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.

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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.

 

This is the script of this morning’s Thought for the Day on BBC Radio 4’s Today programme (written late last night after getting out of Parliament):

I entered the chamber of the House of Lords yesterday afternoon, ready to lead prayers. A colleague came in and said there had been an incident outside involving gunshots. Very quickly the whole of the Palace of Westminster was locked down. Over the next five hours we were moved from place to place, ending up for several hours in Westminster Abbey.

The normality of the day had been ripped apart in acts of wanton violence that beggar imagination. The ordinariness of life – tourists posing for photos with policemen at the gates of Parliament, people walking to and from work – collapsed in tragedy and misery. Words cannot comprehend the depths of shock as news filtered through of what had happened. Someone said to me: “the world feels less safe today.”

The world of words is not short of explanations or interrogations. Even before we know the facts, judgments are made. This is inevitable in a world of instant communication. But, words are also needed as we attempt to grasp what has happened.

I turn to the Psalms. This Hebrew poetry collection is not for the squeamish or those who like to keep their religion tidy. One minute these poets are laughing at the absurdities of human beings, the next they are raging at God because of the injustices and cruelties of this world. And they were certainly no strangers to violence or horror. They knew what it was to be hunted; but they also knew the power of mercy and love and hope.

And that reflects what many of us in Parliament witnessed yesterday. While we were being kept secure by a remarkable police force, they were outside dealing with the unknowns of terror and the loss of a colleague. The parliamentary staff were professional and, as always courteous. Visitors, including parties of school children, were looked after by MPs who managed to keep everything calm and human. The emergency services did their stuff with discretion, skill and humanity. Westminster Abbey took in over one thousand people and made the experience as good as they could.

Yesterday we saw the worst of human depravity – that empty, soulless vacuum from which joy has been sucked – but the Abbey was filled with conversation as we saw the best of human society and compassion. And maybe the Abbey was the best place for us to be – a place not only of refuge and mercy, but a locus of hope… a place whose very stones bear witness to the mess and muck as well as to the glory of human beings who struggle to make sense of it all. Here God is worshipped and here people laugh and weep and think and speak. Here is a space that refuses to stick God in a box where he can remain unsullied by the realities of a complex life.

Parliament will resume today and life will carry on. But, my prayers are for those whose lives are now for ever changed.

This afternoon the House of Lords voted at Committee stage against the Government and in favour of an amendment to the European Union (Notification of Withdrawal) Bill. The amendment – one of many – was to add the following:

Within three months of exercising the power under section 1(1), Ministers of the Crown must bring forward proposals to ensure that citizens of another European Union or European Economic Area country and their family members, who are legally resident in the United Kingdom on the day on which this Act is passed, continue to be treated in the same way with regards to their EU derived-rights and, in the case of residency, their potential to acquire such rights in the future.

The debate was long and passionate. The chamber was packed – standing room only. I listened to the entire debate very carefully, but, when I went to speak, the House wanted to bring the debate to a conclusion and the Minister to respond; so, I missed my chance to add to the word count.

When it came to the division, I felt conflicted. I heard clearly the plea not to frustrate or delay the progress of the bill – or to compromise the Government’s freedom to negotiate once Article 50 has been triggered. However, I eventually voted for the amendment because I think the Government has not explained the reciprocal linking of the situations of EU nationals in the UK and UK nationals in the EU. We have some power in the case of the former, but none in the case of the latter.

Furthermore, and as I have questioned in the House before now, there is no bargain to be struck between the two parties. EU negotiators know (given that they watch the telly and read newspapers) that we cannot throw out EU immigrants already in the UK because much of our construction, academic, agricultural and NHS sectors would cease to function. On what ‘reciprocal basis’ do we think we can negotiate when our hand is already declared? The Government is right to refuse the language of “bargaining chips” because there are none – there cannot be a bargaining where a bottom line has already been assumed and articulated. Contrary to the assertions of some, there is no “equal footing” for the two groups.

One of the intriguing features of this debate for me was to try to listen through the ears of Angela Merkel or other Europeans. We do speak as if we are holding a private conversation. We spent over forty years telling European partners that they are corrupt, lazy and incompetent… and now we expect to get a great deal from them? Had France or Italy done what we are doing, we would have outstripped Merkel in our indignant “make them pay” calls.

Two other elements of the debate are worth moaning about, too. (a) The ‘moral high ground’ was claimed repeatedly. Yet, there is never any definition of what makes a position moral in the first place. What we usually mean is that the ground I stand on is moral, whereas the ground you stand on is not. This is a poor – and rather grandstanding – way of conducting a moral argument. (b) The language of ‘moral gesture’ was used by several speakers, and I know what they mean. But, Parliament is there to do moral good, not to make gestures. This way lies trouble.

That said, I voted for the amendment as the whole purpose of the House of Lords is to scrutinise and question, sending stuff back for further perusal by the Commons. This amendment will not slow down the triggering of Article 50 and will not ultimately frustrate the Government’s will (although the mass of correspondence – most of which I simply could not respond to – was divided on what was morally imperative and how I would be personally judged in the matter). But, it does make a statement that our democratic institutions should not bow to unconvincing arguments about process, and have the duty to raise questions of moral purpose … even where the language of such gets messed about.

EU nationals in the UK need reassurance and security now. I cannot see any reason why they should not be given it – in their interests and in the interests of the country.

The bill will now go back to the House of Commons where (I expect) the amendments passed in the Lords will be resisted; it will then return to the Lords quickly, and we will see what happens.

Beware the Ides of March…