It is clear that the government is working assiduously to create some shape out of the decision in the June referendum to leave the European Union. It is also clear that a huge number of questions that should have been tested out prior to the referendum itself have not been. Now it is a case of catch-up – a not inconsiderable task. It also demands that some proactive shape is made of the process, and not just a complaint about about the outcome. I remain pessimistic about many aspects of Brexit, but the debate must be engaged with.

So, following a question in the House of Lords this afternoon about the economic impact of the UK departure – which in turn was followed by a debate on the Children and Social Work Bill – there was a short debate on the implications of Brexit for peace and stability in Europe and beyond. My speech follows:

To ask HM Government what assessment they have made of the potential effect on peace and stability in Europe and around the world of the United Kingdom leaving the European Union.

My Lords, recognising that this debate and that to come on Thursday belong together, I offer this statement by the German theologian Jürgen Moltmann in a book I have just finished reading: “A free society is not an accumulation of independent individuals; it is a community of persons in solidarity.”

I quote this because the same might equally be applied to nations. It bears repetition that the language and discourse of the referendum – shamelessly fuelled by misrepresentations and misleading promises, now apparently acceptable in a so-called 'post-factual' world – paid little or no attention to the needs or securities of our international neighbours, but focused purely on the national interests of Britain. As if we can live in isolation or that we can be secure without ensuring the security of our neighbours. I invoke the poet John Donne: in a globalised world Britain cannot simply see itself as an island. Although the referendum campaign was dominated by immigration and the domestic economy (with wild promises that should always have used the language of “might” rather than “will”), questions about foreign relations and the security implications of a decision to remain or leave the EU were too often dismissed as if an impertinent intervention by an embarrassing relation.

So, the decision to leave the EU now raises questions that should have been identified and fleshed out before the referendum – questions that assume our place as a nation interdependent on a community of nations. If Europe has been focused for a generation or more on integration, it is surely now coloured by a hint of disintegration. But, to return to the questions…

For example: Brexit will be hugely demanding of energy and resources. What will be the impact of this on other areas of government? We hear bold promises that Britain will not retreat in on itself; but if revenues are reduced, costs increase, the pound continues to fall, and the focus of resource is on Brexit, what will happen to work with the UN Security Council, NATO, G7, G20 and the Commonwealth? Furthermore, is it not inconceivable that this diversion of energy, focus and resource might just create the space for mischief-making by those who are not our best friends?

Peace and stability cannot be achieved by an approach that is rooted in us simply looking to our own best interests. As we see around the world, particularly in the Middle East, security, peace and stability must be mutual. To seek the security of neighbours is costly.

But, I have further questions. The last Strategic Defence and Security Review was published in November 2015. Yet, the brave new post-Brexit world will look different from the one assumed a year ago. It is likely, for instance, that increased and enhanced EU Defence cooperation – potentially intensified outside of NATO – will impact both on the UK and NATO. In turn, if we invest more in NATO, this will have an impact on our relationship with and towards Russia, and this will impact on our response to threats to Poland and the Baltic states. Or, to put it differently, how might greater EU Defence cooperation impact on the government's stated SDSR ambition to “intensify our security and defence relationship with Germany” and to “further strengthen the U.K.-France defence and security relationship”?

It would beggar belief that such questions have not been thought through in detail before now. Or, to put it less charitably, where were the experts when we needed them?

To change tack a little, we recognise that the UK is one of the biggest contributors to the European Development Fund, currently contributing £409 million (which makes 14.8% of total contributions to the Fund). Has the Government yet assessed the impact of Brexit on the EDF? Will Brexit lead to a narrower disbursement of UK aid to a narrower geographical reach than currently channeled through the EDF? And can the Government give an assurance that the UK's Overseas Development Aid will continue to be spent on genuine ODA purposes and not be used as sweeteners for trade deals – given that trade deals have been represented as the highest social good – a questionable anthropological priority at best?

My Lords, peace and security are not merely notional aspirations, but demand a broader and deeper vision of what a human society actually is, and for whom it is to be ordered. Peace and stability cannot be empty or utilitarian words to be thrown around carelessly in a post-factual world. They demand the prioritising of mutual international relationships and detailed costings – not merely financial or economic, but human, social and structural.

This is the script of this morning's Pause for Thought on BBC Radio 2's Chris Evans Show in the company of Robbie Williams, Anne Robinson, Mark Strong, Michael Pena and The Shires:

This might mark me down as a sad man, but one of my favourite film scenes is Bill Murray doing karaoke in Tokyo in Lost In Translation. The song he gets is the Elvis Costello version of What's so funny 'bout peace, love and understanding? which he belts out with a tunefulness guaranteed to close down any hope of a music contract. It's brilliant, even if it's not heavy entertainment. Certainly better than declaring war on everyone.

But, to answer his question: there's actually nothing funny about peace, love and understanding – it's just funny that they sound like a good idea.

Peace, love and understanding. Where on earth do we go with that?

Well, we've just opened a new office in Leeds and everywhere you look you see three words: Loving. Living. Learning. A bit like peace, love and understanding, they sum up how we want to be.

For Christians like me it means loving God, the world and one another.

It also means getting stuck into the world as it is, but fired by a vision of what it could be. So, we work hard at enabling individuals and communities to flourish and thrive. That's living.

But, all this loving and living is done with the acknowledgement that we keep making an almighty mess of it and can't seem to help getting it wrong. We are all learning together and from one another. In other words, we need a huge dose of humility in our attempts to love and live.

To twist the words of a well-known album, we need to sing when we're losing as well as when we are winning. Or, as I discovered again this week while driving down a no-entry road in Cambridge, I learn better from my mistakes than from my successes.

So, loving, living and learning shape a lens through which we can look at what we do, why we do it, where our priorities are, working out what and who really matters. Not three words that imprison us, but words that open up the possibility of living differently in a complicated and messy world.

Perhaps, if we did a bit more loving, living and learning, we might end up with a bit more peace, love and understanding. And it wouldn't seem funny at all.


One of the questions constantly raised about the term “freedom of religion or belief” is that “belief” is assumed to be synonymous with “blind assumption”, “mere opinion” or “wishful thinking”. Having just finished with the IPPFORB in Berlin – read Angela Merkel's speech from yesterday in the Reichstag here but only in German – the matter is current.

One way of illustrating what really constitutes “belief” is to look at Mark's Gospel – the shortest of the four in the New Testament. The key to understanding Mark's narrative is found in verses 14-15 of the first chapter:

Now after John was arrested, Jesus came to Galilee, proclaiming the good news of God, and saying, “The time is fulfilled, and the kingdom of God has come near; repent, and believe in the good news.”

Right at the outset of his public ministry Jesus sets out his stall – against which he will be held accountable. So, what does he mean by these four phrases?

The people have been longing and praying for the time when the Roman occupying forces will be expelled and the people (of God) will get their land, their worship and their freedom back. Jesus boldly states that the time has come – that the presence of God is now among them again. But, the evidence of their eyes tells them that he can't be – because the Romans are still there. And the holy God cannot be contaminated by being present among the blasphemous heathen.

So, Jesus tells them to repent: not to grovel in humility at the recognition of their sinfulness, but, literally, to “change their mind” ('metanoia' in the Greek). Here repentance means changing the way they think about God, the world and us. So, the logic of the fourfold statement is this: change the way you (a) look at God, the world and us, in order to change the way you (b) see God, the world and us, in order to change the way you (c) think about God, the world and us, in order then to commit yourself to what you now see and think about differently. Here, “believe in the good news…” means to commit yourself – body, mind and spirit – to what you now see differently … in this case the possibility that God might dare to confound our expectations and expose himself to the world as it is, contaminating it with love and mercy and grace.

I think this is a simple illustration of what is involved in believing. It isn't merely giving intellectual assent to a set of propositions about God and the world; rather, it means committing oneself to a world now seen differently.

It is this element that our culture too easily ignores. It is now possible simultaneously to believe several mutually contradictory things about life and human meaning without being embarrassed, because we have lost the link between belief and commitment (with all its consequences for good or I'll) to the subject/object of that belief.

And it is this inconvenient commitment that is causing too many people to be persecuted and oppressed in the twenty first century. You generally don't get crucified for hosting a weird private idea that makes no difference to the real world.


A quick link to the speech by the German Chancellor, Angela Merkel, at this morning's opening session of the IPPFoRB conference at the Reichstag in Berlin. More will follow.


Following my post last night on the corrosive nature of promises (as opposed to conjectures or wish lists) that can't be made, by people who have no right or authority to make them and who are unaccountable for what happens when they remain unfulfilled, here is another link to the context in which I write.

The conference of the International Panel of Parliamentariians for Freedom of Religion and Belief (snappily known by its friends as IPPFoRB) ended last night in Berlin. Today we meet German Chancellor Angela Merkel for a one-day conference at the Bundestag.

Among the important themes that emerged among the sixty or so national parliaments represented here in sessions yesterday was the discrepancy in many countries between what is written in law and how that law is either implemented/applied or ignored. In many places it is a triumph just to get freedom of religion (among other freedoms – this isn't hierarchical) enshrined in writing. However, what matters is what then is done about it.

One eminent speaker made it dead simple: (a) make good laws; (b) repeal bad laws; (c) hold governments to account on what the law says and demands. Given that everyone here is a parliamentarian, this is clear, applicable and achievable. It doesn't guarantee success, but it clarifies the task.

What emerged from several parts of the world is the pressure under which freedom of religion and religious expression is coming. Attempts to exclude God/religious world views from the public square are not unique to the secular West, but the spurious assumptions behind them seem to have one thing in common: that secular humanism (for want of a better term) is neutral and occupies the neutral place in the public discourse. It is self-evidently true and is purely 'scientific' – that is to say, needs not to make its case for credibility because that case is obvious. The outcome – put briefly – is that liberalising societies demand the right for 'tolerance' unless asked to tolerate views that are inconvenient to its assumptions of what is tolerable. One delegate explained how attempts are being made in his country to shout down any expression of traditional family values or articulation of a conservative view of ethics that derives from religious commitment.

That is not – as the speaker emphasised – to argue the case for the rightness of his views, but, rather, to insist that these views must be allowable if his society is to be truly tolerant (an awful, lowest common denominator word).

So, enshrining rights in law is not enough. Making promises on the back of that law is not enough. It is the implementation of that law that counts, and it is the discourse surrounding debate about that implementation that demands intellectual as well as moral integrity.


I am writing this in Berlin while attending an international inter-parliamentary conference on freedom of religion and belief. Parliamentarians have come from all over the world and from every continent bar Australia. And the question put to me by almost everyone I meet? Brexit. I have yet to meet anyone who doesn't think the UK has been either mad or stupid.

My own position is that of the realist: the decision has been made (in a non-binding referendum that now puts a wider question over the nature of parliamentary democracy), the boat has sailed (with some enormous holes in it), and, even if we wanted to go back on the referendum result, our position is now seen as having moved in the eyes of our interlocutors in Europe and beyond. So, we now have to get on with it and shape the future, whatever this might bring.

In a session this morning Ján Figel (Special Envoy for the promotion of freedom of religion or belief outside the EU, and chair of the Christian Democratic Movement in Slovakia) remarked that there are three types of people: commentators, lamentators or doers. How pertinent. We can comment, lament or act. It is a choice.

So, what I go on to write now does not ignore the Brexit vote, but it does pay attention to some of the phenomena arising from it that need to be taken seriously because of the impact they have on our culture and the nature of our discourse. I'll put the point in the form of a question.

Is a promise still a promise even when the person doing the promising has no authority to make the promise, no responsibility for fulfilling the promise made, or bears no accountability for the consequences of the promise not being kept?

Well, we know that £350 million is not going to go into the NHS, despite what was written on the side of a bus and vigorously defended in the media by its authors. Actually, it was never going to happen. The only question is why so many people ever believed it. It was not costed, it had already been promised three times over, and none of those who promised it had any authority to do so. Yet, to question it was deemed disloyal or unimaginative.

Yesterday the Sun called the EU spiteful for suggesting that Brits might need to pay for a visa to visit countries such as Germany of France. Well, what did they think would happen? The EU isn't a benevolent society for people who have slagged them off for decades as corrupt, lazy and incompetent. Maybe we will learn what our £350 million actually bought us – like free movement and easy/cheap travel.

How would you answer those international MPs who ask what preparations were done in order to enable Brexit to happen? Given that the answer is 'none', and that no one in Whitehall or Downing Street seems able to answer simple questions about what Brexit will (or, even, might) actually look like, saying limply that “we have taken back control” sounds a bit feeble and empty of content.

So, we still hear politicians telling us that we “will” get great deals, that we can forge our way in the world with other countries simply giving us the best on offer – their best interests miraculously coinciding with ours. Not “might” or “hopefully will”, but “will”. A promise. A promise made by people who cannot deliver on it. A promise with no content. And still people seem to believe the promises.

I am beginning to wonder if we might have needed (and should have heeded) experts, after all.


Here are video interviews with Professor Brian Cox and Professor David Wilkinson during the first Diocese of Leeds clergy conference in Liverpool earlier this week. and