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.

This is the Hansard record of my speech in the debate in the House of Lords on Thursday. As usual, it’s only afterwards that you think of a better way of saying it.

My Lords, it is already evident in some of the terms of this conversation—of this debate—that we have to get away from this binary thinking about leave or remain. They were terms that pertained to the referendum in 2016 where the question was “what”. Where we have got stuck is on the question of “how”. You do not need a degree in logic or philosophy to recognise that they are different questions.

The Members of the other place and of this House trying to take their obligations seriously under the constitution to serve the people of this country means that we have got to this sort of impasse. It is not because of negligence, or because of waging ongoing campaigns from three years ago. I deeply resent the constant insinuation that if you voted remain then you remain a remainer and anything you do has to be suspected as being a plot to ensure that we remain. Many people in this House who voted remain have gone on to say that the referendum result was to leave and we have to move on to the question of how to do that but with the responsibility to look to the interests of our country.

If, as the Prime Minister said fairly recently, we will easily cope with no deal, why not publish what the actual costs of no deal will be, as for example King’s College London, the UK and the EU project have done, and others are doing? Why not listen to those ​from Ireland and Northern Ireland, who look somewhat askance at some of the discussions going on here about them—rather than with them, if I can use that term? We are still wrestling with the question of “how”.

In my own imagination, I have flirted with what the virtues of no deal would be. One of them would be that it would force us to behave like adults: you face reality, you count the cost and you suffer the consequences. If we are to cope easily and there are to be no terrible consequences, fair enough, but that is not what we are hearing from those doing the detailed work. I know we have to discount experts and intellectuals, but who else will do the work?

If we are to have an extension, there will be two factors at play. The first is that an extension is not a vacation; it is for work to go on and a deal to be sought. The Prime Minister assures us that negotiations are going on, but everything we hear from the EU is that they are not—who do we believe? The second factor is that the timetable—the programme—will be conditioned to some extent by factors that we have no control over, such as the EU budget programme and its timings for establishing its future without us. We cannot simply extend for ever, but what is the content of the conversation that will go on during any extension?

The last thing I want to say to shine some light into this debate is that, while we focus on Brexit and the costs and benefits of however we leave the EU, we will still need, when all that is done—that will be the beginning of the process, not the end, as this was supposed to be the easy bit—a vision for what Brexit is supposed to deliver for the people of our country. What are the big values? What is the big picture? What is the country that we want to live in? We are told that this is to be the greatest place on earth to live, but let us flesh that out. What will it look like? What will it look like for Britain to be “great”, rather than just have that as a title or a slogan? That is the imaginative work that we need to begin in this House, in the other place and in the discourse in the wider country. What sort of country do we want to be? What values will shape it? What price truth, reality and behaving like adults, where we face the cost and are willing to suffer or enjoy the consequences? That is the conversation we need to move on to and I fear that we will have to do so fairly soon.

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

This year marks the hundredth anniversary of what is now called GCHQ – the Government Communications Headquarters. During that century the world – including the worlds of communication, espionage and intelligence – has changed radically. Even when I joined as a linguist specialist back in 1980 what we thought of as cutting-edge technology now looks quaint. As the world, driven by technology has developed, so have the intelligence services, their competences and self-understanding.

When I was at Cheltenham, working mainly in Russian and German, the place itself was so secret it didn’t even appear on Ordnance Survey maps. Now they have open days, social media recruitment and lots of other imaginative ways of communicating their existence, preoccupations and value to society.

What haven’t changed, of course, are the basic questions of national security and the need for any country to learn the languages of others. Whereas the need for national security, in one sense, speaks for itself, the “learning the language of others” stuff might not be so obvious. But, effective intelligence work demands that you get inside the head of those you suspect of threatening you, look out through their eyes, listen through their ears, and understand how this shapes or directs their language and behaviour.

Now, there is a risk to this exercise. If you learn about another people and enter into their experience, you begin to comprehend and, sometimes, even sympathise with them. It isn’t quite Stockholm Syndrome, but it is risky. For example, learning about the experiences and historical contexts of my enemy might reframe my understanding of why they behave or speak the way they do. We all speak in codes and the codes depend on common intuitions or understandings.

I think this goes to the heart of being human in society. If empathy gets lost, then we find it difficult to read each other. Instead of being exposed to reality – which is often complex and nuanced – I pigeon-hole or stereotype them and then feel justified in the security of my own trench.

“Loving my neighbour as myself” is neither easy nor obvious. It isn’t something that comes naturally, but demands hard and imaginative work – letting the other slip beyond the box I want to put them in.

I think this is also pertinent in other areas of our common life in these strange times. Instead of lobbing accusations from trenches at those who see the world – or particular policies – differently, a decision to invest in listening, imagining and understanding does not come naturally to most of us. Listen to debates in Parliament this last week and it becomes clear how hard and how important it is that we try.

I might have left GCHQ a long time ago, but the questions it fed me have not gone away.

Twenty five diocesan bishops signed an open letter that was published today. It was slightly overtaken by the news of the Prime Minister’s intention to prorogue Parliament, but the issues remain and the letter is pertinent. Most of the criticism of it has been, predictably, that the church shouldn’t meddle in politics. I just wonder who else should be excluded from comment on the good of the people.

Anyway, the statement is as follows:

The Archbishop of Canterbury has conditionally agreed to chair a Citizens Forum in Coventry and, without prejudice for any particular outcome, we support this move to have all voices in the current Brexit debate heard.

However, we also have particular concerns about the potential cost of a No Deal Brexit to those least resilient to economic shocks.

As bishops with pastoral responsibilities in communities across urban and rural England, we respond to the call by Jesus to tell the truth and defend the poor. We also recognise that our obligations go beyond England and impact on relations with the wider UK and our neighbours in the EU.

Exiting the EU without an agreement is likely to have a massive impact on all our people and the Government is rightly preparing for this outcome. The Government believes that leaving the EU on 31 October is essential to restoring trust and confidence. It is unlikely, however, that leaving without an agreement, regardless of consequences, will lead to reconciliation or peace in a fractured country. “Getting Brexit done” will not happen on exit day, and we have to be transparent about the years of work ahead of us in bringing the country together for a better future. We also need to be frank about the potential costs.

Our main social and political priority must be to leave well, paying particular attention to the impact of political decisions on those most vulnerable.

We hold different views about Brexit and how our country should proceed from here. However, although we agree that respecting a public vote is essential, democracy and committed debate do not end after the counting of votes. Our concern for the common good leads us to express concern about a number of matters. Our conviction is that good governance can only ever be based on the confidence of the governed, and that includes minorities whose voice is not as loud as others.

Seeing the evidence of division in every part of England, we are deeply concerned about:

  • Political polarisation and language that appears to sanction hate crime: the reframing of the language of political discourse is urgent, especially given the abuse and threats levelled at MPs doing their job.
  • The ease with which lies can be told and misrepresentation encouraged: leaders must be honest about the costs of political choices, especially for those most vulnerable.
  • The levels of fear, uncertainty and marginalisation in society, much of which lies behind the vote for Brexit, but will not be addressed by Brexit: poor people, EU citizens in the UK and UK citizens in Europe must be listened to and respected.
  • The Irish border is not a mere political totem and peace in Ireland is not a ball to be kicked by the English: respect for the concerns on both sides of the border is essential.
  • The sovereignty of Parliament is not just an empty term, it is based on institutions to be honoured and respected: our democracy is endangered by cavalier disregard for these.
  • Attention must be paid not only to the Union, but also to the meaning of Englishness.

Churches serve communities of every shape, size and complexion. We continue to serve, regardless of political persuasion. We invite politicians to pay attention with us to the concerns we register above and encourage a recovery of civil debate and reconciliation.

The Rt Revd Nick Baines, Bishop of Leeds
The Rt Revd Donald Allister, Bishop of Peterborough
The Rt Revd Robert Atwell, Bishop of Exeter
The Rt Revd Paul Bayes, Bishop of Liverpool
The Rt Revd Paul Butler, Bishop of Durham
The Rt Revd Christopher Chessun, Bishop of Southwark
The Rt Revd Dr Christopher Cocksworth, Bishop of Coventry
The Rt Revd Stephen Cottrell, Bishop of Chelmsford
The Rt Revd Tim Dakin, Bishop of Winchester
The Rt Revd Vivienne Faull, Bishop of Bristol
The Rt Revd Christopher Foster, Bishop of Portsmouth
The Rt Revd Richard Frith, Bishop of Hereford
The Rt Revd Christine Hardman, Bishop of Newcastle
The Rt Revd Nicholas Holtam, Bishop of Salisbury
The Rt Revd Dr John Inge, Bishop of Worcester
The Rt Revd Dr Michael Ipgrave, Bishop of Lichfield
The Rt Revd James Langstaff, Bishop of Rochester
The Rt Revd Philip Mounstephen, Bishop of Truro
The Rt Revd and Rt Hon Dame Sarah Mullally DBE, Bishop of London
The Rt Revd Dr Alan Gregory Clayton Smith, Bishop of St Albans
The Rt Revd Martyn Snow, Bishop of Leicester
The Rt Revd Graham Usher, Bishop of Norwich
The Rt Revd Dr David Walker, Bishop Of Manchester
The Rt Revd Andrew Watson, Bishop of Guildford
The Rt Revd Dr Pete Wilcox, Bishop of Sheffield

Coming to Headingley for the third day of the third Ashes Test match was as much an act of hope (if you are English, that is) as optimism. A clear determination to enjoy the game, regardless of the outcome – a heavy and embarrassing defeat for England a couple of days short of the five-day limit or a miracle – was what characterised historian Tom Holland‘s Twitterfeed all day yesterday.

This attitude is one that runs through his writings and is best exemplified in his new book Dominion, to be published in a week or two. I have been reading a proof copy.

Holland tackles a huge task: not to describe the theology of Western Christianity since year zero, but to describe with breathtaking clarity and zest how the development of theology (and the people shaped by theology – i.e. everyone) has shaped the way western people see the world, understand history, assume morality and regard the rule of law and human rights. The ambition is great and he pulls it off. Like his other books, in my experience, it is very hard to put down once started as the narrative drives the reader on for more.

Yet, it isn’t just the content of the book that thrills (not a word I use often). The writing never fails to add colour to the description of ideas and movements. One example regarding Gerrard Winstanley in 1649 (page 350):

His foes might dismiss Winstanley as a dreamer; but he was not the only one.The occupation of St George’s Hill was a declaration of hope: that others some day would join the Diggers, and the world would be as one.”

He got John Lennon into a line on a seventeenth century dissenter and it is perfect.

Tom Holland doesn’t need me to review or commend him, but he is unique in his ability to bring history alive, particularly in its sweep and not just its detail. It is the big narrative that occupies the direction of this book. His contention that Christianity has shaped much of what is assumed in western culture and might not survive when Christianity’s roots are severed from the tree (human rights did not descend from nowhere and should not be assumed to be universally held or eternally guaranteed) is one with which I have a huge sympathy (predictably?). However, setting out a narrative rationale in the way Tom Holland does it in Dominion offers a basis for arguing the point and a provocation for those who see history differently. He seems to be asking that prejudices against religion or theology be suspended and the mind opened to what history itself might suggest to us.

I hope and expect that this book will prove to be the opening bat on a fertile wicket and I look forward to the game, which, judging by the plethora of reviews already ahead of publication, should itself prove to be thoroughly stimulating.

This year’s MacTaggart Lecture at the Edinburgh Television Festival was given by Dorothy Byrne and it is brilliant – sharp, incisive, important and very funny. It is a must-read for anyone interested in media, politics, the lack of democratic accountability enjoyed by both the Prime Minister and the Leader of the Opposition (to say nothing of ‘unelected bureaucrats’ such as Dominic Cummings).

Compare the utter lack of scrutiny or accountability by Boris Johnson – to Parliament, let alone the media – with Macron’s two and a half hour press conference yesterday. Jeremy Corbyn’s absence also gets a serious dig. This is not about political sympathies or partisan claims; rather, it is about democracy, accountability, integrity and the culture we are creating … and the important role of the media in exposing dishonesty, lying, misrepresentation and obfuscation.

Even if you don’t agree with Byrne, it is a romp of a read.

Today my new book is published by SPCK. Titled Freedom is Coming, it offers readings for Advent, Christmas and Epiphany based on Isaiah 40-55.

It is intended to make further sense of what Christmas is about and where Christian hope actually lies in a complex world.