Political and cultural understandings of ‘British values’

Analysing some of our focus group findings, including:

  • different public understandings of ‘British values’
  • public comprisons between Britain and elsewhere
  • the risk of essentialising ‘British values’, and therefore British culture/identity
  • public concern with the ‘British values’ discourse



Focus group findings

Video research diary with Lee Jarvis, 21 December 2017.

With data collection on our British Muslim Values project nearly complete, Lee Jarvis shares some thoughts on the recent focus groups we have been running across East Anglia.

The diary includes reflection on different conceptions of ‘British Values’; varying discursive resources used in public reflection on this term; the range of topics that are referred to in these discussions; as well as the attrition rate within the project more broadly.


Join a focus group on British Values!

With our film-makers’ work nearly completed on this project, we are now running a series of focus groups across Eastern England. The focus groups focus on the same broad question as the project’s films – What does ‘British Values’ mean to you? – and involve Muslim and non-Muslim participants.

If you would like to take part in one of the groups, please email Prof. Lee Jarvis directly to reserve a place on l.jarvis@uea.ac.uk. All participants receive a £10 supermarket voucher, and we can reimburse public transport costs with receipts. Discussion in the groups will be recorded, anonymised, and written up for academic papers and policy reports. The groups will last approximately 60 minutes, and participants must be aged 18 or over.

This is a real chance to contribute to important and ongoing debate about what this term means: we’d be delighted to hear your views!

I will try to maintain a list of groups with available spaces below. Alternatively, if you have a small group of people (4-8) we are very happy to organise a focus group around you, so please do get in touch.

We currently have places available on the following groups:

Monday 27 November 12pm, UEA Campus, Norwich, NR4 7TJ

Thursday 30 November, 5pm, UEA Campus, Norwich, NR5 7TJ

Monday 4 December: Ipswich, times and places to be confirmed.

What British Muslims Think About the Term ‘British Values’

What British Muslims think about the term ‘British values’

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Views on British values, from British Muslims.
Alif. Lam. Mim. by M.Malik

Lee Jarvis, University of East Anglia; Eylem Atakav, University of East Anglia, and Lee Marsden, University of East Anglia

Channel 4’s recent programme My Week as a Muslim, in which a non-Muslim woman lived with a Pakistani family for a week, was a reminder of the ongoing curiosity about Muslim life in British society. The programme was criticised for its use of “brownfacing” as the woman wore dark make-up and a niqab to appear Pakistani – highlighting the resilience of assumptions that British Muslims are non-white or somehow non-British.

This abiding curiosity about how Muslims live and what Muslims think frequently stems from enduring concerns around integration. In the past, such concerns were usually couched in the language of multiculturalism or community cohesion, but today they are often centred around the idea of “British values”. While the meaning of the term remains unclear, it saturates public life in areas as diverse as counter-radicalisation policy and education. Yet, in one recent study, around half of British adults surveyed believed Islam to be incompatible with British values.

For the last year, we have been working with Muslims across eastern England and East Anglia who have produced their own short films about British values as part of an ongoing research project. Doing so, we hoped, would tell us a little more about what the term British values means to Muslims in an often neglected region. It might also shed light on how those Muslims feel when they encounter the term in media headlines or opinion polls.

Although we’re mindful of the dangers of generalisation – and cautious that these reflections are still provisional – we have picked out three themes that recur in a number of our films and interviews with those who made them.


The term British values was often seen by our filmmakers as an elusive and ambiguous one. Some, such as Shukria from Bedford, were confident in articulating the term precisely – in her case as “having the freedom to express yourself however you want”. But many others professed to not knowing what the term means.

Haroon, a college student in Norwich, told us: “I can’t really speak on British values, because I don’t know anything about them … to me it’s a weightless word, it has no meaning to it.” Fatima, from Bedford, held a similar view: “To be honest, I don’t know, it doesn’t mean anything to me … We were never taught what British values were.”

For some, this ambiguity was even more pronounced when they reflected on whether anything is distinctively British about values such as “democracy, the rule of law, individual liberty and the mutual respect and tolerance of different faiths and beliefs” – the language the Home Office uses to define the term. As one of the people interviewed put it, such values “should be universal regardless – British, non-British, faith or no faith”.


Despite this ambiguity, the British Muslims we spoke to saw some similarities between British values and values associated with Islam. As one interviewee put it:

If I think about British values and I think about my faith, I think there’s a lot of common ground. And common ground for me is serving my community, looking after my neighbours, regardless of whoever they are.

The claim that a vague and ambiguous set of British values actually complements Islamic values could appear counter-intuitive. But the indistinctness of the term might actually make the idea of British values easier to square with other sets of religious or non-religious values. A desire to identify with the Britishness of these values – or to be seen by others to identify with this Britishness – could also be more important than concerns about their specific content or meaning.

Dog-whistle politics

There also seems to be genuine public concern among those with whom we spoke about how the term British values is used in politics and the media. Many people on this project pointed to the manipulation of the term by politicians and media commentators to serve dog-whistle politics, often in the aftermath of violent and tragic events. In the words of one anonymous participant: “Whenever there’s an attack, you have the government … start talking about [British] values.”

In this way, the term British values was seen by two of those we spoke to as a coded “warning” to specific communities, which contributed to “divisive” and “alienating” politics. These sentiments can also offer insights about how those exposed to the term within classrooms or places of worship might feel.

The ConversationThe next stage of our research will be to carry out a series of focus groups in East Anglia with Muslim and non-Muslim participants to dig further into the meaning of British values. Wherever that takes us it is clear that the term remains a contested and contentious one, that must be used with care by politicians, commentators, and others.

Lee Jarvis, Professor of International Politics, School of Politics, Philosophy, Language and Communication, University of East Anglia; Eylem Atakav, Senior Lecturer in Film and Television Studies, University of East Anglia, and Lee Marsden, Professor of International Relations, University of East Anglia

This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.


Stories, critique, and trust: Working with participant researchers

One of the more exciting aspects of working on our British [Muslim] Values project to date has been the opportunity to meet, and collaborate with, people we might otherwise never have encountered. Such encounters have been particularly rewarding, for me, for two different, if related, reasons.

In the first instance, it has afforded us a chance to hear, and engage with, the voices, stories and experiences of individuals we didn’t previously know. One of the things we were very keen to capture in the project was the diversity – and (at the time, what was a presumed) heterogeneity – of Muslims in Britain today; something particularly important given the essentialisms that course through debate around British Values (in reference to ‘us’ and ‘them’ alike). This has political importance, in this context, given the state of multiculturalism in Britain today. It also has, I think, human significance, potentially providing us with a very slightly enriched tapestry of viewpoints and understandings about life in Britain today. One of my favourite ways of capturing this kind of impetus is Paul Ricoeur’s account of the ‘good historian’ in which he suggests:

The fundamental objective of the good historian is to enlarge the sphere of archives; that is, the conscientious historian must open up the archive by retrieving traces which the dominant ideological forces attempted to suppress. In admitting what was originally excluded from the archive the historian initiates a critique of power. …The historian opposes the manipulation of narratives by telling the story differently and by providing a space for the confrontation between opposing testimonies.


In some small way, our project – as I understand it – represents an attempt to do just this. An attempt to retrieve alternative, and indeed competing, conceptions of ‘British values’ and their purported others (whether ‘radical Islam’, ‘terrorism’ ‘extremism’, or anything else) and to force a confrontation with established discourses on this phenomenon which have become now so thoroughly institutionalised in citizenship tests, counter-radicalisation policies, school classrooms and beyond.

The second aspect highlighted above refers simply to meeting people who are willing to take part in this research: to put their time, thoughts and experiences into a project for very scant immediate personal reward. Having interviewed four of our film-makers now, I have become really struck by the level of trust people have had in us, in doing this. Trust that we are who we say are; trust that the research has the ambitions we have sketched out to them; trust that we will treat their experiences – and, indeed, their work – with sensitivity and respect; and, trust that we won’t manipulate, distort or otherwise misrepresent the footage they have collected. Many of our filmmakers have spoken to their own friends or families within their footage, which, of course, adds another level of trust to this dynamic.

This experience is one I typically feel immediately after meeting one of our film-makers, often accompanied by two questions. First, would I do the same if the situation were reversed? Would I place my time, story, and friendships in the hands of someone I didn’t know? (The wonderful opening sentence of Elizabeth Dauphinee’s The Politics of Exile often comes to mind here: ‘I built my career on the life of a man called Stojan Sokolović’). And, second, how would I feel further down the line in this project should I wish to critique, deconstruct, or challenge the thoughts or politics of this person who has already given us their trust and their time? There is, I think, a very different relationship that emerges from this sort of research encounter (what a horrible phrase!) with citizens, compared to, for instance, that which comes out of interviewing elites.

None of this, of course, is to suggest that our participants don’t have their own interests, agendas, aspirations, and agency. They obviously do. One interesting thing to come out of the research to date is the diversity of explanations people have for taking part in our project. These span reasons of curiosity – ‘It would be interesting to … explore the conflict Muslims (especially younger Muslims) may feel when grappling with abiding by their religion, when certain elements of British culture e.g. the drinking culture, sexual liberty etc., so clearly conflict with this’; professional advancement – ‘I thought this is an opportunity to become a social scientist, in a way’; and, a desire for their own socio-political critique:

We need to cast open the net and look beyond the caricature of Muslims as extremists …in conflict with “British Values” … peddled not only by some sections of the media and political class, but by sections of the British Muslim community themselves. This project offers a unique opportunity to approach a section of British Muslim society that has not yet been engaged in dialogue, the voice of British Muslim women.

And, in putting these aspirations into practice through working upon the project, it is possible that our participants themselves have likely been impacted, perhaps changed, by their work. As one of our film-makers put it, reflecting back on the process of making her film, working on this project became:

very much a personal story …[exploring] my identities as British, as Muslim, as a woman: what did that mean for me?

To be able to go and speak to … women who I grew up alongside or who fit similar categories [to me] felt like a real honour … And in some ways, actually I think it’s been quite important for my relationship with those people because we finally actually have talked about things

It will be really interesting to see what happens when you start showing it to people …that will give me an idea of how successful it has been. …It’s slightly nerve-wracking, but I’d love to see what people think.


The very importance of these questions and relationships, of course, bring us squarely back to those issues of trust and responsibility with which we began.

Lee Jarvis, 20 October 2017


Alif. Lam. Mim. Trailer


Watch a trailer for M. Malik’s film: Alif. Lam. Mim.

The film – and others produced for the British [Muslim] Values project – will be shown at a special screening event at The Forum in Norwich at 7pm on 31 October 2017.

The event is free, and all are welcome.