January 2020


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

I have just returned from speaking at a convention in the United States. Apart from spending a couple of nights in the Watergate Hotel in Washington – and I didn’t even need to break in – I was in Virginia.

One of the things that strikes me every time I am there is that we don’t speak the same language. When I first heard someone refer to ‘the recent unpleasantness’, I assumed that something dodgy had happened which people didn’t really want to talk about directly. Eventually I asked what had happened and they said it referred to the Civil War – which ended in 1865. That’s 155 years ago.

This made me listen even more carefully to what people were saying – because I realised that not everything I was hearing meant what I thought it did. “Two nations divided by a common language,” was how George Bernard Shaw put it.

But, this repeated experience makes real a question put in one of the gospels when Jesus is talking in parables – pictures, stories, images … you know the sort of thing. In the middle of explaining something to his friends he suddenly says: “Pay attention to how you listen.” I must have read this a million times, but I didn’t notice it until very recently. “Pay attention to how you listen.” Not what you listen to, but how you listen.

If you’re anything like me, you’ll listen to all sorts of stuff and assume that you’re hearing what is being said. But, this can be dangerous. How we listen isn’t obvious or self-evident. Jesus clearly got it.

What this says to me is that I have to listen more carefully to people and why they might be saying what they appear to be saying. Because it might not be obvious and I might actually be missing the point. Like the audience at the Sermon on the Mount in Monty Python’s ‘Life of Brian’, it’s easy to hear the cheesemakers being blessed instead of the peacemakers.

Well, let them all be blessed. But, I need to pay attention to how I listen today.

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

I live not far from Haworth, home of the Bronte sisters. The youngest, Anne, was born two hundred years ago today. One line from her writing stands out for me: “He who does not grasp the thorn should never crave the rose” – which is a bit more poetic than “Get stuck in, whatever the cost.”

This is the sort of notion that hit me when I was out in Sudan last year, speaking at a diplomatic conference on freedom of religion and belief at a time of protest and instability there. Meeting with protesters, academics and lawyers, it became clear that they held a variety of views on how a future Sudanese society should be shaped. They were united in wanting freedom and justice, but that unity got thorny when conversation got onto detail and process.

Of course, the other thing they had in common was a willingness to put their body and life where their opinions and convictions lay. So many of the Sudanese people I knew there shared this understanding: that opinion has to be backed up with action, and action might incur a cost.

After this week in Khartoum I went to Jena in Germany. On arrival I was asked to take part in the dedication of a memorial to the young German theologian and pastor Dietrich Bonhoeffer at Buchenwald Concentration Camp near Weimar. Bonhoeffer was hanged a month before the end of the war. For him, theology was not a matter of an internal world of vague spirituality; rather, it involved discerning the character and call of God in the real world of the Third Reich and then committing himself to its consequences. Put crudely, if human beings are made in the image of God, then destroying them is not on.

It is this element of commitment that appears to be absent from much of what passes for debate in the ‘any dream will do’ generation. The vision I have for people and society must demand of me the sort of action and commitment that must in turn cost something.

When I read the gospels, this screams out of every text. It’s why the child Jesus argues with the theologians in the Temple; why he stands silently in front of Pontius Pilate, questioning who is actually being judged and where power really lies; why he never sweetens the vocational pill, but tells people that if they do choose to come and walk with him, then they’ll probably share his fate. No illusion, fantasy or seduction – just reality. Don’t crave the rose if you aren’t prepared first to grasp the thorn.

It seems to me that today every opinion is valid. But, I suggest, the only ones worth taking seriously are those that cost.

This is the text of a speech in the House of Lords at Second Reading of the European Union (Withdrawal Agreement) Bill today. I was the sixth speaker of seventy four, with a speech limit of five minutes. I decided, therefore, to look at principles that go beyond the detail of the Bill.

My Lords,

I think it is important that old arguments are not re-run in this debate. Wherever one stands in relation to the 2016 referendum and subsequent debates, we are now where we are. I suspect, however, that it remains important for certain matters of principle to be re-articulated at this stage, as the record will need to be clear when the history comes to be written – not least regarding the wisdom of writing into law hard deadlines for an implementation period. Do we not have anything to learn from recent history?

I believe it is essential to refute the charge that Parliament stopped Brexit from happening. It did not. Parliament did its job and performed its democratic role, fulfilling its responsibility to question, scrutinise and hold the Executive to account. That might be inconvenient to “getting the job done”; but that phrase itself, widely propagated by people who know very well what they are doing, adds a lie to a lie. Countries where Parliament simply nods to the Executive’s will are not generally respected as paragons of democratic virtue or freedom.

This is the basic reason why amendments will be brought this week to the Bill as received by this House. The other place might well have the numbers to ignore this House, but it remains the responsibility of this House to make the points, raise the arguments and urge improvement to the text. I therefore attend to two matters of principle, rather than detail.

My Lords, if the point of Brexit was to restore parliamentary sovereignty (recalling that opponents were seen to be democratically suspect), then it seems odd at this stage to seek to limit parliamentary scrutiny of the process post-31 January. Asking the government to treat parliament with respect – informing, listening and consulting – must surely lie at the heart of any successful Brexit process. And making Brexit succeed for the good of all in this country must surely be the aim and commitment of all of us, regardless of whether we think Brexit was a wise or good move in the first place.

This, in turn, means that the government must assume the best of those who question and not simply write them off as saboteurs. I would be grateful if the minister in response would give this assurance. Failure to do so would risk feeding and fostering the sort of rhetoric and attitude that Brexit was supposed to protect us from as a sovereign nation.

Making Brexit work best for everyone and mitigating its negative impacts will require government to see questioning and debate as constructive and as a means to strengthen parliamentary support. Brexit will not be done by 31 January 2020. The process beyond then will demand more than just compliance or acquiescence.

Furthermore, my Lords, it is regrettable that this Bill now seeks to remove what will be universally seen as a touchstone of civilised society. How many children now live in poverty in this affluent country whose magic money tree has mysteriously started blossoming since the last general election campaign was launched? And how many children – surely the most vulnerable people on the planet – find themselves separated from their family through no fault of their own? How many exposed refugee children are now to be kept isolated from familial care and protection because this parliament appears to deem them incidental to how we do our politics? Their alienation will come at a price later.

I guess noble lords will hear their own maxims resonating in their conscience. Mine echo to the sounds of the prophets of the Hebrew Scriptures, such as Amos, who, despite economic flourishing, religious revival and military security, warn those who “trample on the heads of the poor” that this will not be the end of the story.

My Lords, our integrity and honour will not be judged by whether we rule the world as ‘Global Britain’, but, rather, by how we order our society in order to ensure justice and the dignity of those most vulnerable. Restoring the Dubs provisions would go a long way to restore honour.

The Bill will go through. How it goes through matters. It will say something powerful about who we think we are.

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

Being in the public eye is clearly often a very uncomfortable experience, unimaginable by those who haven’t experienced it. Watching the storm raging around you – everyone having an opinion on your appearance, behaviour, person and value – can be debilitating even for the most experienced and hard-bitten individual. You feel powerless to correct misinformation or misjudgments.

There’s a bit in the 1989 film Jesus of Montreal where a beautiful young model is told by her director ex-boyfriend: “You are just a piece of meat; that’s all you’ll ever be.” Well, you don’t have to be a sex object to feel that you are dehumanised by the opinions and judgements of those who would shrink from subjecting themselves to the same.

It seems to me that one of the most common human predilections is to turn other human beings into commodities. It happens when groups of people – classes, races, communities, for example – are categorised, generalised, then lumped together for condemnation. It happens when sympathy and empathy are thrown to the wind as individuals are turned into objects for other people’s entertainment in a discipline-free arena of social judgmentalism.

The rights and wrongs of the Duke and Duchess of Sussex’s decision to take back control of their sovereignty, so to speak, clearly has a public interest element to it – simply by virtue of their identity and contingent responsibilities. But, there is also a deeper matter of their basic humanity. Whatever the wider considerations, this is still a young family concerned about protecting themselves.

It does seem odd to me that in a culture which venerates individual autonomy – shape your own destiny – a young couple who seek to do just that, and take responsibility for themselves then face a barrage of criticism. Or is it a case of ‘one rule for them and another for the rest of us’?

One of the shocking things about Jesus is that, in a culture that saw human life as cheap, he saw it differently. A woman caught in the act of adultery is dragged before him in order to test his legal purity. It ends well for the woman, but not for those who came to throw stones at her, but are embarrassed by their own failures. In story after story in the gospels it is the self-righteous judges who prove to be expert at missing the point. Stone throwing is not for grown-ups with humility or self-awareness.

However this current royal ruction plays out, the young family at the heart of it remain human beings, making hard decisions in a complex world in which their identity and status make them subject to the judgment of the rest of us. I don’t have to throw stones; I can choose to walk away.

 

This is the text of a speech I gave this afternoon in the first day of debate in the House of Lords on the Queen’s Speech (foreign affairs, defence, international development, trade, climate change and the environment). It followed an interpolated debate on a statement about the current crisis over Iran.

My Lords,

I think, following the last debate on Iran, it is wise to take a step back from detail to consider culture and principle.

2020 vision is something that, if claimed, only proves that the claimant is deluded. However, leaving fantasists to one side for a moment, we might take some wisdom from the late former Chancellor of the Federal Republic of Germany, Helmut Schmidt. At the age of 91 he wrote a book called Außer Dienst (Out of Office) in which he advises young Germans considering a career in politics not to do so unless they speak at least two foreign languages to a competent degree. His reason? You can only understand your own culture if you look at it through the eyes of another culture … and to do that you need language. Some things cannot be translated.

On the anniversary this week of Anthony Eden’s resignation in the wake of Suez, and as the UK plans to leave the European Union and unleash its potential on a waiting world, Schmidt’s advice is both prescient and apposite. The British Government should never take for granted that living on an island generates a very particular (if not peculiar) psychology and that this has an impact not only on how we understand ourselves, but also how we perceive the way we are perceived by other nations. I think this is why the first couple of years of the post-referendum Brexit debate led to incredulity and bewilderment in many of those looking at us from the outside.

Behind all the politics and trading technicalities of Brexit lies the ineluctable fact that on this hyper-connected small planet no policy on anything can ignore its implications for the wider picture. Foreign policy is not primarily about ‘us’ directed at ‘them’, but, rather, ‘us’ behaving as part of ‘them’. And integral to this is the first rule of negotiation: to look through the eyes of the interlocutor in order to see ourselves as we are seen.

In other words, we need our Government to go beyond easy slogans – such as ‘Get Brexit Done!’ or ‘Global Britain’- and consider both (a) how actual policy is to be worked out with real people, and (b) how the implications and consequences of that policy are to be understood and responded to by those with whom we claim to be interconnected partners.

I am not seeking here to avoid the pragmatics of policy-making – other noble Lords will attend to that – but to argue that there is an urgent need for this government to look beneath the political game-playing to the deeper, longer-term dynamics of both ethical substance and communication.

I will not be alone in noting that the language of insulting other European Union countries (as if they weren’t listening or couldn’t understand English) has now changed into the language of ‘our friends and partners’ in Europe. Good. But, our friends and partners will not have forgotten, and they are not stupid. The UK’s response to the assassination of General Soleimani in Baghdad last week further exposes both the interconnectedness of foreign policies and the particular impact of trade dependency on the US of Donald Trump – something that won’t be lost on Nazanin Zaghari-Ratcliffe or her family.

My Lords, daily reading of the Bible does reinforce a sense of the transience of power in history. Quick and obvious defence alliances often led to terrible longer-term enslavements. Empires came and went, their hubris dribbling away into deserts of exiled misery. And powers and rulers never learned, even when they seduced their people into (what turned out to be) false securities.

Ethics is first and foremost an exercise in sympathy – looking through the eyes of others. The ethics of our foreign policy priorities must begin with an understanding of what drives other countries in their domestic and foreign policies … and a cultivated willingness to shape ours in the light of how we are seen by others.

I hope that this government, with some humility and deeper cultural thinking, might just listen to those who wish to see global justice and peace worked out in this complex world by people who are driven not by claims to power, but by the imperatives of mutual human flourishing.