but his green paper proposals place too much weight on the role that general liberal values can play in sustaining a particular civic identity. We need more sensitivity to the way that values are embedded in national, collective culture. The green paper recognises implicitly the need to put some flesh of the values skeleton. It contains proposals for instance, to lift some of the restrictions on public institutions flying the Union Jack or other national flags, and endorses the idea of some sort of citizenship ceremony for school leavers. But we need to invent new civic rites building on those that already exist, and giving a more civic cast to some of the everyday interactions between the citizen and the state. These could include: turning the registration of a newborn child into a civic rite of passage; civic rites for young citizens, including the idea of national service; and making the payment of tax and receipt of benefits into more overtly civic exchanges.

Ziauddin Sardar Writer

My faith unequivocally requires me to work in open, tolerant and peaceful co-operation with my fellow citizens to make Britain the best society possible. Such a society must be based on a fundamental Islamic principle: the duty of mutual care defined by and enacted as concern for the weakest, most vulnerable and those in greatest need. It must be supported by two basic values of Islam, which are as British as warm beer: social justice and equity. By equity I mean equal access to opportunity backed by real resources that will enable individuals and groups to flourish and become self-reliant contributors to the common weal according to their interests and abilities. The value of mutual care means building facilities and institutions as well as providing the necessary resources to sustain the common good - that's everything from playing fields and youth centres to education, libraries, and that most Islamic of British institutions, the NHS. Values without proper resources are mere lip service, which is why mutual care, social justice and equity are duties not idealistic optional extras.

Participatory democracy is also a basic Islamic value: it's what our terminology of mutual consultation means. It goes further than representative democracy. It means engaging everyone in the business of governance from neighbourhood schemes on upward to our representative institutions.

None of these values can be achieved in practice without mutual confidence and acceptance of the diversity of our fellow citizens. The question is not indulging our differences but learning how through our difference we care about and can work together for shared and common ends.

Alexei Sayle Writer/comic

I have seen many propositions like this come and go over the years, it's sort of, like, if you hang around long enough and you remain interested in such things then each "new" pop group comes to look pretty much like all the pop groups that have preceded them. Sometimes there is a shuffling of ingredients you haven't seen before, a pinch of psychedelia with a soupçon of mod revival perhaps, but overall the music stays the same, so it is with initiatives such as this.

Over the years I have seen many proposals about the rights and responsibilities of the citizen come, hang about for a bit then go, from both flavours of government. The reason they always come to nothing and remain blather is that if you draw attention to the rights and responsibilities of the citizen then you also inevitably draw attention to the rights and responsibilities of the government. People say "well why should I behave responsibly when you lie to us, protect yourself from the Freedom of Information Act, give yourselves inflation busting pay rises?" Unfortunately lying, cheating, conspiring are the habitual way of politics and there is no will to effect fundamental change in that department.

Jean Seaton Sociologist

A baby sat on my kitchen floor turning the plastic brick over, biting and banging it, never taking its other side for granted, intently exploring its alien brick-ey nature (and having fun). The poppet's curiosity was gorgeous to behold and baby-watchers instinctively support her attempt to establish, by empirical research, the real qualities of the brick. Sometimes bricks have dismayingly hard corners but one wants her to investigate and make up her own experience-gathering mind for herself. After all, the baby is a tiny British citizen-in-waiting, and pragmatic, sceptical realism is a defining characteristic we want her to have. Questioning and testing are part of her national inheritance.

A preference for scepticism and uncomfortable objectivity are, in practice, often negative. Other peoples have nice big rhetorical values for their civic religion: fraternity, equality before the constitution - we have a kind of dogged reservation about much of that. Many of the most valued bits of Britishness are based not on some vaunting idea but on a distrust of the partial. An unease about what people claim rather than what they do. A quite small-scale hostility to capture - closely related to an anxiety about boasting. It is the empirical habit of mind that is one reason Orwell is valued all over the world. It is the defining feature of the institutions that we most prize, the civil service, the BBC or at least public service broadcasting, even the NHS. The British civic religion is fuzzy, unimpressed and dubious: can you write it down? No, not all of it - some of it can only exist in habits and institutions.

Siôn Simon Politician

Everybody says that nobody knows what it means to be British. That we have a "crisis of identity". This is the opposite of the truth. A great strength of the British nation is our metaphysical tribe-understanding of who and what we are.

Being British is a profound and complex thing. As such it is extraordinarily difficult to define or explain. But just because Bernard Crick may strain to put it into seven bullet points and they may struggle to wrap their floppy heads around it at the Guardian, doesn't mean that it's not vibrantly extant, and doesn't mean that people don't know what it is.

The lack of a definition of Britishness is not a proof that we need one. A British person knows what it is to be British. We feel it inside us like we know the colour of our eyes. We carry it around with our kidneys, our blood and everything else about which we don't need to think but which defines who we are. We don't need to define Britishness, because it defines us.

The task for incomers is more than to memorise a non-existent credo. It is to imbibe, to absorb, in some ways to reshape, the spirit of the tribe. (A spirit which they'd heard about from a different continent.) You do that by being cherished and supported from within. In the medium of English - the great national glue which we underestimate both as such and as a soft power edge internationally.

Our success in doing this over half a century is a monument to the national genius. Half a dozen crazy suicide bombers don't cancel the Britishness of two million Muslims or invalidate the multicultural experience.

Geoffrey Wheatcroft Writer

If you are secure in your identity you don't have to define it or defend it. Gordon Brown's call for a British statement of values may be well intentioned or even altruistic, although there is an obvious arrière pensée lurking somewhere between west Lothian and Dunfermline East (as Brown's constituency used to be called). To have a prime minister who cannot legislate for those who elected him as an MP is weirdly anomalous. That may be connected to the way we aren't even sure what to call ourselves. Disraeli called himself "prime minister of England" and Gladstone spoke about "the interests of England" when he was in Midlothian, words Brown would not utter wherever he was.

And yet this frantic search for an identity means in itself that something has gone wrong, while looking for national or political slogans in a post-ideological age tends to produce fatuous results. Tony Blair "holds to a set of values," one of his admirers said, "fairness, tolerance, decency", and I fear that the "British statement of values that will set out our ideals and principles" will be as inane as that.

We could do worse than Evelyn Waugh's slogan, "Liberty, Diversity, Privacy," or we might say that this country has always cherished the values of limited government and individual freedom under a rule of law. But then why should such a statement of the obvious be required? We were said to have lost an empire without finding a role, and the country that needs a "mission statement" has lost its mission.