In a move that could be described as inane and Orwellian, the government want civil servants to swear an oath of loyalty both to set an example to new migrants and to combat radicalisation. Communities Secretary Sajid Javid, writing in the Sunday Times, wants the oath to include an acknowledgment of key ‘British’ values like equality, democracy, and freedom of speech. Not only is this a terrible idea for a number of reasons, but this stunt illustrates how remarkably oblivious Sajid Javid is.
Before I say anything though I do think it’s important to point out that British values don’t actually exist as the things that people say come under this umbrella term are common in many countries. The beauty of philosophical principles is that they aren’t confined to one nation-state which, incidentally, is why our foreign policy doesn’t have to guided by Bismarckian realpolitik. But I digress.
Oaths of allegiance always set off alarm bells in my mind because their implication is that by actively consenting to something in an oath, whatever happens next you have to be morally fine with. Sometimes this is fine, for instance if you swear an oath not to lie in court you are consenting to the idea of a judiciary, and normally agreeing with philosophical principles is something to be encouraged. However what has happened in the months since the Brexit vote has been a concerted attempt by people in power to appropriate philosophical ideas and wrap them in nationalism.
Nation-states should not compel citizens to swear an oath of loyalty because doing so opens the door for authoritarianism, which would be a threat to values like equality, democracy, and freedom of speech. Further, who determines what British values are? The answer would be the state. In other words the state wants people to sweat an oath in support of values that the state itself defines. Obviously this is problematic.
However the most ironic point of this story is that Sajid Javid is proposing this plan. The reason is that Javid is a libertarian and self-declared lover of Ayn Rand. Libertarianism is an interesting ideology to study in an academic context but its policy implications are ridiculous. Javid doesn’t believe in economic equality but civil equality, and because philosophical concepts like these are so hotly contested, requiring civil servants to swear oaths of loyalty seem decidedly irrelevant.
Philosophical principles are abstract and require a nuanced approach, and so swearing an oath of loyalty to these ideas is pointless. If a government official has to support ‘democracy’ are MPs that oppose proportional representation going to be purged from office? Probably not, so evidently supporting democracy to one person means something very different to another.
The other important thing about Javid’s proposal is that it illustrates how out of touch the Tories are with communities up and down the country. The Tories evidently believe that new immigrants really care about what employees at the Home Office have compelled to publicly declare. If I was a new immigrant living in Birmingham or Liverpool I wouldn’t actively change my own ideological proclivities because a civil servant in Whitehall said she believed in equality. Weird stunts like that don’t prevent radicalisation or encourage immigrants integrate. No ISIS sympathiser is going to embrace civil rights for women, religious tolerance, and secular government because Tory politicians made civil servants ‘set an example’.
Abstract ideas do need to be taken into account but forcing civil servants to take an Orwellian oath is stupid. As well as the ideological implications outlined above, it won’t do anything to help immigrants integrate into British society or to prevent people from becoming radicalised. Sajid Javid needs to go back to the drawing board because an oath of loyalty to British values, whatever they are, is wrong on many levels.