September 2019


Last night I did a lecture in South Creake, Norfolk, and addressed the theme of my new book ‘Freedom is Coming’, seeking to distil lessons for today from the wisdom of three thousand years ago. As I said at the beginning, I believe a lecture such as this is a first word rather than the last word. The lecture itself was then followed by a Q&A during which I was pressed on a number of points. The basic text follows here.

We need to remember that when the Chinese say “May you live in interesting times”, it is a curse and not a blessing. There is something to be said for routine or boring times when life is fairly predictable and nothing much out of the ordinary happens to disturb or disrupt. If any such times ever existed, that is.

My parents lived through the Second World War in Liverpool – the bombings, evacuation, privations and rationing. Yet, I remember my father telling me more than once how his generation had had all the best deals: healthy food during the war (lots of vegetables and no sweets), the best jobs with the best pensions in an era of construction and optimism. His generation of civil servants certainly got the best pensions. Yet, in saying all this, he left out the experiences of conflict and the fact that some of his generation never made it into peacetime, or that peace in 1945 soon gave way to Korea, the Cold War, the Cuban missile crisis, Vietnam, the Berlin Wall, Middle Eastern terrorism, the Red Brigades, and so on and so on. OK, we also landed a man on the moon and England won the World Cup – once – but it is too easy to re-shape our history in order to tell a particular story.

I don’t need to tell you that all times are uncertain – every age is “interesting” in its own way. I think most of us would have thought it inconceivable three years ago that we would now be in a constitutional crisis, with the fundamental arms of our parliamentary democracy under threat and the future of the monarchy being questioned. Add to the mix Donald Trump in the United States, the rise of the AfD in Germany and the dominance of ‘illiberal democrats’ such as Orban, Bolsanaro and Putin, and it just isn’t clear what is going on. Here at home, if you are a Brexiteer the BBC is now the spawn of Satan, whereas if you are a Remainer, the BBC is now the spawn of Satan. What on earth is going on?

One conservative blogger makes the interesting claim that Nigel Farage is a modern-day British Martin Luther insofar as he challenges, disrupts and disturbs without any clear idea of what to do once the disruption has been achieved. I think this is an interesting idea (though Luther knew he might have to pay a personal price for his disruption). History and circumstances sometimes throw up a character who makes a massive difference and forces ‘normality’ to break up and reality be faced afresh. (But, I am not sure I would compare Farage with Luther … for lots of reasons.)

David Goodhart on BBC Radio 4 in ‘A Point of View’ on Sunday 26 May, rather than bemoaning the rise of populism in the UK, the challenges of Brexit and the breaking down of ‘normal’ politics, claimed that what we are witnessing now is actually robust democracy at work. He maintains that the limited appropriation of power by elites has been denuded by the clamour through the ballot box for ignored voices to be heard again. And, again, I think this notion of robust democracy merits serious consideration, even if I think it also raises questions about the content of disruption and who best exploits and benefits from chaos.

But, as this drama continues to unfold and the latest putative saviours of Brexit and political order enter the fray, Christians might well ask serious questions about how we are to understand the world in which we live, how we are to read the Scriptures in this context, and how we are to conduct ourselves – in language and behaviour, priorities and common life – as events unfold. I take it as read that Christians are called to engage in the whole of our common life, to argue politics, to help shape the future, and to get our hands dirty for the sake not of our own prosperity, but for the flourishing of God’s people in God’s world.

Now, this is a huge task. We cannot look at the UK in isolation from Europe – which, we must remember, is not coterminous with the European Union – and nor can we look at Europe in isolation from the wider world of Donald Trump, Kim Jong Un, Vladimir Putin, Narendra Modi, Xi Jinping, Iranian nuclear development, or political instability in Israel or Iran. Everything is connected. And, given the global climate crisis, there is no escaping the complexity of interconnectedness. (Always be deeply suspicious of politicians or preachers who suggest there are clean and easy solutions to complex problems – like getting Brexit “done”.)

Yet, we also cannot grasp – or pay attention to – everything that matters. So, I want to cut through a section of these phenomena and focus on one people in one place at one time in history and ask if there is wisdom for us to be found in their experience and reflections, their decision-making and actions.

What I have to say is not neutral, however. I have written a book (published in August this year) called ‘Freedom is Coming’ which comprises readings through Advent, Christmas and Epiphany on Isaiah 40-55. I’ll explain why.

In Advent we try to reimagine the longing of God’s people for resolution – or salvation. For God to come among his people again and reassure them of their identity as his chosen ones. Their security and destiny lie in this, that Messiah will come and restore to Israel all that has been lost in exile and occupation, subjugation and humiliation. Jesus of Nazareth is to come among a people who are crying out for the fulfilment of God’s promises and trying to spot the evidences of this new day, this new world. As we enter into their experience, looking through Advent for the light, longing for renewal and hope, we cannot rush the experience. We slow down and think and pray and make time. Only once we have taken this time, and lived this yearning experience, can we truly experience the staggering joy of Christmas – what John Bell calls “God surprising earth with heaven”. Yet, rather than ending the wondering and solving all the questions, Christmas only opens up a different world with new challenges and demands … which leads us to Epiphany, Magi who search for the truth, and people beginning to see in the babe of Bethlehem and the boy of Nazareth something unusual.

In other words, the resolution of one question only reveals a pile of new questions that hadn’t been faced before because the phenomena from which they arise had not occurred before. Or, to put it more crudely, endings only proved to be new beginnings – and these new beginnings weren’t always welcomed by people who just wanted everything sorted out once and for all. All of this I explore in the book which I have with me.

So, to Isaiah and a bit of background. The background to the background, of course, is that Isaiah is not a bit of ‘scripture’ that sits disembodied in a holy book, dislocated or disassociated from the real world. It is precisely located in a world of empires, military conflict, violence, political intrigue, and all the things with which we, too, are familiar. And while the big beasts fight for power and prestige, the ordinary people just have to live with the consequences and get on as best they can. (And they are easily swayed in their political affections.)

Anyway, Isaiah was a prophet, writing in the eighth century before Christ, warning his people that they couldn’t take their future for granted. Chapters 1-39 see the prophet reading the signs of the times and discerning what lies behind and beneath events and the choices people face, and warning that departure from God’s ways will have consequences. As individuals are part of society, so will the consequences be social, political, economic, military, and so on. But, you might ask, in what ways have the people deviated from what God expects of them and, indeed, has called them to and for?

The text speaks for itself: if you bear the name of God and claim to be his people, then you must look like him and his character. And what does this mean? Those who have been called must serve; those who have received mercy must give mercy; those who have been slaves (in their ancestry) must never treat others as slaves. And that’s just a starter. The point is: you must in your common life and your individual character resemble and reflect the character, priorities and claims of the God you claim to serve.

Denial of this vocation is not evidenced by mere impiety or religious/liturgical negligence. Rather, it is exposed by allowing a society that penalises poor people, marginalises weak people, shuts the door on people ‘not like us’, associates nation with God, ignores the moral planks in the eyes of the ‘faithful’ while condemning the speck in the eyes of others. For example. The prophet maintains that it is a mockery of God to trample on the poor or sing songs of praise to God whilst denying his character in the choices we make and the society we construct.

These people are warned that God will not be taken for granted and that the consequences of living a life of denial are serious: the loss of those things that speak to the people of their identity, their vocation and destiny, their future and their security. Remember that the defining narrative that gives meaning and direction to these people is the story of the Exodus. After more than four centuries of humiliating and inescapable subjugation in Egypt, the people are liberated – the Passover – and led towards freedom in a land of promise. Yet, liberation is not instant and is not an event; it is a process, a journey, a leaving from but without knowing where it was leading to. (Why do some Christian songs suggest they left Egypt one day and bounced up next day in a land flowing with milk and honey?)

The Exodus, however, is not a simple story. The annual remembrance of the Passover was also for the Jews a reminder of the human reality, the complex choices, the fear and dread, the romanticising of the past along with the struggling with potential futures, and so on. The people were led out of slavery by a leader who, once in the desert and not giving the people the satisfactions they wanted, found himself rejected, bemoaned, ridiculed and abandoned. That’s leadership for you!

These people spent forty years wandering through a desert before they reached their promised land. A whole generation had died on the journey, the leader died before getting to the land, and they were given a load of instructions about what a good society should look like when they got the chance to build one. Yet, these people had to enter a new land, with new questions about their identity and what this identity demanded of them. They could learn from the past, but they shouldn’t repeat it.

So, back to Isaiah. The people who had forgotten the substance of this story were destined to head into their own exile. The cataclysm of loss was probably the only way they would be jolted by reality into rebuilding their identity and meaning, re-appraising their history, losing their illusions – about God, the world and humanity. Sometimes loss is the only way to stop us.

Which brings us to Isaiah 40-55. Here the people are in exile and have been for decades. This means that some of the exiles have died, families have been reshaped, the memories of ‘home’ have been kept alive and yet will also have become fossilised, romanticised or re-shaped to justify the current narrative. So, the words of comfort addressed to these exiles are not just intended to make them feel happy about the future, but to prepare them for a new world with new questions and new challenges. Yes, their exile is coming to an end – this is the meaning of ‘forgiveness’ for them. Yes, their punishment will soon be over and they will return home. But, home will be different – and not simply a place of assurance and satisfaction, but of new responsibility and faithful innovation.

Why, I ask myself, have I never heard this spelled out in sermons or lectures? I have read (and possibly preached) about the comfort of coming home after exile, as if this return meant the end of complexity, the end of hard decisions, the end of pain and uncertainty. But, I have rarely, if ever, heard about the real stuff of real human life and society which the text represents. We are meant to read through the text, not just to read across it. If the prophet’s text has any value – to the exiles or to us – it must be because it accords with and addresses our own uncertainties and longings for resolution or escape. But, faith and escapism do not go together.

Consider this. What happens to the remainers when the leavers go into exile? (And I am not speaking about Brexit here.) We know from our own experience in West Yorkshire how emigration and immigration work. I am always amused by friends of Pakistani – Kashmiri – heritage who visit family ‘back home’ and discover that those who never left are sometimes less conservative culturally than those who emigrated to the UK. Why does this happen? I think it is primarily because expats confect a memory of home that gets fossilised and refuses to move on. So, ‘home’ becomes a fantasy of what we imagine it used to be. Fantasy because it rarely allows for any development in my absence. (Having lived abroad in several places, we see the same phenomenon with British expats who promote and preserve a memory of Britain that is almost Victorian in nature.)

So, the problem is that the exiles return to what they expect to be the home they left generations before … and find themselves trying to make space among people who have continued to shape ‘home’ and resent this intrusion by people who want to impose their conservatism on the society that never left home in the first place. Do you see the problem? And doesn’t it sound familiar?

These communities – the remainers and the returning exiles – then have to negotiate the space and the priorities as they shape a new place together. A place that might have been simpler without the demand for generosity and the hard work of imagination. Yet, the questions they face and the choices to be made are precisely those that these people have not had to face before. The situation is new – is unique. So, what is to guide them as they adjust and adapt and face the challenges of creating one society out of the competing (or conflicting) imaginations and priorities of two sets of experience and two groups of people who can’t understand why the others don’t see the world (or the task) in the same way as they do?

Now, this should be setting off associations with the world in which we live today. Just like the returning exiles and the host communities into which they would now intrude (or assimilate), we cannot simply resurrect from the past some template of how to ‘do’ post-Brexit Britain or Trumpian America or a post-Brexit Europe. We have to face these questions anew, learning from the experience of the past and drawing on the wisdom of our texts, but having the determined imagination to face honestly and courageously these new challenges. We cannot go back. We cannot simply pretend that the world should have stood still fifty years ago.

So, what might Isaiah, from his particular political, cultural and historical situation, have to say to us – particularly us Christians who read these texts and call them “the word of the Lord” – in ours nearly three thousand years later? I will make several proposals by way of response.

First, read scripture properly. It is no good quoting comfortable (or comforting) verses or passages from the Bible without seeing them in the context of the bigger picture being addressed. One serious element of that bigger picture is that, to put it simply, empires come and go. History is never understood in the moment, but after time and distance that allow more objective reflection on the events experienced. Brexit, Europe, Trump and the rise of China and India (the end of the West?) cannot be fully understood while we are going through them. But, what looks powerful – invincible even – now will surely look different in the future in retrospect. When I worked at GCHQ in the early 1980s the bipolar world of USA vs USSR looked like a fixture. India and China were dysfunctional and backward oddities, both the subject of imperial occupation not so long before. And now? How invincible was the Roman Empire? Read Shashi Tharoor and ask how secure the British Empire really was?

In other words, today’s reality might not be as fixed as we like to think. What looks to be right and expedient now will certainly be questioned in the future. Will our children and grandchildren bless us or curse us for the choices we make today? Is our perspective informed by the narrative of Scripture that asks us to think longer-term?

This should lead us, secondly, to think, choose and act with what I often call a confident humility. I consider reality, bring to bear the wisdom gleaned from perusal of the past and the wisdom of our texts (and the story they tell), and then, together, make decisions that I recognise might turn out in the future to be wrong. These decisions will be made with confidence, but the humility of acknowledging my inherent limitations will temper the arrogance of certainty.

Yes, we must argue vigorously and test our assumptions and assertions, but, in the end, we must choose and know we might be wrong. And this is helped enormously if we face the failures of our past and don’t just romanticise our successes. For example, it is not a weakness to recognise the power of the British Empire whilst accepting that, although we can now see through a different lens, British gains came at the expense of subjugated people. (Read Shashi Tharoor’s Inglorious Empire and see that India had around 30% of world trade pre-Empire and only 3% post-Empire. Who benefitted and where did all the wealth go to?)

This is rooted, thirdly, in a commitment to hear and tell the truth. One of my problems with the whole Brexit process has been the rejection of truth-telling and the loss of truth-hearing. I have spoken of the “corruption of the public discourse” and this includes the unwillingness on the part of many politicians to face and tell the truth. For example, I asked a question in the House of Lords about the cost of Brexit. I suggested that if the prize is worth it (leaving the EU and “regaining sovereignty”, etc.), then tell us straight and we might all vote for it despite the cost. Tell us that we might suffer economically for fifteen years in order to gain the prize, and we might well vote for it. But don’t lie and tell us that leaving the EU will be easy or simple or cost-free. This has always been the problem for prophets: they tell the truth and pay the price. But, someone has to.

All this assumes, fourthly, that we are committed to the world as it is and not just as it might be. Israel’s calling – articulated by Isaiah and others, was always for the sake of the world. The blessing Abraham and the patriarchs were promised was to be a blessing to the world – even at the expense of those through whom the blessing would ultimately come. The blessing was not for the sake of Abraham and co. In fact, their vocation was to lay down their life in order that the world might see who and how God – Yahweh – actually is. People should look at the people of Israel and see the character of God worked out in real time, real place, real life, the ordering of society and the relating of peoples in the business of politics.

The prophets call their people back to this commitment and vocation.

Jesus embodies – incarnates – this vocation and lays down his life for the sake of the world that is God’s. The Church – the followers of this Jesus – are called to embody in their common life the life of this Jesus who embodies and fulfils the vocation of God’s people to lay down their life for the sake of the world. Christmas is about this: God opting into the world and committing to it in all its messy complexity and complex politics. And this with humility.

This demands, fifthly, that God’s people learn to compromise and commend such compromise in their own common life. But, isn’t ‘compromise’ a dirty word? It shouldn’t be. Compromise is essential to politics and to common life in a community. It is an art and a good, not a problem or a failure. Like the word ‘discrimination’, it needs to be recovered and re-valued. Compromise assumes that we are grown up enough to look through the eyes of ‘the other’ – my neighbour – and dare to see the world differently. This is a work of imagination. Imagination is not the same as fantasy. Imagination involves the capacity to imagine (a) how the world looks when seen through different eyes rooted in different experiences and assumptions, and (b) to envisage how, in the light of bringing my experience, assumptions and vision together with those of others, the compromise might be constructive and positive in creating a common life together. And, of course, this demands confidence, humility and maturity – a commitment to learn and grow.

Perhaps this is where I should conclude these ruminations; the recovery of imagination.

Freedom is coming. That is the plea and the promise of God to his people and to his world. But, this promise necessarily implies and involves the committed engagement of these people in addressing, from the wisdom of the past, the new questions of the present in order to create or shape the society and world of the future. We can only do our bit. But, if we are to learn from and be consistent with those who have gone before us, we must be prepared to sacrifice our own interests in order to serve the common good and be obedient to the God who calls us in the first place.

The language used in the House of Commons last night is probably unprecedented. Drawing the name of a murdered MP into the fight was, at the very least, questionable. To describe the contribution of female MPs, pleading with the PM to moderate his language in the light of violence and death threats, as ‘humbug’ is appalling.

I am the bishop of a diocese in which Jo Cox is remembered with massive affection and in which there is great sensitivity to utilisation of her for political purposes. Her family are not just names to be traded.

Words are not neutral – they can become weapons. Words in the mouth of leaders can shape the language and behaviour of all sorts of people, and not always positively. The challenge of leadership is to lead, to behave like the adult in the room, to see the big picture, to hold the long-term perspective, and not to lose sight of the key issue.

The Prime Minister has a particular and weighty responsibility in our current crisis to lead by example. A fundamental element of strong leadership, rooted in character, is to demonstrate humility. The language he is using is destructive and has caused distress. An apology would be in order. More importantly, he needs to lead a recalibration of language, mood and relationship. What we are witnessing currently is the further corruption of our public discourse and the norms of democratic debate.

A colleague said to me this morning that we are in urgent need of recovering the three Rs: respect, responsibility and restraint. Respect for people (opponents as well as friends), the law and language; taking responsibility for our own language and behaviour as well as the common good; restraint even when provoked.

It is incumbent on those who lead to tell the truth, use language wisely (with a view to consequences) and behave with responsibility and respect.

This is the script of this morning’s Thought for the Day on BBC Radio 4’s Today programme.

“And did those feet in ancient time walk upon England’s mountains green?” Well, no, actually – probably not. But, William Blake’s questions are not to do with historical event or fantasy, but with the need for a vision of England itself that transcends present miseries. Reality can only take you so far, after all.

A new Blake exhibition opened last week at Tate Britain in London and it has provoked huge interest. As someone who has never quite understood him, I look forward to seeing it and having my imagination opened more widely by seeing the world through Blake’s eyes. For what is clear about him is that his poetry, art and writing sees him wrestling with what it means to be truly human in a troubling world.

In his work we see Blake struggling personally with what was going on around him. Political oppression, public fear, uncertainty about the future in a changing world – he faced reality with imagination, vision and thankless political commitment.

However, vision wasn’t enough: he took seriously his own responsibility for addressing the world he questioned. The ‘satanic mills’ were a source of England’s prosperity, but they relied on draining human beings of life and soul; children might fit into chimneys, but that didn’t mean they should be sent up them – especially by people who then went to church to praise God.

It seems to me that Blake understood what is easily forgotten by Christians like me: that those who claim God’s name should at least begin to reflect the character and priorities of God. In other words, if I truly believe – and claim to be motivated by – the God of the Bible, in whose image every human being is made, then I cannot support or collaborate in language, policies or actions that diminish people.

Now, Blake recognised that this isn’t a black and white matter. None of us simply switches a moral dial and suddenly becomes perfect or consistent. We are not only fallibly human, but we also live in a particular social, historical and cultural context. The most we can do is try to see clearly – which means having the humility to allow the lens behind my eyes to be re-ground – and live differently, despite everything.

Blake worked out his salvation in vivid and glorious – sometimes terrifying – image. Words opened up the possibility of the divine – a spirituality of hope and justice in a world of grinding misery and material poverty. In looking through his eyes I hope we might find our own opened to look differently and see differently – what I would call the beginning of conversion.

Agreeing with Blake’s vision is not the aim. Engaging with its struggle is. Because in engaging with his mystical vision of God and humanity we might find ourselves inevitably driven to what these look like in real flesh and blood. To seeing “Jerusalem builded here”.

This is the script of this morning’s Thought for the Day on BBC Radio 4’s Today Programme.

The other day I was browsing the German political journal Der Spiegel and found my attention arrested by an article the like of which I have not seen before. It was written by Niklas Frank, son of Hitler’s notorious General Governor of Poland Hans Frank. His father, a politician and lawyer, was executed as a war criminal at Nürnberg in October 1946.

The thrust of the article is that at the age of 80, having thought his father’s legacy had gone from the earth, he now discovers echoes of the same rhetoric in the mouths of some extreme right-wing politicians in Germany. And he is a very worried man.

The poet and playwright Bertolt Brecht ended his play ‘The Resistible Rise of Arturo Ui’ with the warning that the end of Nazism did not mean that its ideology died in a Berlin bunker. And here is Niklas Frank’s concern: that the same old ideas find their way back into our discourse while we are not looking, and sound reasonable in the midst of current uncertainties, crises and fears.

One of the things I began to learn many years ago is that my children might well have to forgive me for the wrong things I have said or done to them or others. Parents always make it up as they go along, seeking advice and trying their best. But, I doubt if any of us looks back with smug satisfaction at having got everything right. But, that is a far cry from having to live with the knowledge of a father’s crimes against humanity and the legacy this left for the whole world for ever.

When Shakespeare wrote in the Merchant of Venice that “the sins of the father are to be laid upon the children,” he was echoing the Hebrew Scriptures when they describe – rather than prescribe – reality. We inherit and cannot escape from the consequences of the sins of the fathers and mothers, and maturity involves coming to terms with this and living with or despite it.

For Niklas Frank, however, the matter cannot be left there. His inheritance, he believes, imposes on him a moral obligation to see through his father’s eyes the language and rhetoric that would have been as familiar as it was effective. So, when political language betrays a view of human beings that dehumanises them or dismisses their dignity, Frank sees the urgent need to identify where this thinking led in the past – his own family’s past.

I guess he would sympathise with WH Auden who once wrote: “All I have is a voice to undo the folded lie”. This tells me that I don’t have to have had a murderous father before listening for the language that turns people into numbers or objects, converts their inconvenience into disposability, or elevates my own self-righteousness above the dignity of those who have less power.

This is the script of this morning’s Pause for Thought on BBC Radio 2 with Zoe Ball.

I know I’m getting old, but I have to admit: forgetting dates isn’t an entirely new experience for me. I even find new technologies only help emphasise my hopelessness when it comes to remembering birthdays. When my diary tells me that today is so-and-so’s anniversary, it’s already too late to send a card – and it looks a bit obvious when they get a belated text message.

But, some dates get burned into your memory like no others. 9/11 is just one of them. The terrorist attacks in America back in 2001 confronted us with images from which we will never escape. I remember doing Pause for Thought a couple of days later as the shock began to give way to horror at the human stories of loss and grief.

When people got up that morning no one thought it would be any other than just another day. But, then the ordinary became extraordinary; and now the date haunts us – our memory and our imagination, our fears and our sense of fragility.

Well, this isn’t exactly cheerful, is it? I suppose I could have chosen another example of the ordinary becoming extraordinary: for example, when I was a kid I used to go to a barber shop on Penny Lane in Liverpool – an ordinary suburban street that became eternally famous around the world, but, for me, the place I went to get a haircut.

I recall this today because at the heart of my Christian faith is precisely this phenomenon: God opting into the ordinary and the ordinary becoming extraordinary. And I have to remind myself that I need to keep my own eyes open to the possibility of being surprised – that I mustn’t miss the glimpse of the possibility that God might be at work, wakening my imagination to where I might need to commit my own energies in loving my neighbour today.

Maybe the unforgettable memory of 9/11 itself might be the prompt I need today to acknowledge the power of cruelty and violence – but also to ask how this can push me into shining light into the darkness and making an ordinary day extraordinary for those whom I meet.

This is the text of a commissioned article published today in the excellent Yorkshire Post.

Anything can happen. A statement of the obvious, maybe, but it is also the title of a song by Canadian singer-songwriter Bruce Cockburn in which he runs through some of the disasters that might hit if you as much as walk outside today. It also seems to be the dominant feeling around the country as we enter another week of political life in which what looks clear at breakfast is redundant by teatime. Things are moving quickly, and anything can happen.

However, there is one thing about which we can be fairly confident: there will be a general election some time during the autumn. If, like me, you are trying to organise a diary around so many uncertainties and unknowns, you will understand the anxieties this state of affairs can generate. We have no idea when the election might come, but we still need to prepare for it.

The first thing is to get people to register to vote. In a parliamentary democracy the people exercise their political preferences by voting in an election and putting in (or removing) their representatives in the House of Commons. As we have seen during the last three years, this moment of choice – whatever our particular convictions about the issues of the day or the content of a political manifesto – matters to the proper functioning of decision-making and the right ordering of society.

But, given the heat (if not light) ignited by Brexit, Boris Johnson and current political events, there are wider issues to be addressed in advance of any election. How, for example, is the campaign to be conducted? How far will we interrogate political statements and promises, not only from those we might instinctively oppose, but also from those we might naturally support? And what language will we use as the election campaign drives on?

These aren’t just hobbyhorse questions. Language goes to the heart of communication and we know how words can be deployed to distort, dehumanise and distract – either deliberately or incidentally. Truth matters and facts matter.

A couple of examples. When we are told that the proroguing of Parliament simply adds a few days to recess, so there is nothing to fuss about, what are we to think? Well, it isn’t a party-political dogma to insist to the electorate that this is a deliberate misrepresentation of reality. When Parliament goes into recess the work continues, the committees continue to meet, the scrutiny of government goes on. When Parliament is prorogued, everything stops. There is a fundamental difference, and the implications are clear (and serious). So, the public ought to be clear and then be able to challenge both the statement and the motive behind its iteration.

Secondly, and somewhat randomly, if a politician waves a kipper and tells us that the EU forces us in the UK to present it on a bed of ice – a shackle that must be cast off by leaving the EU – then we ought not to fear asking whether or not this is true. Of course, it isn’t.

I accept that these examples are easy and recent ones. However, they help to make the point that the public need to question political statements for their factual basis or truthfulness without resorting to ad hominem attack. Yes, having judged that we were told a fib, it is then reasonable to go on to questions the ethics of the person who said it. But, the first response should always be to the truthfulness of the statement or promise.

This is serious. In response to things I have written on current political phenomena I receive a quantity of negative reactions. That is the point of writing in the first place – to start or contribute to a debate during which I might learn something new or even change my mind. But, what interests me about most of the negative stuff I get is that it doesn’t address the points made; the abuse is directed at me as a person. It doesn’t usually worry me, and I don’t waste time on it. It does worry me, however, that demagoguery thrives on emotive attacks on people who say uncomfortable (or wrong) things without addressing the basic issue.

The great Christian apologist CS Lewis once said that if Christianity is true, then it is true because it is true; it is not true because it is Christianity. And he was exactly right. It can’t be true because it ‘works for me’ or ‘makes me feel better about myself or the world’; it can only be true if it is true. The same will apply when we get to an election.

The ninth commandment forbids misrepresentation (bearing false witness) of my neighbour. If we want light and not just heat, then we need to pay attention to this.

This is the text of an article commissioned by the Church Times and published last Thursday. I have been asked why I don’t target Jeremy Corbyn – the simple answer is that he is not the Prime Minister. Secondly, the article is not primarily about Boris Johnson, but about the future of our political discourse and the consequences of accepting that unethical language is to be normalised. It is a question rather than a statement.

The last couple of weeks have been extraordinary. A new Prime Minister, elected only by a miniscule minority of the electorate, loses his first vote in the House of Commons, threatens an election he has no power to call (without the assent of two thirds of the House), removes the party whip from 21 MPs. Democracy at work? Genius strategic thinking? Or a dog’s breakfast of political vindictiveness at a time of national crisis?

What we know is this: the Prime Minister is determined to come over as a strong leader. He talks tough, although seems not to realise that the people he speaks toughly about can all hear him. In the EU and further afield the astonishment no longer has anything to do with the referendum decision to leave the EU, but everything to do with the chaotic and destructive incompetence of the process since 2016. I think ‘incredulity’ is the word to describe competent onlookers who once respected the Mother of Parliaments.

We can probably predict with confidence that a general election will be held before too long. The terms on which that election will be fought are likely to be – certainly from the government’s perspective – “parliament versus the people”. And here we come to the heart of our problem: parliamentary sovereignty is not the same thing as national (or popular) sovereignty. If the referendum truly was about restoring parliamentary sovereignty, then that aspiration went out of the window a long time ago. The two systems have clashed and we now have the impasse. We have a parliamentary (representative) system that has been compromised by a popular vote that our parliamentary representatives are now to negotiate – not as delegates or puppets, but people elected to use their judgement on our behalf about the best interests of the country and all its people.

However, the real questions facing the country go beyond and behind the apparent challenges. One way or another Parliament will resolve its current crisis. If it goes well, this will happen via parliamentary processes and decision-making. It might not go well. But, the questions that will persist well beyond the immediate are fundamental to who we think we are as a country and to who we want to become.

I’m afraid it’s about language again. And about the relationship between truth and trust, for which language is essential.

When the PM announced the proroguing of Parliament he clearly had the power to do so according to the constitution. Why? Because the uncodified constitution depends on conventions and respect for the rules of behaviour, and these conventions can be ignored or set aside. However, at what cost? Once the PM did this (having lied repeatedly about not doing it), the cat was out of the bag. If his behaviour is acceptable, what happens when a far left PM decides “in order to get the job done” to suspend Parliament at will? The constitution is only as strong as the respect shown it by all parties; it must be sustainable in all circumstances, regardless of who holds the keys to Number 10.

I used the word “lied” – a strong accusation. But, the question about the PM is how anything he says can be trusted when he has lied and misrepresented so much. Leaving the red bus to one side (and his colleagues’ claims about “the easiest deal in history”), the latest was the deliberate confusing of “proroguing” with “recess”. Apparently, the prorogation of Parliament will add only a few days to recess, so what’s the fuss about? Well, the fuss is because in recess all the work of Parliament continues; after prorogation it ceases completely. They are not the same, and there is a democratic deficit in deliberately talking as if they are.

So, to echo Pontius Pilate’s question (which Jesus left him to answer for himself), what is truth? If we are close to getting a deal, why do those with whom we are supposedly negotiating apparently not recall the negotiations?  Are we totally resistant to looking through the eyes of our neighbours at who we are?

If the language of “getting Brexit done” is accepted, then what currency did the old promises have whereby this is “the easy bit”? Brexit will not be “done” by leaving the EU on any date. The easy bot will be over, but then the decades-long hard slog of re-relating will begin – and how well is that likely to go when we have demonstrated that we can’t be trusted?

Amid the parliamentary game-playing, does it matter that a defecting MP accuses the PM of “bullying, lies and manipulation”? What place do we give to ethics, honesty and integrity? Or doesn’t it matter?

None of this is new. These questions have been raised again and again during the last four years, but they have largely been ignored. They will demand a response at some point.

Let’s look at it this way: if the country finds it pragmatically acceptable that lying, manipulation and misrepresentation are acceptable in public life and political discourse, then we will need to look at the consequences of this.

Essentially, what we have seen in the current political tactics is a decision to enshrine utilitarianism: the ends justify the means. But, if we are to be consistent, we must allow that in the future the same ethic might apply and we will have little ground for objection. Is that acceptable morally or politically? If we think it is, then we must own up to the consequences for how democracy might run in the future when “getting the job done” is all it takes to justify playing fast and loose with the rules.

Allied to this is the fact that, as I articulated in the House of Lords a couple of years ago, lying has become normalised and our discourse corrupted. Maybe it is the loss of shame as a social check that lies at the root of this. There is an argument that once shame is removed and any social sanction discarded, we can lie with impunity … because as long as we achieve our end – obtaining and holding on to power – the lies we tell in order to get there simply don’t matter.

Or hypocrisy? How is trust in politics or in politicians to be recovered when five leading members of the government swear blind that they would not agree to the proroguing of Parliament and, within a month or two, (a) agree to it and (b) refuse to justify or explain that turnaround in public? It is possible that there is a strong and clear ethical justification for a change of mind; but, in public leadership there should be a right for the public to hear it. Otherwise, we are saying that commitments made in public that help shape the approval of an electorate can be discarded once inconvenient, and that’s OK. Is it?

Truth-telling lies at the heart of public trust in our institutions. And trust is a casualty of lying or misrepresentation (the point of the ninth commandment). Take the focus off the current spate of deliberate lying (proroguing is not the same as recess, and those justifying it as “adding just a few days to it” know they are lying) and it isn’t hard to see that the future of our politics will be shaped by what we agree is acceptable now.

These questions are not partisan. The answers to them will shape our political culture for decades to come. Once integrity has been diminished as an essential element of democratic discourse and behaviour, it won’t be long before we reap the fruit of our moral contempt.

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