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.

This is the basic text of my speech in the House of Lords in today’s debate on the Prime Minster’s Statement on Brexit last week.

 

House of Lords

Tuesday 20 November 2018

Brexit: Debate on the Prime Minster’s Statement

My Lords, only four months remain before we walk arm in arm to the sunlit uplands where the easiest deal in history will have been made … and everybody will be happy.

Except, my Lords, we know this is not the case. Other noble Lords will concentrate on the details of the ‘deal’ (a word that reduces an existential question simply to a matter of trade and transaction) and the position in which it leaves us. I want to pick up on one line of the Prime Minister’s Statement to the House last week – the line I questioned in the short debate on Thursday.“If we get behind a deal, we can bring our country back together and seize the opportunities that lie ahead.”

I asked if the promise to “bring our country back together” is credible and achievable and, if so, how this is to be done. The answer was simply a repeat of mantras about ‘the deal’. I thought I was being helpful to the government by inviting a response such as: “The country is split down the middle and the language and behaviour around Brexit have become toxic – even in this Parliament. So, it is not going to be easy to reconcile people and parties in the wake of such a divisive issue. But, in acknowledging the size of the task, we intend to pay attention in due course to the language, symbolism and mechanisms of reconciliation.”

Because this is the challenge here. The government, by virtue of being the government, has a primary duty to pay attention to such reconciliation – to the healing of relationships that have been fractured by this process and the restoration of trust as a public value.

I am not making a case for leaving, remaining, wishful thinking or dreaming. The referendum happened, the rest is history (in the making). However, the factual phenomenon of Brexit, its language and behaviours, its polarising aggression and its destructive reductionism are not going to be addressed by statements about getting behind a deal and people romantically falling back into line. That line has been crossed in our public discourse, and I think two things have exacerbated it: first, the repeated implication that “the will of the people” is immutable and clear; and, secondly, that the nature of the split down the centre of the United Kingdom is being ignored.

This, my Lords, raises a question of honesty – honesty with the people of this nation. Now, to ask for honesty is not to accuse anyone of dishonesty. But, we hear little or no acknowledgement of the fracture that polarises our people – a fracture that will neither be addressed nor healed by the repetition of mantras about a glorious future.

This is not about Brexit as a choice; rather, it is about Brexit as a cultural phenomenon – what has happened as a consequence of the referendum. Social media is not the most edifying place to seek enlightenment and calm reflection; you have to wade through acres of muck to find any gems. But, where the gems are to be found is precisely where adults behave like adults, face reality (whether or not reality reflects their own preferences), moderate their language in order to prioritise relationship and values over conflict, and show a willingness to listen before speaking and an ability to look through the eyes of my interlocutor.

My Lords, I admire the committed resilience of the Prime Minister and the remarkable expertise of our civil servants. But, I appeal again for those engaged in this debate to take seriously the language of the discourse – not least in how we speak of those in the EU with whom we deal. And I appeal again to the government not to dismiss with easy words the crying need for an honesty of discourse that actually sets people free to grow up, own the truth about the deep challenges we face, and offer the people to whom we are accountable and whom we are called to serve a model for reconciliation and hope.

My Lords, whatever happens, the Church is committed to stand with and serve those who suffer, especially poor, marginalised and disenfranchised people in our communities. But, we need an articulation of political vision that goes beyond economics and trade. So, what will those in power do to offer language and symbols of reconciliation and hope in practical ways that recognise the divisions and take seriously the need to bring our country – and our Union – back together?

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.

In her great book of essays The Givenness of Things Marilynne Robinson makes an observation that struck me:

Whenever there is talk of decline – as in fact there always is – the one thing that seems to be lacking is a meaningful standard of change. How can we know where we are if we don’t know where we were, in those days when things were as they ought to be? How can we know there has been decline, an invidious qualitative change, if we cannot establish a terminus a quo? (Fear, p. 125)

This is the question that haunts the Brexit debate – one in which I am involved, but one that has left me disturbed for reasons I have been trying to work out. I alluded to some of these in my speech in the House of Lords during the EU (Withdrawal) Bill debate Second Reading in February 2018. But, five minutes wasn’t long enough to tease out some of the deeper disturbance.

What Robinson points us to is perhaps the most fundamental feature of the whole debate in the UK since we entered the EEC in the first place: the lack of honesty in appraising the enterprise, characterised by language and rhetoric that assumes much but owns up to little. The costs and benefits of EU membership have not been the subject of honest appraisal, but have been turned into selective ideological footballs suitable only for a damned good kicking.

When during the 2016 referendum the red bus promised £350 million coming back to the NHS, what was not explained was what it paid for: easy travel, common nuclear standards, equivalence of qualifications, to name but three. The polarisation stated incontrovertibly that we paid everything and received nothing other than empty bureaucracy and millions of immigrant people we are not supposed to like.

Equally, after forty years of silence in articulating the benefits (as well as costs) of EU membership, so-called ‘Project Fear’ failed to explain honestly some of the challenges and costs of EU membership. Membership of any group always and inevitably brings compromises and costs as well as benefits; but, these became submerged under the partisan polarisations of politics and dramatic rhetoric.

This lack of honesty in the popular sphere is obvious in hindsight, but this does not help us now. Yet, the lack of honesty persists. We seem to be living in a phoney war in an echo chamber, being compelled to jump fully into one camp rather than the other. And the rhetoric continues to pretend that virtue lies comprehensively and only in one camp – usually the one that satisfies my unarticulated and sometimes ill-informed political prejudices. It feels a bit like the sort of divorce proceedings in which the children have to choose between one completely evil and one uncompromisingly virtuous parent.

The Prime Minister’s speech at the Mansion House on Friday 2 March promised to be honest about the UK’s vision for the future post-Brexit. It promised to lay out a vision around which different sides could coalesce and move forward. What it offered was a statement of the obvious (we are not going to get all we want; negotiations are not going to be easy; etc.) and nothing concrete. It was a speech that could have been written a year ago – the cake-consumption metaphor goes back well before even that. Perhaps the reason it has proved so remarkably uncontroversial is simply that it said nothing new and, in stating the obvious, could hardly be disagreed with.

The problem, again, is language. Two things struck me in the speech: (a) we now assume a presidential polity in which the Prime Minister gets away with speaking solely in the first person singular: “I…”, “my vision”, etc. There is no pretence that there is (or can be?) any collective vision or strategy. How did this personalisation come about? One response might be to say that such language allows government ministers to opt out or in as they please (or find it politically convenient); another might be that it distances Parliament from the need for a collective vision. (b) There was plenty of assertion about “what I want”, but little recognition that the power to get it lies not in our own hands, but also in those of our EU partners.

This language has dogged the whole Brexit business from even before the referendum. Mere assertion escaped any need for argument. Facts became “alternative truths”, depending on one’s position. “We will” avoided the complexities of “we might”. Objections to projections were labelled “treacherous” or “scaremongering” – both sidestepping the need to respond to the case itself. Optimism is simply not enough to survive a potentially negative reality; pessimism is inadequate as a tool for creatively and positively shaping a future that might begin from a hard and unwanted place.

One of the points of consensus I have discerned through many conversations in Parliament – with those of all sides, including the convinced, the dubious, the fearful, the excited, the alarmed, and the deeply depressed – is that the government needs now to be honest with ‘The People’, giving substance to what might be gained by Brexit and what will be lost. The cost is no reason in itself to fear the future, but the cost should be reckoned, set out clearly, and understood. If the benefits will outweigh the costs, then let us see them and then walk into this future with our eyes wide open. Equally, those who see only costs must also set out what they can offer if and when what they warn against actually happens.

Any reading of history tells us that the future is shaped by those who choose to shape it, taking seriously those dynamics over which it does and does not have control. If we leave the EU and face an acknowledged weakening of the UK economy (as well as other non-economic deficits), then we shall over time re-align and re-build. But, the crucial point is that this will be more positive and hopeful only if ‘The People’ (in whose interests this is all being done, apparently – although, given their financial security, none of those advocates in government will suffer much discomfort in contrast with the poorer people and communities of our islands) are clear about the costs as well as the benefits.

I can understand an argument that puts economic distress as a worthwhile consequence of a decision that brings wider and deeper and worthwhile human or social benefits. I cannot understand or accept an argument that pretends and obfuscates and obscures reality. The Prime Minister’s speech acknowledged for the first time that the cake cannot simultaneously be both had and eaten (although the cherries remain stubbornly pickable, apparently); it seemed to identify the cake purely with the economy and trade. It was a statement of faith that once again avoided content.

In Marilynne Robinson’s phrase, what and where is the “meaningful standard of change”?

 

This is the text of this morning’s Thought for the Day on BBC Radio 4’s Today programme, following yesterday’s debate in the House of the Lords on the EU (Withdrawal) Bill:

Current debates in Parliament and beyond about the nature of the UK’s relationship with Europe go beyond the technical detail of Bills and amendments. Clearly, many people are just fed up with what they see as the trading of insults and misrepresentations that have come to characterise this process, rendering it almost impossible to distinguish what is true and what is fact from what is mere assertion or wishful thinking.

But, underlying all this sound and fury is a much more important question – one that has always been around, but often gets forgotten in the storm of the moment: what is it all for? Or, to put it differently: what sort of a society do we wish to construct and what sort of character do we want our common life to exhibit?

These are not exactly new questions. Even the Ten Commandments form not a string of miserable demands to keep people in their place, but a contour for a mutually respectful, honourable and humble society – one in which people respect each other, care for the poor, honour integrity and work at building relationships of trust and accountability.

I wonder if these existential questions – about what and whom a society is for – too easily get lost when the headlines and the fog of social media just bang away at demonising anyone who dares to differ from one’s own position.

I have just read a paper by a Russian military and political analyst who dares to pose a different question. Aleksandr Khramchikhin, deputy director of the Institute for Political and Military Analysis in Moscow, suggests that whereas Russians will still fight and die for the Motherland, their western equivalents are too soft to die for anything. Harsh? Maybe.

But, I wonder if this is worth pursuing, if not as a model of idealism, then at least as a matter of practical reality. Russians are almost defined by suffering – think of 20 million dead in the Second World War … a million starved or killed in the siege of Stalingrad alone.

It was Martin Luther King who proposed that if we have nothing worth dying for, then we have nothing worth living for.

So, when we have done our trade deals and dealt with the technical and practical challenges of Brexit – however it might turn out in the end, what will we have gained or lost? What is the end to which we aspire? What is the vision of a society for which we will sacrifice anything or everything? What are the moral goods which shape our ambitions and discipline our passions?

These are not vapid questions. The Old Testament prophet was not joking when he wrote that “without a vision the people perish”. Nor was Jesus when he said there is a danger in gaining the world and losing our soul.

It is a challenge, but, somehow, I need to poke through the fog of debate and not lose sight of the ultimate questions: for what? And for whom?

So, the PM is prepared to go to war on Spain over the status of Gibraltar, is she? (Well, “showing the Falklands resolve” isn’t quite the same thing, but you get the point.) We will fight for the rights and sovereignty of Gibraltar, will we? And what exactly is this to look like? The referendum result has dumped Gibraltar and the government now has to try to square a very round circle.

About ten days ago there was a debate in the House of Lords on the question of Gibraltar in the wake of Brexit. The report itself was good, clear and helpful, but one or two of the questions arising from it needed (I believed) to be pressed. Members of the Gibraltar government sat in on the debate. I have never been there and have not previously had a great interest in the place.

However, the challenge to Gibraltar seemed to me to focus on one of the major problems we face as we negotiate our departure from the European Union: realism. The government keeps issuing bland statements of optimism, but neglects to articulate clearly the fact that it has little or no control over delivery of a desired outcome. So, this is the text of my speech:

My Lords, I endorse all that has been said so eloquently. The report is excellent, but for me it raises a number of questions. The main one concerns the fact that throughout the referendum campaign, and subsequently, we have repeatedly heard statements such as, “We will get a good deal”, and, “We will do this and we will do that”, when in fact we do not hold the power in a lot of this—it will have to be negotiated.

Despite urging that we get the best for Gibraltar, I want to be assured that the Government is stress-testing all the scenarios, including the worst-case ones. We owe it to the people of Gibraltar to do that because it was not done in preparation for the referendum itself.

If you look through the eyes of Spain, you find that it is not good enough for us simply to say, “We mustn’t compromise on sovereignty”. What if the Spanish hold out sovereignty, play a long game and say, “We’ll just sit this out. We won’t give equivalence”? What if the EU does not give Gibraltar equivalent status? What if Spain wants to use sovereignty or cross-border access and frontier issues as a bargaining chip? We cannot simply stand there and say, “Well, you can’t”. I want to know that we are stress-testing this. Who has the power? After all, we have spoken of having a clean Brexit; what if the Spanish take us at our word? That has to be thought through and our response to it considered.

Particular questions are raised here. As I indicated, if the EU declines to give equivalent status after Brexit, what then? What is the cost to the UK, already alluded to in this debate, if Gibraltar is given no access in future to EU programmes? Has that been costed out? In paragraph 29 of the report, we read about the strong economic links to the UK, specifically the City, should the single market be infringed in some way. But what if the City effectively moves to Frankfurt or Paris? We keep saying, “Well, it won’t”, but what if it does? We do not hold all the cards.

Paragraph 36 says that, if access to the single market is restricted,

“the rest of the world beckons”.

So does outer space. It does not mean that we can get what we want. Where is the realism that comes from looking through the eyes of those who do not hold the best interests of the UK as their priority?

Paragraph 50 says that, for Spain to intensify border controls would be regarded as an “aggressive act”. Frankly, why should it not? It did not choose this. I suspect that, if the boot were on the other foot, we might be rather aggressive as well.

I just want to be reassured that these scenarios are being stress-tested in the way that they were not before we went into this business in the first place. We owe it to the people of Gibraltar.

I pressed similar questions a day or two later in respect of the environment, agriculture and the ending of subsidies for farming in parts of my diocese.

My point (not as articulately put as it should be, I admit) is that we need all scenarios stress-tested – including the worst-case ones – in order not to feed people with false promises that we cannot deliver. The triggering of Article 50 has not “taken back control”, but has handed it to the 27 EU countries who will, rightly, now look to their own best interests (as the UK would have done if, for example, France had unilaterally decided to depart).

If the UK is to prepare – and that does not mean just government – then we need to know the best and worst options that lie before us.

This is the script of an article written in London within hours of being released from Westminster Abbey in the aftermath of the terrorist attack on Parliament yesterday. It was published in the Yorkshire Post this morning.

When I got to the Bishops’ Room in the House of Lords on Wednesday morning the screen above me said ‘Threat Level Severe’. It usually says that. And I usually ignore it. I park my coat, grab the papers for the day’s sitting, then head for the library or the tea room.

That particular day I had some meetings before preparing to lead Prayers in the chamber at 3pm. I was already in there when a colleague told me that something had happened outside. Within minutes we were locked down and told to remain in the chamber. The rest is, as they say, history.

Having been moved by heavily armed and camouflaged police to a courtyard at the other end of the Palace of Westminster, we could look through the archway to the scene where the policeman Keith Palmer had been killed by a terrorist. The story of the mayhem outside was beginning to drip through. School children on a visit to Parliament were kept with us while we awaited further instruction. Having been moved into Westminster Hall, scene of many triumphs and tragedies throughout history, we were eventually taken over to Westminster Abbey where we remained until released around 9pm.

From a Palace of democracy to an Abbey of prayer.

The police were magnificent throughout. The emergency services were massively impressive. Parliamentary staff were utterly professional. Westminster Abbey swung into action and showed not only pastoral care (and prayer), but also the hospitality that characterises such places. Parliamentarians, visitors and officials – more than 1,000 of us – used the time to talk and wait and conduct the sort of human relationships that defy the chaos that some would wish to reap. People around Westminster showed courage and compassion, helping the injured and dying on the bridge, holding those whose life had been horribly changed for ever.

Here we saw the worst and the best of humanity. And here we saw the brutal reality of human mortality in a world that shares both fragile beauty and appalling violence.

I am writing this only two hours after getting out of Westminster, so my thoughts are immediate rather than considered. But, my thoughts are irrelevant to those of the families torn apart by this particular violence. So, why offer them now?

Well, it is human to wish to bring order out of chaos, to make some shape from the destructive formlessness of mayhem. In the coming days millions of words will be written and spoken about how this criminal tragedy happened. Many will provide analysis, others judgment. Assumptions will be made about the motives or mental state of the perpetrator. And, no doubt, his religious affiliation – should there have been one – will be held up for inspection and condemnation. And why not?

The problem with religion is that it involves people. Violence is not a religious problem, it is primarily a human one. It all too often has a religious root or complexion, but violence is not the sole preserve of religious individuals or communities. If you don’t believe me, then look at the mass murders that characterised the 20th century. But, that does not exonerate or excuse violence when it does have a religious root.

Human beings seem to find violence and destructiveness quite easy to slip into. Yet, at the heart of Christian faith is a man who was crucified by religious and pagan imperial powers that couldn’t cope with love or mercy or forgiveness or generosity. Jesus wasn’t a mere do-gooder who annoyed people by telling them to be endlessly nice to each other. Rather, he got nailed because he lived and embodied and taught a faith that was so radical that it placed a huge question mark above the natural impulses of human beings to love power.

And yet even those who follow him find it easy to miss the point and turn protection of the faith into a commodity of power or preservation.

And Christians are not alone in this. Religious people are always prone to lose the heart of their faith to a divine construct designed to justify their own narrow interests. This is why the Old Testament prophets cry out at the tragic irony of a people who worship a merciful God whilst displaying anything but mercy to those around them. It is a scandal. But, it is also deeply human.

So, what is there to say about the carnage in Westminster? Well, it happened. It is impossible to have total security. The Palace of Westminster is about as intimidating as you can get: armed police everywhere, security checks at every entrance and exit, concrete blocks and solid railings surround the buildings. But, there is no such thing as total security. Determined people, lone-wolves set on murder and mayhem, will not be stopped by barricades. It is the responsibility of everyone to be alert to danger.

And now life must carry on. Parliament resumes and I shall lead Prayers at 11am on Thursday. We will express our grief, shock and sadness – especially for those killed, injured, bereaved or traumatised by the events of Wednesday. But, then we shall carry on and do our business in the two Houses of Parliament. Democracy will not be damned by this violence.

The murderer would have been disappointed to find that he didn’t stop the world – he just got off while we carry on.

The beginning of wisdom, says the Book of Proverbs, is fear of God. This means simply that when we acknowledge our own human fragility, weakness and accountability to more than ourselves, we begin to live with humility, generosity and carefulness. It might sound a bit deep, but it is this wisdom that emerges from Westminster today: that we might reflect the mercy of God in how we serve one another – especially where innocent blood is shed.