Understanding British Values

british values


British values are fundamental, shared principles that form the basis of society and identity in the United Kingdom. Typically, British values are understood to encompass the ideals of democracy, the rule of law, individual liberty, mutual respect, and tolerance of those with different faiths and beliefs.

These values define and shape the nation’s character and daily interactions. They help to promote social harmony and ensuring a shared sense of belonging and respect among all who live in the UK, regardless of their background. They are embedded in the UK’s educational system, emphasised in policy-making, and celebrated as essential attributes that every citizen should possess and uphold.

In this guide, we explore the key tenets of British values, as a helpful resources for those looking to make the UK their home.


Section A: Understanding British Values


1. What are British Values?


British values refer to a set of principles that are considered integral to life in the United Kingdom, fostering a safe and inclusive society. These values include:


a. Democracy: The belief that everyone has a voice and the right to participate in the democratic process.


b. The Rule of Law: The importance of law in governing society and the belief that laws should apply equally to everyone.


c. Individual Liberty: Supporting the freedom of individuals to enjoy their personal rights and freedoms without infringing on the rights of others.


d. Mutual Respect and Tolerance: Encouraging an attitude of mutual respect and tolerance towards those with different faiths, beliefs, and lifestyles.


e. Community and Participation: Promoting involvement in community life and public services to enhance social cohesion and civic responsibility.


The concept of the five British values primarily comes from official guidelines and publications by the UK government, particularly those set out by the Department for Education (DfE).


2. Historical Context and Development of UK Values


The concept of British values has evolved over centuries and is deeply rooted in the UK’s history of democracy, legal development, and cultural diversity.

The Magna Carta of 1215, the establishment of the Parliament in the 13th century, and the Bill of Rights in 1689 all contributed to shaping these values, particularly the notions of democracy and the rule of law. Over time, as the UK became more culturally diverse, the emphasis on tolerance, respect, and community participation grew, reflecting the changing demographics and the need for social harmony.


3. The Role of Education in Promoting British Values


The UK Government has clearly articulated the importance of British values, particularly in the context of education.

Following the 2011 Prevent Strategy, which aimed to combat extremism, the Government mandated the teaching of British values in schools to ensure young people are taught about democracy, the rule of law, individual liberty, mutual respect, and tolerance.

This was further emphasised after the 2014 Birmingham schools scandal, which led to concerns about a lack of adherence to these values in certain schools.

The Department for Education (DfE) specifies that schools must promote these values through their curriculum and school ethos. This includes developing students’ understanding of these values ensuring that they are incorporated into school assemblies, classes, and everyday interactions.

The intent is not only to educate but also to foster an environment where students can debate and discuss how these values play out in their own lives and in the broader society.

In practical terms, schools integrate British values into lessons and activities across the curriculum. For example, history classes may cover the development of the British parliamentary system, while citizenship courses discuss rights and responsibilities under the law. Schools also encourage students to engage in community service projects, which reinforce the values of participation and respect for diversity.


Section B: The Five Core British Values


The five core British values —democracy, the rule of law, individual liberty, mutual respect, and tolerance of those with different faiths and beliefs— serve as the pillars of British society, influencing how individuals interact with each other and the state.


1. Democracy


Democracy is a foundational value in British society, rooted deeply in the nation’s history and political framework. The United Kingdom practices a parliamentary democracy where elected representatives make decisions on behalf of their constituents. This democratic system is characterised by free and fair elections, where every citizen of voting age has the right to vote.

The significance of democracy in British culture is profound; it ensures that the Government remains accountable to the people, promotes transparency, and allows citizens to have a direct impact on how they are governed through their elected representatives.


2. Rule of Law


The rule of law is crucial to the British way of life, ensuring that society operates in an orderly manner. This principle means that everyone, including leaders and government officials, is subject to the law. It’s a safeguard against power abuse and corruption, ensuring justice and fairness in resolving disputes.

The rule of law also provides a framework that supports other British values, such as democracy and individual liberty, by ensuring that laws are applied equally and fairly, protecting the rights of all citizens.


3. Individual Liberty


In the UK, individual liberty is highly valued, with strong protections for freedoms of speech, belief, and expression. These liberties allow individuals to express their opinions, choose their religion, and live their lives without undue interference from the Government.

However, these freedoms are balanced with the rights of others, ensuring that the expression of one’s liberty does not impinge on another’s rights. This balance is central to maintaining a society where diverse views and lifestyles can coexist peacefully.


4. Mutual Respect and Tolerance


British society comprises a diverse population with varied cultures, religions, and ethnic backgrounds. Mutual respect and tolerance are promoted as essential values to ensure peaceful coexistence and social cohesion.

The UK has various laws and policies in place to combat discrimination and promote equality, emphasising the importance of respecting and tolerating differences. Educational settings and workplaces are particularly focused on teaching and embodying these values, fostering environments where diversity is not only accepted but celebrated.


5. Community and Participation


Community involvement and public service are highly encouraged in the UK, reflecting the value placed on civic responsibility. Volunteering, participating in local decision-making, and engaging in community activities are seen as important aspects of British life. These practices help strengthen community bonds, promote social welfare, and ensure that citizens have a stake in their local environments.

Schools often promote these values through programs that involve students in community projects and civic engagement activities, helping to cultivate a sense of responsibility and community spirit from a young age.


Section C: British Values in Education


1. Integration of Values into the UK Educational System


British values are deeply embedded in the UK educational system as part of a broader strategy to promote social cohesion and prepare students to be responsible, respectful, and active citizens.

Schools are required by the Department for Education (DfE) to actively promote the fundamental British values of democracy, the rule of law, individual liberty, mutual respect, and tolerance of those with different faiths and beliefs.

This integration is primarily achieved through the curriculum, school ethos, and daily activities. Schools are expected to teach these values explicitly within the curriculum as well as through personal development and behaviour policies.

Schools are also required to demonstrate how their work with students is effective in embedding these values among their students.


2. Examples of Education Programmes and Initiatives


Through these programmes and initiatives, British values are not only taught theoretically; they are practised and lived by students, ensuring that they become integral parts of their lifelong values and understanding.


a. Citizenship Education

This subject is a core area where students learn about the workings of a democratic society, the importance of the rule of law, and their rights and responsibilities as citizens. Citizenship education helps students understand how their behaviour and responses are governed by the society they live in and how they can contribute positively.


b. School Councils

Many schools establish school councils, where students are elected by their peers to represent their views and have a say in school policies. This practice not only mirrors the democratic process but also gives students practical experience in decision-making and active participation.


c. Model United Nations (MUN) and Debating Clubs

Participating in simulations of United Nations meetings or debating clubs helps students understand global issues, respect and hear varied viewpoints, and engage in respectful, informed dialogue. These activities promote tolerance and mutual respect.


d. Community Service Programmes

Schools often encourage participation in community service, which might include activities like visiting elderly homes, participating in local clean-ups, or helping at local charities. These programs teach students the value of community participation and the impact of their contributions to society.


e. Anti-Bullying Campaigns

These campaigns are vital in promoting a safe and respectful school environment. By addressing bullying, schools reinforce the values of respect and tolerance for others, regardless of differences, and uphold the principle of individual liberty.


f. Multicultural Events and Religious Education

Events celebrating various cultural and religious festivals promote understanding and appreciation of different backgrounds and beliefs among students. Religious education classes also provide students with a broader perspective of the world’s major faiths, fostering tolerance and respect.


g. Democracy Week/Day

Some schools designate specific times to focus intensively on democratic values, often allowing students to engage in elections, debates, and discussions about current national and international issues.


Section D: Impact of British Values on Society


British values do not merely guide political and legal systems; they influence everyday interactions and the overarching ethos of community life.


1. How Embracing British Values Affects Social Interactions and Community Life


British values such as democracy, the rule of law, individual liberty, mutual respect, and tolerance fundamentally shape social interactions and the fabric of community life in the UK. By promoting principles like mutual respect and tolerance, society fosters an environment where diversity is not just accepted but celebrated. This has significant implications for social cohesion, reducing conflicts and enhancing interactions among people from various backgrounds.

The emphasis on democracy and individual liberty encourages a culture of open dialogue and participation, where citizens feel empowered to express their opinions and engage in community and political processes. This active participation underpins a vibrant civil society and robust democratic governance.

Incorporating the rule of law into daily life ensures that all individuals, organisations, and the Government itself are accountable under the law.

This upholds a sense of fairness and justice within the community, which is crucial for maintaining public trust and social stability.


2. British Values in Action


The following real-life examples illustrate how British values shape societal norms and actively contribute to building a cohesive, respectful, and engaged community. The widespread adoption and promotion of these values help maintain the UK as a stable, just, and inclusive society.


a. Community Response during the COVID-19 Pandemic

During the COVID-19 crisis, British values of community and participation were prominently displayed. Across the UK, thousands of community groups and volunteers mobilised to support vulnerable individuals. This included delivering groceries medication, and offering emotional support to those in isolation, demonstrating the impact of community solidarity and public service.


b. Interfaith Initiatives

Various cities across the UK have developed interfaith initiatives that exemplify mutual respect and tolerance. For example, in places like Leicester and Birmingham, religious groups from different faiths come together to celebrate each other’s festivals and collaborate on community projects. These efforts not only enhance understanding but also build resilient, supportive community networks.


c. Legal Reforms for Equality

The legalisation of same-sex marriage in England, Wales, and Scotland in 2014 reflects the commitment to individual liberty and equality before the law. This legal reform was a significant step in ensuring that all citizens have the right to marry regardless of their sexual orientation, promoting a more inclusive society.


d. Educational Programmes on Democratic Engagement

Schools across the UK often participate in mock elections and youth parliaments to educate students about the democratic process and encourage active engagement from a young age. These programs help instil the importance of democracy and participation, impacting future generations’ involvement in civic duties.


e. Promotion of the Rule of Law

The UK’s approach to addressing hate crimes is an example of the rule of law in action, ensuring that justice is served and societal norms of respect and tolerance are upheld. Strict enforcement of laws against hate crimes reassures the public that discrimination and violence will not be tolerated.


3. The Importance of Maintaining and Understanding British Values for Future Generations


Maintaining and understanding British values is essential for ensuring that future generations inherit a society that values justice, equality, and respect. These values not only define the UK’s national identity but also serve as a foundation for dealing with contemporary challenges such as globalisation, technological changes, and cultural shifts.

Educating young people about British values is crucial for fostering an inclusive society where all individuals can feel valued and engaged. Schools play a pivotal role in this education, not only by teaching the theoretical aspects of these values but also by demonstrating their practical application through school governance, community involvement, and a curriculum that respects diversity.

The ongoing dialogue about what constitutes British values is vital. It ensures that these values remain relevant and reflective of the UK’s evolving demographic and cultural landscape. Engaging in these discussions helps prevent the stagnation of national values and encourages a progressive understanding that is inclusive of all communities.


Section E: Challenges and Controversies


While British values are generally recognised and celebrated as pillars of the United Kingdom’s society, their implementation and interpretation are not without debate.

The discussion around British values is complex and multifaceted, reflecting broader tensions and debates about identity, integration, and diversity in the UK.

While the promotion of certain core values is intended to unify and strengthen society, the following challenges and controversies highlight the need for careful consideration of how these values are defined, taught, and implemented across various contexts. This ongoing dialogue is crucial in ensuring that the promotion of British values contributes positively to the UK’s diverse and dynamic society.


1. Debates and Criticisms


a. Vagueness and Ambiguity

One of the primary criticisms of the term “British values” is its perceived vagueness. Critics argue that the values often listed under this banner—such as democracy, the rule of law, and mutual respect—are not uniquely British but are universal democratic values. This ambiguity can lead to confusion about what exactly is being promoted and why.


b. Perceived Exclusivity

There is a debate regarding whether the emphasis on British values might unintentionally alienate individuals and communities who feel that their own cultural or religious values are being marginalised or viewed as incompatible with British norms. This concern is particularly acute among ethnic minorities and immigrant communities, who may perceive the promotion of British values as an imposition of a monocultural or assimilationist agenda.


c. Instrumentalisation for Political Ends

The concept of British values has been criticised for being used as a political tool, particularly in the context of national security and anti-extremism efforts. Critics argue that linking British values to counter-extremism policies, such as the Prevent strategy, can stigmatise certain groups and create an atmosphere of suspicion rather than genuine inclusion.


d. Integration vs. Multiculturalism

There is a continuing debate over how British values align with the UK’s multicultural policy. Some argue that promoting British values is essential to fostering integration, while others believe it could undermine the multicultural fabric of British society by prioritising certain values at the expense of cultural diversity.


2. Different Viewpoints About What Constitutes “British Values”


a. Conservative vs. Progressive Perspectives

Conservatives might emphasise tradition, the monarchy, and historical achievements as core components of British values, focusing on continuity and preservation. In contrast, progressives might stress values like inclusivity, social justice, and tolerance, advocating for a broader, more inclusive interpretation that evolves over time.


b. Regional Differences

Views on what constitutes British values can vary significantly across different regions of the UK. For instance, in Scotland and Northern Ireland, local values and historical experiences might lead to a different interpretation of what values should be emphasised, such as a stronger focus on community and collective welfare.


c. Educational vs. Societal Views

Within educational settings, British values are often discussed in terms of creating a safe, respectful, and supportive environment for all students. However, in broader societal terms, these values might be contested in debates about immigration, national identity, and the UK’s role on the world stage.


Section F: Summary


British values encompass fundamental principles such as democracy, the rule of law, individual liberty, mutual respect, and tolerance of different faiths and beliefs. These are integral to fostering a safe, inclusive, and cohesive society in the UK.

The concept of British values has evolved over time, influenced by historical developments and societal changes. These values are embedded within the UK educational system, aiming to prepare young people to be respectful and responsible citizens.

British values profoundly impact social interactions and community life, promoting social cohesion and reducing conflicts. They encourage active participation in democratic processes and ensure that diversity is celebrated and respected.

However, the promotion of British values has sparked debates and criticisms, including concerns about vagueness, perceived exclusivity, and the potential for political instrumentalisation. Different regions and groups within the UK may also have varying interpretations of what these values entail.

There is a rich diversity of opinions on what constitutes British values, shaped by political, regional, and cultural perspectives. This diversity is a testament to the dynamic nature of British society.

The commitment to upholding British values is not just about preserving the past; it is about investing in a future where every citizen can contribute to and thrive in a diverse, democratic, and respectful society. The continuous reflection on and adaptation of these values are what will sustain the UK’s vibrant and dynamic national fabric for generations to come.


Section G: FAQs about British Values


What are British values?

British values refer to the principles that are considered integral to living in the UK and fostering a cohesive society. These include democracy, the rule of law, individual liberty, mutual respect, and tolerance of those with different faiths and beliefs.


Why are British values taught in schools?

British values are taught in schools to promote social cohesion, educate students on the importance of these fundamental principles, and prepare them to be responsible citizens. Schools play a key role in ensuring that students understand these values and how they contribute to a safe and inclusive society.


Are British values unique to the UK?

While the principles encompassed by British values—like democracy and respect for individual rights—are universal in many democratic societies, they are termed “British values” in the context of embedding them specifically within the UK’s national identity and educational system.


How do British values affect everyday life?

British values affect everyday life by promoting behaviours and practices that uphold democracy, respect, and tolerance. They influence legal frameworks, educational policies, and social interactions, ensuring that individuals feel respected and included in society.


Can British values change over time?

Yes, British values can evolve as society changes. The core principles are adapted to reflect contemporary issues and the changing demographic and cultural landscape of the UK. Ongoing dialogue and reflection are essential in ensuring these values remain relevant and inclusive.


How are controversies regarding British values addressed?

Controversies and debates about British values are addressed through public discourse, educational initiatives, and legislative processes. This ensures that diverse viewpoints are considered and that the implementation of these values is fair and inclusive.


What role do British values play in multiculturalism?

British values play a crucial role in supporting multiculturalism by promoting respect and tolerance for different cultures, faiths, and lifestyles. They help ensure that diverse communities can coexist peacefully and respect each other’s rights and differences.


How can someone learn more about British values?

To learn more about British values, individuals can explore educational resources, participate in community and civic activities, or engage with various media that discuss these values and their application in society.


Section H: Glossary of Terms Related to British Values


British Values: Fundamental principles that form the foundation of societal and cultural ethos in the United Kingdom. These include democracy, the rule of law, individual liberty, mutual respect, and tolerance of those with different faiths and beliefs.

Democracy: A system of Government in which power is vested in the people, who rule either directly or through freely elected representatives.

Rule of Law: The principle that all people and institutions are subject to and accountable to law that is fairly applied and enforced.

Individual Liberty: The freedom of the individual to enjoy their personal rights and freedoms without undue interference by the state.

Mutual Respect: The expectation that one should treat others as they would like to be treated themselves, recognising and respecting other people’s differences.

Tolerance: The ability or willingness to tolerate the existence of opinions or behaviour that one dislikes or disagrees with.

Prevent Strategy: A UK government policy designed to stop people from becoming terrorists or supporting terrorism. It is part of the UK’s counter-terrorism strategy and seeks to prevent radicalisation and extremism.

Civic Responsibility: The responsibilities of a citizen, which include both duties and obligations. Civic responsibility can include participation in Government, church, volunteers, and memberships of voluntary associations.

Multiculturalism: The presence of, or support for the presence of, several distinct cultural or ethnic groups within a society.

Integration: The process of uniting groups with different backgrounds into a single society that functions cohesively, often emphasising common values and societal norms.

Social Cohesion: The bonds or “glue” that bring people together in society, particularly in culturally diverse societies.

Citizenship Education: A component of the curriculum in schools and educational institutions aimed at teaching children about their rights, duties, and responsibilities as citizens.

Ethos: The characteristic spirit, moral values, or guiding beliefs of a person, group, or institution.

Section I: Further Resources on British Values


Department for Education (DfE) Publications
Guidance on Promoting British Values in Schools: https://www.gov.uk/government/news/guidance-on-promoting-british-values-in-schools-published

Provides an official overview of how schools should integrate and teach British values. Available on the UK Government’s official website under the education section.


Citizenship Foundation
Educational Resources on British Values:

Offers a range of teaching materials and lesson plans for educators to help students understand and engage with British values. These resources can be accessed via the Citizenship Foundation’s website.


The Equality and Human Rights Commission
Guidance on Equality and British Values:

Provides resources on how British values relate to and support equality and human rights laws in the UK. Available on the Commission’s official website.


Historic England
Teaching Resources:

Offers a variety of educational materials that explore how historical events and figures have shaped British values today. These resources can be found on the Historic England website under the education section.


UK Parliament Education Service
Parliament and British Values:

Offers workshops, tours, and session plans that help students learn about the role of the UK Parliament in upholding British values. Information and booking can be done through the UK Parliament’s education section on their website.



Founder and Managing Director Anne Morris is a fully qualified solicitor and trusted adviser to large corporates through to SMEs, providing strategic immigration and global mobility advice to support employers with UK operations to meet their workforce needs through corporate immigration.

She is a recognised by Legal 500 and Chambers as a legal expert and delivers Board-level advice on business migration and compliance risk management as well as overseeing the firm’s development of new client propositions and delivery of cost and time efficient processing of applications.

Anne is an active public speaker, immigration commentator, and immigration policy contributor and regularly hosts training sessions for employers and HR professionals

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Legal Disclaimer

The matters contained in this article are intended to be for general information purposes only. This article does not constitute legal advice, nor is it a complete or authoritative statement of the law, and should not be treated as such. Whilst every effort is made to ensure that the information is correct at the time of writing, no warranty, express or implied, is given as to its accuracy and no liability is accepted for any error or omission. Before acting on any of the information contained herein, expert legal advice should be sought.

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