What’s the value of values?

Whether it’s a burka ban in Germany or Trump’s plan for an overhaul of America’s trading relationships much in politics is justified on the ground of ‘our values’. They can be liberal or American, Enlightenment or corporate- what matters is that they are ours and we have to defend them. As analysts of political discourse will tell you the word is a classic semantic ruse- it assigns the audience a share in the matter at stake without specifying the content of the matter. The greatest part of the rhetorical trick is that it assumes a history- and in a period of flux and change our values takes on the role of a comfort blanket. Think of Major’s Back to Basics, a harking back to good old fashioned values, something that was later revived in a less stuffy form by Cameron’s Big Society.

The irony of values discourse is that it’s everything but old. The first recorded use of the term to imply the principles of a nation or group is 1918 which, according to the OED, is borrowed from German aesthetic philosophy. In political rhetoric values are rarely cited in the first half of the twentieth century. The corpus of Churchill’s writing exceeds 50 million words but his use of ‘values’ never strays beyond the traditional meaning of worth (‘the highest moral value’ etc.). Rather, his most famous orations appealed to tangible notions of defending our island and civilisation, justice and freedom. Values would have been far too woolly a word for the beast of Blenheim.

Value talk originated not from the offices of state but the home and the family. It meant a tightly knit unit that upholds moral standards and lives within its means. In the 70s and 80s this discourse travelled into the politics of Thatcher and Reagan. In economics their small state liberalism pictured the nation as a household that seeks to cut waste and pay off its debts. Thatcher’s ‘no such thing as society’ comment encapsulates the era but what follows this is equally revealing: what really matters is that ‘there are individual men and women, and there are families.’

Appealing to values is no longer the preserve of conservative politics. All wings have their own vague and intangible values that are used to fast-track actions. According to the Corbynistas values redeem Castro in the face of the more awkward history of torture and political imprisonment. On the hawkish right our values are under threat and justify increased militarisation. Merkel won liberal hearts with her sly response to Trump’s election, saying that future cooperation between her country and the US would be ‘based on common values’. Are these the same values that Germany uses when it sells more arms to Saudi Arabia than any other defence exporter? In the corporate world values are now an essential component of your brand profile. Type ‘our values’ into google and the top hits aren’t boy scouts and village churches but multinational banks and booze companies.

Our culture has never been so value-filled- yet our world has rarely seemed so divided. Could it be that the value of values is, as King Lear discovers, nothing at all?