As I stand here this morning

Assemblies from the archives of Harris Westminster Sixth Form

Remembering Values (November 2020)

Let us start off by reflecting that this week our American cousins (and if you don’t have any American cousins I strongly recommend investing in a more active imagination), our American cousins have their quadrennial exercise in Democracy. I find the American electoral system fascinating, particularly since it has been designed rather than evolving organically and messily as ours has done. For example, it is perfectly possible for a candidate to be elected president with less than half of the vote – as happened in 2016. This is a beautiful example of democracy in action, a fantastic object lesson in the genius of the American Constitution (which, despite being genius is a long way from a perfect document – I’ll come back to the three-fifths rule later). Democracy is the rule of the people by the people for the people – it is not the tyranny of the majority, and in the American system there are checks and balances that say you have to amass a coalition of different groups of people, it’s not enough to just appeal to one group, no matter how big it is. In this particular case the balance is between populous states (like California) and largely unpopulated ones (such as Wyoming, with a voting population of four people and an elderly dachshund named Colin but a very splendid collection of bears). California votes Democrat very strongly, Wyoming and other similar states vote Republican and the balance of the system means that whilst the number of people on your side is important, so is the number of states – you can’t ignore Wyoming, just because Colin has strange views.

Democracy isn’t tyranny of the majority – it protects minorities – a lesson we learn from America. Sadly another lesson we learn is what happens when the majority decide to be tyrants. We see in some states that there is voter suppression – in Texas, for example, polling stations have been cut and postal ballots have to be delivered to drop-boxes (rather than posted) with very few of these being made available. The result of this is that it becomes more difficult to vote if you don’t have a car which penalises the poor, often the black or Latino, voters. And I promised to tell you about the three fifths rule. It has been repealed – it doesn’t apply any more so don’t get too agitated - but each state has a number of representatives based on its population and in the original constitution this was gained by counting all free persons and three-fifths of all other persons (a euphemistic way of talking about slavery).

Democracy is imperfect and if the people are prejudiced, racist, for example, so the government will be also. It was not until almost a hundred years after that first constitution, in 1870, that the first black man, Hiram Rhodes Revels, was elected to Congress – as a senator for Mississippi and another hundred and something years before the first black President – in 2008. We might throw scorn on America’s racist history, but let’s not ignore the issues within our own: John Archer of Battersea became the first black mayor in 1913, but it was not until 1987 – comfortably in my lifetime – that the first black MPs were elected: Dianne Abbot, Paul Boateng and Bernie Grant. Keith Vaz, the longest serving British Asian MP was also elected in this year. Bernie Grant was born in what was then known as British Guiana and is now the independent nation of Guyana, moved to London at the age of 19, and served as the MP for Tottenham until his death in 2000, at which point the seat was taken by David Lammy who was born in North London to Guyanese parents.

A brief digression, then on Guyana. It lies on the north coast of South America and is considered part of the Caribbean region. It is the third smallest country in South America and the only English speaking one. It is a fairly poor country, but a democratic one, with an elected president. Unfortunately its constitution makes laws inherited from the UK difficult to change, even when this country has changed – one example being LGBT rights. Homosexuality was illegal in the UK in 1966 and so is still illegal in Guyana. Back to Democracy and David Lammy who is the Shadow Secretary of State for Justice and so links nicely to the law.

Another brief aside, because I think that the best piece of democracy I’ve been involved in is not voting for who should rule the country, but being on a jury, deciding on a crime. I think it’s a wonderful thing that when a young man was stopped by the police and found to have a condomful of heroin in his pocket that it was not the elite, trained lawyers who decided whether or not he was in possession of this heroin with intent to sell (the crime he was charged with) but 12 people chosen fairly randomly, including a retired builder, a nightclub manager, a geography student, and the principal of a well-known school. Of the people, by the people, for the people.

The law takes me back to America where one of the questions put to the President is whether he intends to obey the law if the people choose not to vote for him. You can’t have the kind of society we want without the idea that Law applies to everyone, that we all agree to obey it and to be bound by it even if it’s not what we want. That I disagree with Trump’s policies and find him odious is irrelevant – that he disregards the rule of Law is a threat to the kind of society I want to live in: fortunately we’re a long way from that step on this side of the Atlantic but we need to be careful, we need to remember.

Which brings me to a sort of conclusion, because I’m talking to you about British Values: Democracy, Rule of Law, Tolerance of others, and the other one (I do hope you’re racking your brains for the other one and patting yourself on the back if you’ve remembered it). These are not British as in not-American, or not-Guyanese: they are not values that we keep hold of and refuse to share – they are British in that we as a society think they are important, that we know they aren’t shared everywhere and that we don’t want to follow examples that go against them. We are a society that elects MPs, that has juries for serious crimes, where the most important questions are trusted to individuals taking decisions carefully, soberly, but on whatever basis they think is right. We are a society where we respect the rights of others to disagree with us, where people can follow the religion of their choice, where they can favour policies we do not and this does not diminish their value one jot: they can be 112% wrong and still be entitled to their wrongness, entitled to vote, entitled to the support of the law, because we are a society that respects the rule of law, that holds that laws apply to everyone, no matter how powerful, no matter how beautiful, no matter how awful and delightful we find them.

This month is a time of Remembrance in this wonderful, messy, great, imperfect society, a time for us to Remember what we have and to Commit to making it better. The fourth British Value is Individual Liberty – we are free as individuals to make our own choices, and at Remembrance time we remember particularly those who freely chose to give up their lives to defend our society. We as a school usually have a service of Remembrance but this year Covid has got the better of us. We will take time to Remember, though, and to commit, and as a school we remember those who worked and sacrificed to get us to where we are: our parents, our heroes, our fore-runners, as well as all those who fought and died, or served as nurses or teachers or street-sweepers to make our society what it is. We remember the work we have done, the sacrifices we have made, the triumphs and disasters we personally have seen, the hard times we have been through to get here and we commit to making a better, fairer, more beautiful society for us, and those we love, and those that come after us.

Let us Remember, and Remember, and Commit.