WHAT does it mean to “undermine” the United Kingdom’s institutions and values?

In the eyes of a Conservative government minister, I’m sure the case could be made that any number of democratic movements – from Scotland’s campaign for independence to anti-capitalist and trade union organising – would fall under the category of a movement that seeks to fundamentally break and reform the British State.

After all, inherent to the philosophies of each are ideas and concepts that run counter to modern Britain’s dominant economic and institutional bedrocks, much like marching for Palestine stands in opposition to the current (and future) government’s genocidal foreign policy.

Truly, Britain is beset on all sides by critics.

But not to worry. It seems the Conservatives have a solution to all dissent found in that no man’s land between public opinion and government policy: to broaden the definition of extremism to anyone who “undermines” the country’s institutions and its values du jour.

That is the solution to be found in new proposals from a team of civil servants working for cabinet minister Michael Gove. And the great thing about British values, like their oft-referenced cousin Common Sense, is how nebulous and undefined they are. In their most modern form, British values are whatever the UK government needs them to be to justify its increasingly authoritarian and far-right policy positions.

The European Court of Human Rights? That, claims Home Secretary Suella Braverman, is at odds with British values. Immigration? At odds with British values too. Looking too closely at how the government failed to respond to Covid-19? Uh, what are you, a Soviet spy?

The rule of law. Individual liberty. Democracy. Mutual respect, tolerance and understanding of different faiths and beliefs. These are, according to the Education Act 2002 (as part of a commitment to “actively promote fundamental British values in schools”), the loose values of these islands. There isn’t one of these that the Conservative’s have not objectively undermined and trod upon in even just recent history.

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On the rule of law, Boris Johnson’s antics are just a blip in the scheme of things. On individual liberty, we have the Conservative government’s authoritarian crackdown on the right to protest. On democracy, we must deal with regressive voter ID laws that disenfranchise many from an electoral system that is already deeply unrepresentative.

And as for mutual respect and tolerance of others … where would I even start?

The Conservative party does not care for “British values” beyond the point that they cease being a rhetorical tool – but they will use them to pick at the scab of colonial nostalgia that has never really healed on these islands. And so these fabled values remain loose and ephemeral, lest any Tory be put in the position of having to explain just how our immigrant neighbours and colleagues supposedly oppose democracy and tolerance.

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Rather, the UK Government acts like Britain stands alone in an apathetic world, when really, Britain has precisely three things worth shouting about to our neighbours: Greggs; driving on the objectively correct side of the road; and the arthouse horror that is Mr Blobby.

A set of ill-defined and often overlooked values doesn’t quite make the list.

Case in point, Braverman’s recent controversial framing of homelessness as a “lifestyle choice” during a series of tweets, while talking about the compassion of the British people. The pivot from praising public empathy to the sudden justification for Home Office plans to remove tents from rough sleepers during winter is enough to give the reader whiplash.

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The upcoming marches in opposition to Israel’s indiscriminate bombing of Palestine on Armistice Day too present a perfect distillation of the government’s bad faith approach to its values. I doubt there could be a more symbolic day to march for peace than the day we celebrate and mark the cessation of hostilities on the Western Front of World War I. Yet Conservatives wish to brand these as “hate marches”, even as Israel displaces millions and leaves dead children amongst the rubble of Gaza.

Thinking of all peoples who have found themselves targeted by the British state in recent years – immigrants, communists, peace marchers, trade unionists, the transgender community, independence supporters, asylum seekers, environmentalists – the step to identifying such campaigners as undermining the British State is not so little. After all, each represents a challenge to social and economic Conservatism, plain and simple.

This government has no interest in values, beyond what value can be provided to its shareholders. They have cast those marching for peace as hate preachers, and have sought to limit our abilities to oppose them. Among the organisations that would allegedly fall foul of this reframing of extremism, the Muslim Council of Britain (MCB), Palestine Action and Mend (Muslim Engagement and Development) stand out as marker’s of the government’s true intent.

Not an end to extremism, but to opposition – an abject threat to the very values that supposedly define these nations.