politics


Thirty years ago today the Berlin Wall fell. What follows is the basic text of a lecture I gave at Bradford Cathedral on Wednesday 6 November. It was followed by a very good Q & A which is not recorded here.

In a crowded field I think Timothy Garton Ash’s books on Europe stand out. His The Magic Lantern: The Revolution of ’89 (just updated this month) is an eye-witness account of these momentous events. His book The File is fascinating. His book of essays Facts Are Subversive repays careful reading (and see my review of it here). Yes, I am a fan.

Here is the (very long) basic text of the lecture:

Memory is not an uncomplicated matter. If my own memory is suspect, then corporate memory offers even more opportunities for selectivity. We select those elements of our past that help construct the narrative that makes sense of, or gives shape to, the life we either think we have had or wish we had had. We all do it, and every society, country or community does it.

If you don’t believe me, then look at any tourist display blurb and ask what it doesn’t tell you. Or, perhaps more pertinently to where we are at in Brexitannia just now, listen to the language. I give two quick examples before getting to my main theme.

First, contrary to assertions by some politicians, England (let alone Britain) did not win the Second World War singlehandedly, pluckily standing in isolated bravery against the Nazi empire: our European neighbours provided huge numbers of people not only in the resistance on the mainland, but also fighting with Allied forces across the globe. Then ask further about Commonwealth citizens whose contribution has not always been acknowledged or rewarded.

Secondly, the British Empire was not primarily an example of “the world’s greatest trading power”. It is shocking how the new Brexit appeal to our imperial past stresses our excellence and success in global trade without any mention of oppression, exploitation or military power. (Indian politician Shashi Tharoor, in his book Inglorious Empire, points out that prior to the British colonising his country India held 23% of global trade; by the time the British left India they had 3%. Draw your own conclusions.)

Now, you might wonder why, in beginning a lecture on where the world is thirty years after the fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989, I have begun with these particular examples of selective collective remembering. Well, the answer is simply that it might be easier to think about post-1989 Europe and the competing narratives being spun about it if first we have looked closer to home at our own limitations and failures.

St Vitus Cathedral, Prague

Two weeks ago I stood outside St Vitus Cathedral at the heart of Prague’s Pražsky Hrad and opposite the residence of the Czech President since independence post-1989. I went over to look at some display boards that tell some of the history of the residence. There is only a single line about the post-war pre-1989 period. It says something like: “Even during the time of unfreedom some important people visited this place, including the famous astronaut Yuri Gagarin.” That is the sole mention of the Communist period. Did Stalin visit? Or Honecker? Or any other head of state? Or just an astronaut?

I cite this example because what is omitted tells a powerful story – for now, at least. 1945-89: 44 years of recent history – lived through by most people alive today – simply ignored.

Yet, go down the hill from the Hrad and there is a special exhibition of photography celebrating events across Eastern Europe in 1989. To get in you have to pass a chunk of the Berlin Wall with a Trabi sat on top of it. You then get to walk around a garden and through a building with an excellent and haunting display of photographs from the GDR, Bulgaria, Romania, Poland, Czechoslovakia, and Hungary. Of course, these images capture moments when the people involved did not know how the story would end. There was no guarantee that, despite Glasnost in Gorbachev’s Soviet Union, the troops wouldn’t once again follow the tanks into Wenceslas Square or down Unter den Linden to the Brandenburg Gate. I look at the photographs through a lens that lived (albeit at a not disinterested distance) through the events recorded, and I know what did happen next.

Fall of the Wall exhibition, Prague

I also remember the euphoria. It was hard to believe in late 1989 that the ultimate symbol of division was being demolished by ordinary people while soldiers looked on. The opening of borders between Hungary and Austria, the decade-long demonstrations in the shipyards of Gdansk in Poland, the pressure on the West German Embassy in Prague, to mention just a few phenomena that contributed to the demise of a divided Europe, didn’t quite hold the symbolic power of a wall of death being picked apart.

The world was changing before our eyes, and it wasn’t long before politicians and commentators alike were proclaiming the end of a bi-polar world, the triumph of free-market capitalism, world peace and a glorious future. ‘Freedom’ was the byword and, despite Margaret Thatcher’s serious hesitations about the reunification of Germany, optimism was never going to be defeated by rational judgement.

What happened next might best be related to a parable Jesus told about a man who was delivered of a demon, only to allow a whole community of demons to occupy the now-vacant space. If you want to understand where the Russian oligarchs got all their vast resources of money, this is where to look. The collapse of a structure – not just political, but social and psychological – left a vacuum into which those best equipped to exploit it quietly stepped. As Joseph Heller’s Catch 22 illustrates perfectly, there are particular people whose expertise and instincts lie precisely in exploiting other people’s chaos for their own benefit. We’ll come back to this shortly.

But, first, let’s recall a few facts. Following the defeat of Germany in May 1945, the country was occupied by four powers: America, Britain, France and the USSR – each given their own zone. Berlin, located in the Soviet Zone, was itself divided between the four. The three western zones formed the Federal Republic of Germany in 1949, which made the formal establishment of the German Democratic Republic (from the Soviet Zone) inevitable. Movement across borders remained fairly straightforward until the numbers of people migrating out of the GDR into the FRG pushed the authorities into doing the unthinkable: building a wall. On 13 August 1961, Berliners woke to find barbed wire blocking the border roads while workman began to erect a militarised concrete wall across the city. 27 miles long, it eventually held 302 guard towers and 55,000 landmines; 5,000 people escaped over or under the wall (including 1,300 guards). 327 people were killed along the German border, 262 of them in Berlin, including 24 border guards who were shot while on duty (usually for refusing to shoot civilians trying to escape). More than 200 border guards committed suicide, but most deaths involved civilians, 80% of whom were under the age of 35 (of which 10% were women).

The mantra within the GDR was that the wall was needed to prevent people flocking into the workers’ paradise from the western capitalist prison. The real reason was to stop people leaving, especially those needed if the socialist economy was to be built and protected. In 1989 30,000 East Germans fled when Hungary opened its borders temporarily; they sought refuge in West German embassies in other Warsaw Pact countries. The pressure built; Gorbachev, seeing the need for radical economic and political change, had opened the door in people’s imagination, and it would not now be closed. The 40th anniversary of the GDR took place in October 1989. Within a few weeks it began to cease to exist.

There is a strange symmetry to Germany, but one that we might note before looking shortly at what is happening there now. The Holocaust began its public expression and gained public sanction on 9 November 1938 – Kristallnacht, when Jews and their properties were directly attacked by violent Nazis and any pretence at civility in the political sphere died. The nightmare of the Third Reich, followed by the destruction of the war, the subsequent division of Germany and the failure of the Communist experiment in enforced ‘freedom’ – all collapsed into the euphoria of 9 November 1989 when the Wall was finally breached and the prison gates opened at last. Half a century of people’s lives, and now freedom.

The problem with politics is that politicians cannot always afford to tell us the truth. The language of liberation hid the realities and costs of change. Freedom always comes at some cost at some level, but the immediate aftermath of the 1989 Velvet Revolution was the destruction of eastern industry and the loss of a secure way of life. The reunification of Germany took place on 3 October 1990, but was, in fact, a take-over. Overnight many East Germans lost their homeland, their identity, their system, their flag, anthems and institutions, their values and their future. The West was going to put right what had been so wrong in the East; no value was attributed to anything experienced in the GDR between 1949 and 1989. The GDR had been annexed and had to assume the shape of the winners. Christian Wolter, a carpenter, lamented: “There was a uniqueness to East German society that didn’t exist in the West. There was something we had which I can only describe as solidarity.” Gerhard Mertschenk, an official with the East German Olympic Committee and a member of the SED (the Party) was blunt: “There was no unification, there was colonisation. I found myself on the garbage heap at 46.”

Much more could be said – not least that change inevitably brings cost: West Germans paid tax increases in order to invest and transform the former GDR economy and infrastructure. Long-term gain might bring short-term pain. But, if we are to understand what is happening in Eastern Europe today, we must at least try to enter into the experience of many who celebrated the fall of the Wall in 1989 only later to ask if all was as it appeared or, indeed, was promised. The diminishment of memory on the part of the ‘losers’ in the Cold War has only fed the sense of exploitation, resentment and devaluing experienced still by many in the East. (If you want to understand a little more, two films illustrate the phenomenon of change and what life looked like before and after. Das Leben der Anderen (The Lives of Others) and Goodbye Lenin are worth a watch.)

Of the many points that might be made from the experience of the last thirty years, it is the disillusionment that holds the key to much of what we are witnessing now. Yes, living standards improved for most people, but, on average, people in the former GDR territories of Germany earn 75% of people in the west of the country; GDP is 66% of that in the west and unemployment nearly 5% higher; the percentage of young people under 20 is considerably lower in the east than in the west. Although other measures are better (for example, life expectancy, completion of secondary education and employment rates among mothers), the rise of the Far Right and the popularity of populist demagogues across the world suggest that, contrary to western capitalist assumptions, people are actually motivated by more than money, security and consumerism. Westernisation has not led to paradise, after all.

I want to come back later to the role of the churches in all this, but, for now, we need to take a look at what is happening now, thirty years after the fall of the wall. And Germany, which I know best, is illustrative of wider phenomena.

Reunification saw a rise in xenophobia and attacks on migrants and foreigners in the east. Neo-Nazi parties gained traction, but never gained enough open support to make a significant mark on electoral politics. That has all begun to change.

Regional elections in Saxony on 1 September this year saw the Alternative für Deutschland (AfD) come second with 25% of the vote. On the same day in Brandenburg the AfD got 27.5% of the vote. On 27 October in Thuringia the Left Party won, but the centre-right CDU (Angela Merkel’s party) fell to third place behind the AfD. How and why are the extremes pulling in the votes while the centre is collapsing?

As usual in these matters, there are many reasons and they are complex. Some are even just speculative: extrapolating future electoral behaviour from a vote today is a dangerous game and should be treated with caution. But, we can be fairly certain that three factors are having a powerful impact on electoral behaviour in these former East German Länder:

First, despite Angela Merkel being an East German, her government has increasingly been seen as an elite who take power for granted. Longevity in government, however successful, breeds a sense of tiredness and a need for change. Secondly, Merkel’s welcoming of North African migrants into Germany demonstrated firm moral integrity and purpose, but it legitimised a growing resentment in Germany about how the nature of the country was changing. This in turn was fed by a similar phenomenon to that in Brexit Britain: that global empowerment was leading to local powerlessness, and that local identity was being diminished and diluted by intrusion. Thirdly, the seeds of authoritarian ‘illiberal democracy’ (to use Viktor Orban’s words) found ready soil in those communities that feel increasingly left behind, neglected or fearful of losing their future.

Of course, these phenomena are not unique to Germany. The winners of globalisation do not have to worry about local identity as they treat the planet as an endless resource for their own economic and personal growth. The losers – or those whose grievances can be massaged by populist leaders, even if the loss is hard to evidence – are reasserting the local over against the global … and the costs, where identified, are regarded as a price worth paying.

This picture is being painted across Eastern Europe. As a number of commentators have been pointing out in recent weeks – in anticipation of the thirtieth anniversary of the fall of the Wall – three decades’ experience have persuaded many people that the gods of western free-market liberalism (economic as well as cultural) have proved as illusory as the defeated gods of Communism, Nazism and imperialism. That’s the problem with empires. Disillusionment creates a longing for security, often searched for in the nostalgic reaches of a romanticised memory.

The result is that Germany is now struggling with the end of the Merkel generation, appears unable to find a successful transition, whilst being challenged by a right-wing nationalist movement that is growing in confidence. It might not last, but it is clearly worrying for many Germans whose memory of the early twentieth century is still raw. They know fascism when they see it.

Frank Richter, a theologian and activist in Dresden, has identified the root of dissatisfaction in the experience of drastic change. “These multi-layered factors [young/old, educated/less educated, urban/rural, etc.] are extremely pronounced in East Germany because the people here have already experienced so much drastic change in their lives. Many people feel overwhelmed, and the populists play this tune terrifically.”

When Pegida started marching in Dresden and other cities in Thuringia they chanted “Wir sind das Volk!” To English ears this doesn’t sound very remarkable. But, this was the cry in East Germany in the run up to 1989. “Das Volk” has a resonance and deep connotations in German that “the people” does not quite capture in English. And where you put the stress matters enormously: “Wir sind das Volk!” or “Wir sind das Volk!” And, of course, there are resonances with the Nazis’ appropriation of the term in the 1920s, ‘30s and ‘40s. But, what was the cry of the crowds pushing for change in the GDR has now become the slogan of identity for the resurgent far right. In both cases – 1989 and 2019 – “Wir sind das Volk” articulates a deep dissatisfaction with the status quo and a statement of intent to reassert identity over against the seemingly powerful neglect of ordinary people and their concerns.

Which brings us to the role of the churches.

I have a friend in Berlin who doesn’t like the film Das Leben der Anderen. He thinks it romanticises the role of the Stasi in the GDR and their impact on ordinary people. He once described to me how, coming home one evening as a young man, he heard his parents’ conversation from inside their apartment … on the radio in the car outside. Instead, he pointed me to a film called simply Nikolaikirche. This, he felt, told a truer story.

The Nikolaikirche in Leipzig was the venue for ‘peace prayers’ held every Monday evening. Christian Führer, the Lutheran pastor of the church, described how these meetings grew from 600 in 1988 to over 4000 by September 1989. There were – reportedly – 28 Stasi officers watching the pastor day and night. These prayer meetings were perceived to be a serious threat to the regime. Christian Führer tells some wonderful stories about this time and these events in his book Und wir sind dabei gewesen: Die Revolution, die aus der Kirche kam. The church events led to peaceful demonstrations and, despite provocation, beatings and threats, Führer’s leadership and moral courage shaped the outcome of these confrontations. On 9 October 1989 – one month before the fall of the Wall – over 70,000 people moved from the church through the city of Leipzig chanting “Wir sind das Volk”. Not a single shot was fired. As Führer said: “There was tremendous relief that there was no Chinese solution and a feeling that if 70,000 could achieve what they wanted, then East Germany was no longer the same country it had been that morning. The regime had been expecting everything. The only thing they weren’t prepared for was candles and prayers.” When the church was occupied by 600 communist officials one day, they were shocked to find that instead of stone-throwing counter-revolutionaries, they actually found people praying and singing hymns.

This is an example of how, not knowing the end of the story (and fearing it might be bloody failure), the church opened up space for conversation, dissent and resistance whilst urging peaceful challenge for constructive change. It is probably worth noting at this point that protestors at this point wanted reform and not necessarily abolition of the state. But, the church’s involvement and leadership was crucial.

However, once the revolution had happened and, eventually, Germany was reunited, the church’s influence slowly declined. Church membership in the east is still well below that in the west, and, according to a recent book by theologian and television journalist Arnd Henze (Kann Kirche Demokratie?), membership of the church is statistically more likely to align with right-wing sentiments than with those that motivated East Germans to seek freedom from communist oppression. It is as if the churches had served their purpose and now had little to offer to those shaping a different political future.

Of course, this isn’t all that can be said about the church in the east. But, there is a marked difference between the churches in the west and the confidence of those in the east. Currently, there is a spat going on in Thuringia because the Protestant (Evangelical-Lutheran) bishop of Saxony, Carsten Rentzing, resigned following discovery of things he had written in the past in support of far-right ideologies. (Saxony is the Landeskirche in which our link Kirchenkreis Erfurt is located.) He was clearly conservative on many social and ethical issues, but when challenged from within the church to respond to criticism of his earlier views, he simply went silent and eventually submitted his resignation. I have read the materials in question – and much of the reportage arising from his resignation – and it is hard not to sympathise with those church members wanting him to explain himself, not least how he might justify his views theologically. He still has not spoken. A petition in favour of him remaining the bishop has reportedly been signed by around 15,000 people.

So, even the church is challenged. The source of dissent and peaceful resistance against the previous regime is now divided over the legitimacy of views that would not shame German ideology of the 1930s. What might this have to say to us – in a country where the Labour Party is being investigated for its anti-semitism, several Labour MPs have either resigned or defected because of this anti-semitism, and Jewish Labour has told Jews not to vote for Jeremy Corbyn’s party?

Perhaps the first thing is that people are very fickle. Conviction and passion for justice can take terrible turns when the conditions (or the objects of protest) change. Given the nature of Germany’s fairly recent history, it is hard from the outside to work out how anti-semitism, rejection of dispossessed and powerless migrants and resurgent passion for ‘German identity’ have become popular once again. The churches – certainly church leaders – are once again facing questions they thought had been closed down in 1945.

But, perhaps we need to be realistic about human beings and collective memory. In his great autobiography The Time of my Life Denis Healey suggested that politicians who have never fought in or experienced a war are more likely to send our troops into war in the future. We now have a younger generation for whom Hitler and the Holocaust are the stuff of history books and documentaries that relate to a different and long-gone world. Keeping an honest collective memory alive is a difficult task. Living in the present in the light of the past is not straightforward or simple. The building of contemporary walls, ostensibly to protect a nation’s purity and security, might have some popular appeal, but only if we simultaneously forget the real and symbolic power of actual walls in our recent history. Walls do not work.

Eastern Europe is seeing a resurgence of nationalism. Having escaped the suffocating grip of the Soviet bloc, there is little appetite for handing new political freedoms (or sovereignty) over to what some perceive as another empire – the European Union. Those countries that embraced Europe in the aftermath of communism’s demise have grown confident in trumpeting their own identities whilst commandeering Christianity over against the threats from Islam and ‘people not like us’. This defence of Christendom is unlikely to stand in the longer-term when it is linked inextricably with nationalism, xenophobia, a declining birth-rate and fear of those powers growing in confidence: China, India, and so on. However, it might have contemporary appeal at a time of widespread disillusionment, economic stress and identity anxiety.

This is where we might conclude and move on to discussion and questions. When Ronald Reagan told Mikhail Gorbachev on 12 June 1987 (the 750th anniversary of Berlin) to “tear down this wall!”, he did the easy bit. Knocking down walls is a start; but, shaping the space that is then created is a much more challenging task. And the churches – here, in Germany, in Hungary and elsewhere – face the same old questions, regardless of whether or not we are successful or whether people use us to achieve peace and then forget us. Faithfulness to God’s call to love our neighbour as ourselves and to love even our enemies matters more than packing the pews and winning approval. Times will change and sentiment will move on. But, we read the Bible and the Bible tells a story of transience, unfaithfulness and people who as easily shout “Hosanna!” as they do “Crucify him!”.

Europe faces a challenging future. Thirty years are not long. Things can change quickly. A culture and its institutions can take centuries to build up, but they can be destroyed in days. The Wall should not be forgotten, nor should the reasons for its demolition. But, it should remain not as a mere historical memory of unspeakable division and cruelty in the past, but serve as a living symbol that strikes our imagination as we seek to shape the future.

This is the basic text of a speech given yesterday evening in the Landtag of Niedersachsen in Hannover at a Parliamentary Evening put on by a federation of churches.

Herzliche Grüße aus Brexitannia! Es ist wirklich für mich ein Privileg, noch einmal hier in Hannover zu sein.

Vielen Dank für die Einladung, heute hier in Deutschland England zu erklären. Wir brauchen nur zwei Minuten, denn alles ist einfach und klar. Verstehen Sie, die politische Situation in Großbritannien ändert sich zweimal im Tag, jeden Tag. Aber im ganzen Durcheinander über Brexit bleibt nur eine Tatsache wichtig: FC Liverpool steht an der Spitze des Premier League. Alles ist in Ordnung!

Wie erklärt man England? Oder was in Großbritannien heutzutage passiert? Manche Engländer erkennen ihr Land einfach nicht mehr an. Innerhalb dreieinhalb Jahren ist die politische Kultur schiefgegangen und viele Briten fühlen sich erschrocken – sie verstehen nicht mehr, wer wir tatsächlich sind. Die Chinesen haben ein berühmtes Sprichwort: „Mögest du in interessanten Zeiten leben.“ Aber dieses Sprichwort ist kein Segen, sondern ein Fluch. Wären nicht langweilige Zeiten mal schön?

Ich bin sowohl Bischof als auch Politiker.  Manche Menschen in Großbritannien finden dies ein schwieriges Konzept – sie verstehen das überhaupt nicht. Christen sollten sich auf das Reich des Geistigen beschränken und sich aus der Politik heraushalten, sagen sie.  In der Politik geht es jedoch um das menschliche Leben, die richtige Ordnung der Gesellschaft und das Gemeinwohl.  Ein Christ kann es nicht vermeiden, sich in die Politik einzumischen.  Aber ich bin ein Politiker bestimmt deswegen, weil ich im Oberhaus des Parlaments sitze.  Das Unterhaus wird gewählt;  Das House of Lords wird ernannt, und 26 Bischöfe der Church of England – Diözesanbischöfe – sitzen (aufgrund ihres Dienstalters) im Haus.  Die Bischöfe sind aufgrund des Pfarrsystems mit jeder Gemeinde in England verbunden.  Wir wissen also, was auf dem Boden im ganzen Land vor sich geht.  Im House of Lords vertreten die Bischöfe keine Partei, kein Block, man kann sie nicht peitschen oder ihnen sagen, wie sie wählen sollen. Jede Bischöfin und jeder Bischof muß entscheiden, was sie oder er in einer Debatte sagen sollte und wie sie oder er abstimmen sollte.  Ich „führe“ für die Bischöfe in Sachen Europa und damit den Brexit an.  (Ich führe auch in Sachen Russland, Sicherheit und Geheimdienste wegen meiner vorherigen Karriere in den Geheimdiensten an.)

Ich kann nicht heute Abend alles sagen, was gesagt werden sollte. Zum Beispiel, welche Rolle spielen die Bischöfe und Bischöfinnen im House of Lords und im öffentlichen Gespräch über politische Entwicklungen in Großbritannien? Wir sind nicht parteipolitische Spieler. Deswegen haben wir eine Verantwortung, die Wahrheit auszusprechen, eine klare Licht auf politische Aktivitäten und Kultur zu werfen, und durch eine Evangeliumslinse hinauszuschauen.

Der beste Weg, um zu verstehen, was heute in Großbritannien passiert, ist folgender: Die britische Demokratie wird in einem System parlamentarischer Demokratie ausgeübt.  Dieses System hat keinen Platz für ein Referendum oder Volksabstimmung (direkte Demokratie).  Es ist problematisch, dass Politiker aller Parteien vor dem Referendum in Juni 2016versprachen, dass das Ergebnis gewürdigt und der „Wille des Volkes“ befolgt werde.  Erst als das Ergebnis den „falschen Weg“ einschlug, wurde den Menschen klar, dass (a) in einem parlamentarischen System ein Referendum nur beratend sein kann und (b) die Antwort auf die Frage keinen Hinweis darauf gibt, was „Verlassen der EU“ in der Praxis bedeuten könnte.  Das Parlament hat die Verantwortung, nach bestem Wissen und Gewissen Gesetze im besten Interesse des Landes zu erlassen – aber was passiert, wenn dies der im Referendum getroffenen Wahl widerspricht?  Deshalb sind wir in einem Durcheinander.  “Die Kontrolle zurückerobern” ist ein einfacher Slogan.  “Parlamentarische Souveränität” hört sich wichtig an … am wenigsten bis das Parlament seine Souveränität bestätigt und dann beschuldigt wird, den Willen des Volkes vereitelt zu haben.

Jetzt können Sie vielleicht besser verstehen, warum es so ein Durcheinander ist.  Und die Brexiter verwenden jetzt die Sprache “Parlament gegen das Volk” und “Richter gegen das Volk”. Es scheint, dass ‚das Volk‘ nur die Brexiter beschreibt. Das britische Volk ist gespaltet. Das Parlament spiegelt dieses gespaltene Land wider.

Jetzt aber ist mir klar, dass der Brexit außerhalb der Insel anders aussieht, und viele Beobachter schockiert sind über das, was der britischen politischen Kultur in den letzten drei Jahren widerfahren ist.  Lassen Sie mich kurz einige Punkte ansprechen.

Erstens ist es wichtig zu erkennen, dass der Brexit im Wesentlichen ein englisches und kein britisches Problem ist.  Ein berühmter englischer Journalist schrieb vor zwanzig Jahren ein Buch mit dem Titel “The English”.  Jeremy Paxman erklärt an einer Stelle, dass ein wesentliches Element der irischen oder schottischen oder walisischen Identität besteht darin, dass ich “nicht englisch” bin.  Aber es ist sinnlos, wenn ein Engländer sagt: “Ich bin kein Schotte, usw.” Die Schotten haben ein Parlament, die Waliser eine Versammlung, die Iren auch eine Versammlung;  und die Engländer?  Nur Westminster.  Die letzten drei Jahre haben den Walisern, Schotten und Iren gezeigt, dass die Engländer sich nicht um sie kümmern.  Umfragen zeigen, dass Brexiteer bereit sind, das Ende der Union als geringen Preis für den Brexit zu sehen.  Es ist durchaus möglich, dass der Brexit zu einem vereinigten Irland und einem unabhängigen Schottland führen wird.  Wir erinnern uns daran, dass im Jahre 2014 David Cameron die Schotten überzeugte, gegen die Unabhängigkeit zu stimmen, mit der Begründung, sie müssten die EU verlassen …

Zweitens war der Brexit immer ein Versuch der Konservativen Partei, ein internes Problem zu lösen.  Die EU-Frage hat die Partei jahrzehntelang geteilt, und keine der beiden Hauptparteien hat sich jemals für die EU eingesetzt.  Es gibt auch ein Argument dafür, dass die Natur der EU als eine sich entwickelnde politische Union in Großbritannien niemals ehrlich anerkannt wurde – was zu wachsendem Ressentiment und nachlassendem Vertrauen unter Politiker und Institutionen geführt hat.  Aber es bleibt wahr, dass viele Menschen in Großbritannien glauben, dass der Brexit eine Tory-Lösung für ein Tory-Problem ist, um den Tories zu ermöglichen, an der Macht festzuhalten.  David Cameron glaubte nicht, dass er das Referendum im Jahr 2016 verlieren würde – weshalb er dem öffentlichen Dienst keine Vorbereitungen für eine Leave-abstimmung erlaubte.

Drittens hat der Brexit tiefe Spaltungen in der britischen Gesellschaft aufgedeckt. Brexit hat sie aber nicht erschaffen.  Der neoliberale Globalisierungstraum ließ viele Gebiete des Landes und viele Gemeinschaften mit dem Gefühl, dass sie übersehen, vergessen oder ignoriert seien.  Ja, die ärmsten Gebiete des Vereinigten Königreichs haben für den Austritt aus der EU gestimmt, obwohl sie über vier Jahrzehnte hinweg in hohem Maße von EU-Subventionen und Projektfinanzierungen profitiert haben.  Warum?  Einige sagen, dass das Leben für sie einfach nicht schlimmer werden kann. Warum also nicht die Gelegenheit nehmen, gegen die Politiker zu treten?  Dies wurde von denjenigen ausgenutzt, die sich als “gegen die Eliten und gegen das Establishment” positionieren – obwohl die meisten von ihnen wohlhabend, privilegiert und von keinem durch den Brexit verursachten Schaden betroffen werden.  Kurz gesagt, das Problem besteht darin, dass die EU nicht für die Dinge verantwortlich ist, gegen die gestimmt wurde. Deshalb wird die Operation des Brexit die Krankheit nicht heilen oder ihr Leben verbessern.  Aber Brexit hat wenig mit Realität oder Fakten zu tun; Brexit geht um etwas vitzerales. Also, was machen wir dann?

Viertens hat der Brexit nicht nur das Vertrauen in unsere Institutionen und Politiker geschädigt, sondern auch die Rechtsstaatlichkeit wurde von einer Regierung bedroht, die für schuldig im Supreme Court befunden wurde, gegen das Gesetz verstoßen zu haben.  In der Vergangenheit hätte dies zu einem Rücktritt geführt.  Heute aber gibt es keine Schande mehr;  und Lügen, Manipulation und falsche Darstellung sind die akzeptablen Merkmale eines politischen Spiels geworden.  Unser öffentlicher Diskurs wurde korrumpiert.  Schlimmer noch, unsere Abgeordneten werden täglich mit Gewalt und Tod bedroht – genau wie ihre Familienmitglieder.  Ich erinnere mich gut an den Mord an Jo Cox eine Woche vor dem Referendum im Jahre 2016 – ich war innerhalb einer Stunde dabei;  es geschah in meiner Diözese und nur acht Meilen von meinem Wohnort entfernt. Ich kenne ihre Familie.

Also, die Zukunft?

Erstens: Wir werden wahrscheinlich die Europäische Union verlassen, aber wir werden Europa nicht verlassen.  Unsere starken Verbindungen in ganz Europa werden in den kommenden Jahren noch wichtiger.  Großbritannien musste sich seit dem zweiten Weltkrieg nie damit abfinden, bloß eine kleine Nordatlantikinsel ohne Imperium zu sein.  Der Brexit wird, denke ich, das Ende des Mythos vom britischen Imperium bedeuten.  Britische Zeitungen und Politiker erinnern sich immer wieder daran, wie wir den Krieg (alleine) gewonnen haben.  Endlich müssen wir jetzt mit der Realität leben und nicht mit romantisierten Erinnerungen des letzten Jahrhunderts.  Nach 1945 mussten sich die Deutschen mit ihrer Geschichte, Identität und ihren Fehlern auseinandersetzen.  Die Briten mussten das noch nie tun.  Wir werden es jetzt tun müssen. Ich stimme mit der Philosophin Susan Neiman überein, als sie sagt in ihrem neuen Buch Learning from the Germans: „Nostalgische Sehnsüchte nach Imperium und Sentimentalismus im Zusammenhang mit dem Zweiten Weltkrieg weisen nicht nur auf außergewöhnliche Mängel des öffentlichen Gedächtnisses in Großbritannien hin, sondern auch auf die Unfähigkeit, mit der Geschichte reif zu rechnen. Neil MacGregor hat gesagt: „Die Deutschen nutzen ihre Geschichte, um über die Zukunft nachzudenken, während die Briten ihre Geschichte nutzen, um sich zu trösten“.

Zweitens: Die Europäer müssen anerkennen, dass fast die Hälfte der Wähler für einen Verbleib in der EU gestimmt hat – und auch dass die Verbundenheit mit der EU seit dem Referendum gewachsen ist.  Deutschland und Europa haben viele Freunde in Großbritannien und wir brauchen Ihre Freundschaft, um eine andere Zukunft zu gestalten.

Drittens: Ich denke (aber ich könnte mich irren), dass die Union nicht lange überleben wird.  Alles deutet darauf hin, dass Schottland jetzt für die Unabhängigkeit stimmen würde;  Irland könnte sich gut vereinen – etwas, was die IRA in vierzig Jahren Terrorismus und Gewalt nicht erreichen konnte;  sogar Wales spricht von einer Trennung von England.  Wir werden mal sehen. Aber der Prozess und die Abwicklung des Brexits haben alles geändert und viel geschädigt.

Letztens: Niemand kann die Zukunft vorhersagen.  Wir erleben heute im Westen einen großen Konflikt zwischen Liberalismus und anderen Mächten.  Der Liberalismus ist in Zukunft keine Selbstverständlichkeit.  Die Kirchen müssen Orte der Begegnung und Unterhaltung, der Debatte und der Wahrheitsfindung sein, wenn die Welt über Trump und Johnson, Bolsonaro und Orban und so weiter verhandelt.  Der Illiberalismus wird die Westeuropäer dazu zwingen, die Wurzeln ihrer Annahmen über Menschenrechte und Verantwortlichkeiten wieder zu entdecken, und das könnte letztendlich eine gute Sache sein.

Zum Schluss möchte ich ein Buch empfehlen.  Der britische Historiker Tom Holland: “Dominion: The Making of the Western Mind” ist ein brillanter Lauf durch die christliche Geschichte, in dem deutlich wird, wie sehr selbst die säkulare Kultur im Westen von christlichen Annahmen geprägt ist.  (Das letzte Kapitel ist ziemlich seltsam, aber der Rest des Buches ist ausgezeichnet.)

Die politische Spannungen in Deutschland sind anders als diejenigen in Großbritannien, aber die hinterlegenden Fragen über Links/Rechts weisen einige Ähnlichkeiten auf. Die Herausforderungen, vor denen jedes Land in Bezug auf Stabilität und den Machtwechsel zu einer neuen Generation steht, sind klar. Das Buch von Tom Holland fordert uns implizit und explizit dazu auf, unsere gemeinsamen Wurzeln wieder zu entdecken, uns den aktuellen Umwälzungen dieser Wurzeln zu stellen und die Zukunft mit Mut, Entschlossenheit und Weitblick zu gestalten. In Großbritannien und Deutschland stehen wir vor Identitätsfragen: wer sind wir und woher stammen wir. Die Antworten sind wichtig.

Und ich habe gerade einen SMS bekommen. Boris Johnson wird am kommenden Montag noch einmal versuchen, eine Parlamentswahl anzukündigen.

Und FC Liverpool steht immer noch an der Spitze des Premier League.

I was invited by the Dean of Manchester to preach in his Cathedral at the annual Service to mark the beginning of the Legal Year this morning. There was a large turnout of judges, lawyers and civic dignitories. The Bible readings were from Job 28:1-12 and John 1:1-14. What follows is the basic text of my address.

It is a pleasure and a privilege to be here this morning and to preach at a time of ‘interesting’ developments in the life of our nation. It is particularly good that different faiths are represented as we mark the importance of justice and law in a society that is in danger of treating both with casual utilitarian pragmatism.

You don’t have to be a Christian or a Jew to recognise that the English legal system is based on and derived from the Judeao-Christian tradition seen in the Scriptures – although a reading of historian Tom Holland’s new book Dominion makes the point powerfully. According to the biblical witness, justice lies at the heart of God’s character and is measured by how the powerful and the powerless are treated in society.

If you break justice, you are left with just ice. So says Scouse poet and Radio 4 presenter Stewart Henderson. I am glad he has come to that realisation as one of my earliest memories of him was being beaten up by him and Billy Mason when I was nine during a Sunday School holiday in Saltburn from my church in Liverpool. Not that it still hurts, you understand…

The point he makes in his poem is a suggestive one: it is a cold world where justice is a commodity to be bought and sold, or where lip service is paid to a justice that has become a means of privilege on the part of those who either are powerful enough or have the skill to manipulate it.

I speak here from experience – not here in Manchester, I hasten to add, or even in England.

During my time as the Bishop of Croydon in the Diocese of Southwark I was closely connected with the Anglican Church in Zimbabwe, and particularly with the Diocese of Central Zimbabwe. I visited many times. This was during a period of considerable challenge in Zimbabwe, when President Mugabe was living with the consequences of his bizarre land policy, when inflation was rising to over 10,000 per cent (not the final figure), when water was scarce and food in short supply in Gweru. The secret police were everywhere – stories for another time – and political oppression was evident. Even the Church suffered as a renegade Bishop of Harare (a corrupt Mugabe beneficiary called Nolbert Kunonga) declared UDI, stole money and properties, and lied his way through the courts. He is no longer there; the Anglican Church in Zimbabwe is.

One of the points I kept having to argue in and for Zimbabwe was that the restoration of the rule of law was essential. There could be no justice, no democracy, no prosperity and no freedom until the rule of law was re-established and respected. It is the rule of law that guarantees impartiality and consistency, thus allowing society and the economy to tread an honest path to prosperity and peaceful coexistence. The rule of law guarantees integrity.

Or does it?

There are many countries where the rule of law holds firm, but life is not free or fair. Which surely teaches us that the rule of law is vital, but also inadequate in and of itself: it is the content of the law that establishes the colour, the complexion, the integrity of the culture. I know Godwin’s law all too well – that when, as a last resort, you refer to Adolf Hitler, you have lost the argument – but it is salutary to recall that National Socialism in Germany in the 1930s and ‘40s had little problem with the rule of law; they just made laws that legitimised what they wanted to do anyway. (I am afraid I am student of German politics and I recognise that this is a bit ‘niche’.)

So, what a good society actually needs is the rule of good law. The Enabling Act (Ermächtigungsgesetz) that the Reichstag passed on 23 March 1933 made perfect sense within the internal circular logic of a Weimar Republic that had run into the ground – allowing the Führer to bypass other laws in order to break the logjam and, in exceptional circumstances, to get things moving. “Just get it done” was the sentiment that opened the door to the institution of injustice by a Nazi Party that shaped law by a worldview that was essentially dehumanising. The Law of Unintended Consequences? (Or were the consequences entirely intended?)

Well, I had the joy of working through the European Union (Withdrawal) Bill in the House of Lords and spoke in debates at each stage (one with 192 speakers over two days). In the last few weeks, in order to get the Benn Bill through the Lords before the ‘prorogation that never was’, we once again had to anticipate how a government might handle its own defeat over against the promises it had made about delivering Brexit. At every stage of debate a large number of judges, former law lords and other lawyers spoke eloquently (and even comprehensibly), often drawing attention to the inadequacies of draft legislation received from the House of Commons – especially in relation to the constitutional and legal elements of the proposed legislation. You know what happened next.

The point I want to make before moving on to a bit of theology is that our attention has now been drawn to a threat that must be taken seriously if our democracy is to be upheld and not simply sold down the river on a boat called expediency. If politicians refuse to define properly how decisions about primary legislation are to be made – that is, not leaving to undefined ministerial discretion such terms as “appropriate” – then it will be left to the courts; and then judges will be accused of going beyond their brief by establishing law instead of interpreting it. You see the point? You recall the sniping at judges in the Supreme Court. The proper scrutiny of legislation – the very purpose of an upper house – and the deliberative activity of an independent judiciary are non-negotiable elements of a mature democracy … something forgotten or ignored by those newspapers that disgracefully and dangerously mock judges or denounce them as ‘Enemies of the People’. Unlike some politicians or newspapers, judges have to pay attention not only to the legal precision of the immediately presenting issue, but also to how the UK will live and move and have its being in the future (after we have left the EU, for example). Arguments about “freedom from” whatever ills the EU is believed to have caused us have to be replaced by the much harder and more complex task of shaping what we have been “freed for”.

So, again, law is not enough. It is good law that matters. And good law cannot be either assumed by default, or merely wished for.

Now, this is what is illustrated in our readings. Ancient Wisdom literature assumes that even the highest courts and the most powerful politicians, governors, rulers and legislators are not ultimate. Even they are accountable. Even if they evade accountability to the people whose interests and security they are called to serve, they cannot escape their accountability to God. As soon as any culture or society convinces itself that it can do what it wants and is accountable only to itself, watch hubris – and its bedfellow corruption – emerge. In other words, accountability to God keeps people and nations honest to themselves.

We then see in the reading from John chapter 1 (the ‘Christmas Gospel’) that any outworking of a recognition of human accountability to God is messy. It was all OK when “in the beginning was the Word”, but the trouble started when “the Word became flesh and dwelled among us”. As soon as flesh, blood, opinions, cultures and passions got involved, things began to get sticky. The birth of Jesus can get romanticised, but even as a baby he was targeted, hunted by a fearful Herod, exiled as a refugee in Egypt (a place actually synonymous with captivity and oppression, but now – perversely – the place of rescue and asylum), and was seemingly in trouble from the word go. Read the gospels and his major problem seems to have been with lawyers who, at the behest of the powers-that-be, kept using the law to try to catch him out, trip him up, get him to condemn himself out of his own mouth.

They nailed him in the end. But, even then, those putting him on trial found themselves – their humanity, their integrity, their faith – being judged by the silent victim. Funny how things turn out, isn’t it?

The failure of the lawyers of the day was to lose sight of the big picture – what we might call ‘the point of it all’. In relation to current challenges I have repeatedly tried to make the point that once we have “Got Brexit Done” – whatever it looks like – what then? What was it all for? The debate has been almost totally framed around economics and trade, and yet the economy is a means to an end, not the end in itself. An economy should thrive in order to allow a society to thrive, for the common good to be served and for individual human beings to flourish. They are the ends to which an economy should point. To reverse the priority is to turn people into servants of the interests of the economically powerful and to lose sight of any vision or value. It was not for nothing that Jesus warned us about gaining the world and losing our soul.

Too many of the lawyers of Jesus’s day lost sight of humanity. Rather than celebrate the fact that someone had been healed, they condemned Jesus for doing “work” on the Sabbath Day – missing the point of what the Sabbath was for and, more importantly, who it was for. I guess it was what Edmund Burke had in mind when he wrote: “It is not what a lawyer tells me I may do; but what humanity, reason, and justice tell me I ought to do.”

The reading goes on to speak of light shining in the darkness. We should be asking what that looks like in a messy world of human fragility and moral contradiction. Again, it isn’t some romantic fantasy. It means that those who bear the name of Christ and attempt to shape their life, their politics, their relationships, their behaviour and their values around the character and nature of the Jesus we read about in the gospels should shine as a light in a world that, frankly is riddled with lies and is too easily willing to crucify its prophets. If we dare to bear the name of Christ – to own what it means to be his Body – we must be willing to shine … even when that shining provokes some to extinguish the light and restore the twilight or darkness where clarity of vision can be lost and the common good be submerged under the games power plays.

Law must live. Law must go beyond text and inspire life. But, if it is to do that, the text must be got right. Justice can turn on a phrase – it is that important. And a good and just society depends on good lawyers who interpret good law and thereby promote the common good.

I rest my case, m’lud. I want to see an inextinguishable light shine when darkness threatens. It will be cross-shaped, but haunted by resurrection. It will not be dulled by threat or neglect. Or, as the Psalmist put it: “Blessed are those who do not follow the advice of the wicked, or take the oath that sinners tread, or sit in the seat of scoffers; but their delight is in the law of the Lord, and on his law they meditate day and night.” (Psalm 1:2)

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 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.

Last night I delivered the Harold Wilson Lecture at the University of Huddersfield. The theme was ‘The Will of the People?’ and was followed by some very good questions which both amplified and challenged my text. It was long, so the bets way to access it is to click on the link and then the further link you will find there.

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