January 2017


This is the basic text of my speech in the House of Lords this afternoon, not wanting to repeat what had already been said and trying to make a contribution (in a five minute speech limit) that others might not.

This House takes note of challenges to the liberal international order posed by the development of populism and nationalism around the world.

This is an important debate because it invites us to go behind the popular terms of discourse and to identify some of the philosophical dynamics at play in contemporary political developments.

The excellent Library Note makes it clear that language matters – that definition of terms is not incidental. Populism is clearly more than a movement of people who listen only to the facts that support the prejudices they have already nurtured; but, it can exploit assertive language in such a way as to obscure truth.

And this is what I wish to focus on here. Whereas others will discuss the importance of a rules-based international order, I want to say something about language in a post-truth or post-factual world, and pose a couple of questions about the assumptions we make regarding history.

The United Kingdom (as illustrated by the unfortunate reference of the Foreign Secretary yesterday) has defined itself by its share in the defeat of fascism in the twentieth century. Have we moved on? If we assume that our domestic order has been defined for ever by a past victory, we should not be surprised when our complacency finds itself undermined by events that are not trapped in that same narrative. Democracy and the rule of law are not natural and immutable givens, but are goals for which we must struggle in each generation.

This is why the narratives that guide our self-understanding as a nation among nations on a very small planet in a very large universe matter so much. It is why the UK seeing itself through the lens of a long-gone empire is so facile. It is why seeing Germany simply through the lens of Adolf Hitler is ridiculous. It is why illusions of power are dangerous when they shape language and rhetoric that are heard differently by other audiences. We need new narratives for the contemporary world – narratives of hope rooted in an authentic anthropology that takes seriously the destructive elements of human nature (what used to be known as ‘sin’).

Western liberalism has become complacent about its own self-evident superiority. It is arguable that the proper balance between individual rights and concerns for the common good has not been established. I would argue that this complacency has contributed to the sense of alienation and detachment being seen in what is being called political populism. Progress is not inevitable; it is not true that things can only get better; human rights cannot be assumed to be self-evidently right. Battles for peace, order and social cohesion are not won once and for ever. The tendency to entropy is powerful and finds it easier to pull down rather than build up.

The sorts of populism we see now (and I am trying not to load the term beyond the observation that certain demagogues claim to speak on behalf of ‘the people’) are destructive precisely because they evidently collude in destruction without a compelling vision for what should be constructed. Hence, we have seen a referendum campaign fuelled by lies, misrepresentation and an easy readiness to abuse language.

Who are the elites? Especially when they are being condemned or ridiculed by public school and Oxbridge-educated journalist-politicians who command six-figure incomes above and beyond their basic salary, and who will, whatever the outcome of Brexit, not suffer greatly? Why does it not matter that promises can be made in a referendum campaign that simply get dismissed within hours of that campaign ending? Can liberal order survive the corruption of language and the reduction of truth or fact to mere political convenience or expediency? It is not a game.

Tomorrow sees the inauguration of a US President for whom truth is a commodity to be traded. Direct contradiction of what is proven fact is loudly asserted without shame or embarrassment. I make no comment or judgement about his ability to govern the United States or contribute intelligently and wisely to the establishment of a just international order; I simply observe that the corruption of language and truth is in itself dangerous for everyone.

This debate is about the challenges to the liberal international order posed by the development of populism and nationalism around the world. The liberal international order is not a natural given or an inevitable right. It begs as many questions (of inherent legitimacy) as it addresses. Populism and nationalism are not new phenomena, and their development is a constant in societies that feel uncertain or have lost the security found in a clear sense of common or mutual identity. The particular danger of today’s developments around the world is that instability is far easier to create than stability; that order is fragile and chaos a tempting attraction; that the spectre haunting Europe and the world has little to do with ‘what the people – whoever they are – want’ and much to do with how they can be manipulated into thinking that what they are told they want is in fact what is good for them. The anti-elitist anti-establishmentarians are perpetrating a fraud in their elitist and self-promoting rhetorics. But, they will not be the people to pay the price.

I suspect that the order of the past is being challenged by the threat or promise of a new order. It is essential that we articulate a compelling vision for an order that serves the common good, shapes a good society and resists the claims of a post-truth rhetoric which tells us lying is acceptable as a means to an end.

So, the new year has begun. In with a bang, or with a whimper of fear and hesitation?

I was reminded this morning (while preparing for a radio interview) of the entry for New Year’s Day 1917 in the diary of Tsar Nicholas II of Russia: “The year 1916 was cursed; 1917 will surely be better!” Well, the Somme might have been appalling, but the Russian Revolution was to take the lives of Nicholas and his family (and, consequently and ultimately, millions of others) less than a year after writing his diary.

Wishful thinking is not the same as hope. Hope – which has to be vested in a vision – commits the hopeful to work towards the fulfilment of that vision. Hope has little to do with optimism: whereas optimism looks for the bright side in what happens, hope looks reality in the eye and is not diminished when that reality renders optimism as fantasy.

2017 will see the centenary of the Russian Revolution and the quincentenary of the Reformation. Both revolutions set Europe and the world ablaze. The language of freedom and a new world order exploded as an old order was challenged and assumptions (about why the world is the way it is) were questioned. And they remain pertinent as we move from 2016 into 2017.

2016 saw the rocking of an established order as the UK voted to leave the European Union and Donald Trump was elected President of the USA. Further elections in France and Germany in 2017 have the potential to further reshape Europe and the international relationships that have held the world together since the Second World War. ‘Populism’ is the word of the day – either an accolade or a term of derision, depending on whether you approve of the what the populace asked for. Whatever the choice, we face two questions: (a) 2016 showed us how easy it is to bring down; 2017 will show us whether we know how to build up. (b) we are where we are (regardless of how we got here), so how can we commit to shaping the future rather than bemoaning the past?

Photo-20161129151817817.jpgIt takes centuries to build a culture and a community; it takes minutes to destroy it. Look at Aleppo. If the commentariat is correct in judging that Brexit and Trump represent a rejection of ‘establishment’ and ‘elites’ (that is, we know what we are against), then what are we for? Put to one side the worrying irony that the articulators and leaders of the anti-establishment and anti-elitist movements are themselves the epitome of establishment and elitism, we have to ask what we wish to replace the current establishment with. My guess is that those who found common cause in ‘breaking down’ will struggle to find common cause in what they wish to see ‘built up’.

I come back to the distinction between wishful thinking and hope – the former leaving it to others to shape (as it is easier constantly to criticise and pick holes in those who try to bring about change) whilst the latter invest themselves sacrificially in making a positive difference even where this might be diminished or rejected. This is why, following Jesus of Nazareth who was crucified for it, Christians are drawn by hope and not driven by fear.

We do not know what 2017 will bring. We can fear for a (worryingly narcissistic) Trump presidency and we can come to terms with the sheer complexity of what Brexit might turn out to look like (with “the best deal” not being achievable?), but, ultimately, we will have to face the consequences of the decisions we have made whilst committing ourselves to shaping a common future in which the poor and marginalised are not left behind. Brexit is usually defined in terms of economics, trade and finance; it has to be about people, society, values and the common good of the whole nation.

We don’t know how the future might look. We do not know whether further Aleppos will curse our global humanity in 2017 – or whether revolutions might come where they have not come before. We cannot be sure what the impact of Trumpian protectionism and disregard for the environment will be. We must join in the argument as adults who take responsibility, even when the decisions do not go their way.

A reading of history makes clear that ‘now’ is never ultimate. Tomorrow will come. We must, as a people of hope, live in the reality of the day, learning from the past but drawn by a vision for and from the future, committed to shaping and not just complaining. “The Word became flesh (and dwelled among us)”, wrote John in the prologue of his gospel; our words will become flesh – one way or another – and we must take responsibility for them. Then we must use them to shape a vision that captures the imagination
and is not swayed by events, fears, conflict or destruction.

It is not enough to know what we are against, and to be angry about it; we must know what we are for, and commit ourselves to making it happen. Building up is always harder than breaking down.