This is the script of this morning’s Thought for the Day on BBC Radio 4’s Today programme, the morning after the Boris Johnson signalled his intention to resign as leader of the Conservative Party (following the unprecedented resignation of 59 government ministers).

The current convulsions in Westminster offer, if nothing else, a compelling drama. I guess politics are, by definition, always dramatic. After all, they involve people, the ordering of society, uncontrollable events, convictions, emotions and other contingencies.

But, dramas involve characters, contexts, narratives, and so on. And a clear question that needs to be asked when the dramas are playing out around us is, simply: what is driving the characters? The audience needs to be able to understand what is going on not only on the stage, as it were, but also in the minds of the players.

To illustrate this we could look to Shakespeare – after all, a new Shakespeare theatre opens next week in Prescot, Liverpool, and there are few dramatists who explore the complexities of human character as well as the Bard of Stratford.

Shakespeare’s imagination was fuelled by a close relationship with the Bible. And he recognised that the Bible is not a handbook of doctrines, but records the narrative of a people wrestling with human nature and how to order a just and merciful society. This narrative is brutally frank about reality and how real people behave, what drives them, which values are to be seen as virtues.

And this is where the current political dramas come in. Character and virtue are both essential to leadership and the common life of a society. So are the vision and values that drive the ordering of our society. But, it is not just the actors on stage who shape the story, so does the audience by its engagement.

The episode that shapes my own mind on this comes from the Old Testament. Before the liberated people of Israel could enter a Land of Promise – after unlearning ‘Egypt’ in a desert for forty years – they had to work out what the new world might look like once they settled. Rituals were established in order that they should never forget that once they had been slaves, refugees, homeless and rootless. They were to enshrine justice and mercy in the laws and institutions of their community for the future. Compassion for the powerless was integral. And all this was to help them shape a just and virtuous society. It didn’t fully succeed.

But, when things go awry or a society faces some re-shaping, it is vital that these fundamental questions are addressed: which values will drive us? Who and what are we for? Does virtue matter in public and institutional life?

But, in these dramas no one is a mere spectator. All are responsible actors, accountable for playing their part.

This is the text of a commissioned article published last week in the Church Times.

Whenever I go to New Broadcasting House in London I cant avoid the statue of George Orwell and the inscription on the wall beside it: If liberty means anything at all, it means the right to tell people what they do not want to hear. It is taken from Animal Farm, a book that has been selling well in the brave new world of alternative facts and populist politics.

As we know, liberty cannot be the sole preserve of those who claim the power to dictate its terms. Maturity can be identified where people are able to hear what is uncomfortable and reflect on its probity, even if this means changing an opinion or mindset. In other words, citizens, politicians, journalists, personalitiesand anyone else can reasonably be expected to behave like grown-ups, being unafraid to hear a different perspective.

The reason this matters is that we are now seeing before our very eyes a change in how governments handle uncomfortable news. Recently No 10 divided journalists into two lines in the hallway and told one line that they would not be admitted into a press conference. All the journalists walked out in an act of solidarity that in itself became widely seen as a touchstone of liberty. Although No 10 backtracked later and claimed there had been a misunderstanding, every journalist there saw it differently and recognised that this could not be conceded.

This comes on top of the Prime Minister refusing to subject himself to informed policy scrutiny during the general election, then preventing ministers from accepting invitations to appear on BBC Radio 4s Today programme. Petty revenge for past coverage? Fear of detailed analysis of policy or motive? Deliberate strategy to shut out public access to information to which they should, as citizens, be entitled? Well, take your pick.

Anyone in the public eye knows how frustrating it is to be misrepresented, misquoted criticised or ridiculed in the press or broadcast media. A dig into my blog over the last decade will reveal lots of examples of me taking journalists to task and asking for better, more intelligent and less ad hominem journalism. So, I understand why the Prime Minister might, under the direction of his employee Dominic Cummings, decide to communicate directly and without mediation to those with whom he wishes to speak. Digital and social media make this possible. Mainstream media can be bypassed, ignored or belittled in an attempt to control the narrative.

However, this brave new world brings with it significant dangers. As we are already witnessing, direct control of the messaging means avoidance of the sort of scrutiny upon which a genuine democracy depends. A chat show is not the same as being subjected to intelligent, informed and fearless interrogation. Three-word slogans only work so long as no one is allowed to question them, digging beneath the assumptions behind the words, pushing the meanings to see if they contain any substance. One of the lessons of the last three years must be that slogans trump facts where the public accountability of the powerful is simply denied by a refusal to be subject to open scrutiny.

I would say this, wouldnt I? A former professional linguist who worked in the intelligence world prior to ordination, I have not been coy about criticising the corruption of our public discourse, bemoaning the impunity of those who tell lies for a living and know they can get away with it, calling for a recovery of public and individual integrity on the part of public servants – which is what politicians are. US Senator Hiram Warren Johnson reportedly said in 1917, The first casualty when war comes is truth.I am not the first to challenge this: the first casualty is language. We should expect politicians and prime ministers to try to shape their messages in order to communicate well and clearly; but, we should be deeply suspicious when they deliberately avoid scrutiny or examination by experts who, on behalf of the people, hold them to account.

In this context we need to watch very carefully the governments approach to the BBC. If the BBC needs to hear what it doesnt want to hear, then the politicians who want to reform public service broadcasting cannot exempt themselves from scrutiny of their motive. Diminishing those who challenge the integrity or motivation of governments or their policies is what happens in countries not admired for their democratic credentials.

There is much at stake here for those who wish to deepen and not dilute democracy.

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.

It is obvious why Russia is being blamed for arranging the apparent attack on former double agent (Russian military intelligence office and MI5 spy) – there is a phenomenological association with the case of Aleksandr Litvinenko in 2006. But, correlations do not make explanations, nor do they imply necessary cause.

As I and others observed in the House of Lords this afternoon, speculation prior to proof is a dangerous thing. Although we seem to be getting increasingly blasé about it, judgement by headline is not a wise way of ensuring that justice ultimately is done.

One or two Russia experts have been urging caution about rushing to judgement. My reason is simple, possibly naive: what does Russia have to gain from this?

  • If revenge for Skripal’s treachery against Russia, why wait until now – he was released and deported to the UK in 2010?
  • If deterrence, why not do it sooner – and why pardon him before his spy-swap?
  • If to stop the “selling” of secrets, that boat sailed many years ago and there will be nothing useful left that hasn’t already been told.

I scanned Russian media and social media this afternoon (briefly) and they have reported the Foreign Secretary’s answers to the Urgent Question in the House of Commons earlier today. However, his typically careless remarks about England possibly withdrawing from the World Cup in Russia this coming summer (which – yet again – had to be clarified by officials later) provided just the distraction from the main matter: possible Russian complicity in the poisoning of Skripal and his daughter in Salisbury.

A couple of very eminent and experienced former diplomats said to me after the debate in the Lords that Putin can gain from this insofar as it boosts his strong-man image in Russia ahead of the elections. He is a shoe-in, but fears a low turnout and the questions of legitimacy that this would raise domestically.

The problem with this line is that it is not clear that Putin would actually gain anything from having a retired and harmless ex-spy bumped off in England. Crimea, Eastern Ukraine and Syria have established for his domestic audience that he is a strong leader willing and able to defy the aggressive and victimising West. His sanctions-weakened economy has not deterred him from increasing defence spending and strengthening the military with new-technology weapons and a motivated armed force.

Of course, I might be missing something here. It is entirely possible that the security services in the UK know stuff they can’t tell the rest of us. There might be a political rationale that currently eludes my limited mind. But, a simple identification of cause and effect is neither helpful nor wise.

At a meeting a couple of months ago with the Russian ambassador to the UK I was a little surprised by the smooth ease with which he alluded to what we would call “extra-judicial assassination” of Russians who had gone to fight with IS in Iraq and Syria. Killing is clearly not something the Russians are squeamish about … if it gets the job done quickly and effectively.

But, even that does not provide a causal link with the plight of Skripal and his daughter. I am not naive about Russian potential for politically sanctioned violence, but it cannot simply be assumed – even if, in the end, it is proven in this case.

One of the things that winds me up is when people say that it's actions, not words, that matter. It assumes that words are somehow not actions. They are. Much language is performative: it makes happen what it says.

I have been sitting in the decisive House of Bishops meeting in Oxford discussing (seriously, constructively, intelligently and eirenically) the proposed wording of an amendment to the wording of the draft legislation to allow women to become bishops. The consensus on the way ahead was overwhelming and this will be evident in the statements being issued shortly. I don't want to preempt that, but I only have a few minutes to write this and then go to my next engagement. However, we leave Oxford having taken words apart and debated meanings. Words matter – as is evident if you ever get them wrong or use the wrong ones.

But, what shares my mental and emotional space today is not bishops, but Liverpool. The Hillsborough Inquiry has reported (excellent work led by the excellent Bishop of Liverpool) and it is deeply shocking. The gracious and poignant dignity, perseverance and faithfulness of those family members bereaved at Hillsborough stands in remarkable contrast to the cover up by police, emergency services, politicians and others. The then editor of the Sun, Kelvin MacKenzie, must have made his position worse with a statement of such vacuous blame-throwing insincerity that I read it with incredulity.

The cry for justice has now been heard. But why did it take 23 years?

Simple words of apology from the Prime Minister matter. He has admitted the offence and has, therefore, performed a vital act for the families and the rest of us: he has articulated and set the course for the next period of life. At last.

23 years.

23 years.

23 years for words to be uttered that might just allow the beginning of healing.

23 years.

It is eight years since Boris Johnson commented so helpfully on the Liverpudlian psyche. I suggest a moment's silence while we consider it and await his apology.

More anon.

I was driving over to a primary school in Ilkley this morning (dribbly rain and mist over the wild moors) and listening to the BBC Radio 4 Today programme. The Mayor of London, Boris Johnson, was being interviewed about the British Government’s apparent approval of the idea of a new London airport (after Heathrow, Gatwick and City – Luton and Stansted don’t count as they are nowhere near London). The wisdom and feasibility of such a new venture will continue to be debated, but that isn’t what grabbed my attention.

Boris responded to an insinuation that it would take decades to build the thing and would, therefore, not be worth starting. He said that just because it might take a long time didn’t mean it shouldn’t be started. And this reminded me of something else: cathedrals.

When the architects and builders of our great cathedrals began their work – driven by imagination and a vision for a future – they knew they probably would never see the finished article. They would be dead – the building would take generations. Liverpool Cathedral (Anglican) was started in 1904 and almost everybody involved in imagining, designing and building it was dead by the time it was finally completed at the back end of the twentieth century.

Or think of gardens. Capability Brown designed some of Britain’s most glorious gardens, but knew he would never see what he had designed because by the time the trees and plants had grown, he would be long gone. This didn’t stop him doing it.

I took a couple of academic friends to the pub this evening to talk about a range of matters. At one point the conversation ran onto the shortsighted utilitarianism of current university funding methods in England. It seems as if the ‘now’ is all that matters and the Market will control all our destinies. Any idea of vision (what should a university actually be – and for whom and for what end?) or long-term constructiveness gets lost under the pressing immediacy of instant financial viability. Yet, I guess this is just one more example of a pragmatic culture which has lost track of its guiding narrative, its traditions and memory – living in and for the ‘now’ and hesitant about building for someone else’s future that can’t be guaranteed anyway.

Pessimistic? Maybe. But, any culture needs people who imagine a future, invest in it, know why they are doing it and who it is for. They must be driven by a vision for a society that doesn’t confuse ends (people/society) with means (the Market).

I don’t know if Boris is right about the airport. But, he has the right perspective on time and investment.

It didn’t take long, did it?

Despite the financial disaster of the last two years, and against the wishes of their European partners (particularly the Germans and the French), the Labour Government has refused to get tough with bankers over bonuses and irrationally high pay. The argument seems to be that if you disincentivise high earners, they will all scoot off to the USA and earn their fat salaries there instead. Whereas the argument advanced this week by the Tories is that if you squeeze the poorest or most disabled people, this will incentivise them to ‘get out and work’.

Boris JohnsonBrazen Boris Johnson (great character – but which pre-election promises has he actually delivered on in London?) stoutly and admirably defended the bankers at the Tory Party Conference in Manchester the other day, guaranteeing favour by claiming that to do so would turn everyone against him. What great rhetoric! Everybody loves Boris and David Cameron probably (a) fears him or (b) wishes he would go away.

But, am I alone in hearing the defence of bankers set against a squeeze on the poor or disabled and wondering where these priorities derive from?

I’d like to believe that the Tories could offer something radically new that would offer a clear alternative to Labour and bring some dignity back into politics – especially into the values that underlie economic policy-making. But, I don’t see it. All we get is the same old stuff dressed up in new language. ‘Let’s help the poorest (or most vulnerable)  in our society – by making them poorer if they don’t play our way. And let’s not disturb the richest in our society – by making them invulnerable to the consequences of their decisions.’

It doesn’t look great, does it?

Let’s get this straight. Some of my friends are bankers. I don’t have a problem with bankers getting paid for the work they do. Some bankers should get paid more than others. Big bankers should get paid big salaries. But bonuses should be rationalised and spread about the people who work at all levels of the business. How do you justify a single individual getting a one-off (almost guaranteed each year) payment amounting to many multiples of what the ordinary bank staff earn in  several years? And whose money is it that they are playing with anyway?

My problem with this is that this nettle still appears not to have been grasped. We are afraid to impose limits – even when ‘we’ own the banks by virtue of having bailed them out of the mire of their own making.

goodwinAnd when we hear about the ‘poor’ or the ‘disabled’, we are not talking about ‘shirkers’, ‘blaggers’ and ‘spongers’. But, even if we were, couldn’t we describe the failure of the banks and their subsequent cap-in-hand rescue by the taxpayers as ‘sponging’ (claiming money that isn’t theirs), ‘shirking’ (responsibilities to those they damaged) and ‘blagging’ (claiming special rights and threatening government against squeezing with arguments about ‘incentives’ that only apply to them and not those at the bottom of society who don’t have the voice or the power to claim the same)?

It’s the values underlying the policies that need questioning, not just the apparent policies. And the double-standards need to be exposed wherever they seek to hide.

Any chance we’ll hear something useful this week from Manchester other than the blindingly obvious or the obviously blind?