This is the text of a speech just given in the House of Lords. I dropped material covered already by others (I was the ninth speaker and there was a speech limit of six minutes). For the wider context, and to see why I focused as I did, see Hansard when published.

Lord Harris of Haringey to move that this House regrets the conduct, and toxicity, of debate in public life; of the divisions in society which result from that; and calls on Her Majesty’s Government to take steps to address such divisions.

My Lords, I am grateful to Lord Harris for securing this debate and for the clarity of his and other speeches. (Although I think, regarding Lord Patten’s suggestion, that some of the people who should be there in such a discussion wouldn’t come – or would seek to disrupt it!)

We still admire Benjamin Disraeli for telling parliament that half the cabinet were asses and, on being ordered to withdraw the comment, responding: “Mr Speaker, I withdraw. Half the cabinet are not asses”. Political invective is not new and surely has its place in a free society. Yet words matter. Language is never neutral. And the ad hominem abuse we increasingly witness now simply encourages wider public expression of violent hatred. It is incrementally corrosive.

If the conduct of debate in public life has become toxic, then it can only be because it has been in the interests of some people to allow it to be so. I have already spoken in this House of “the corruption of the public discourse” and the consequences of normalising lying and misrepresentation. Reducing people to categories might reinforce tribal identity, but it demonises and dehumanises everyone else. As Viktor Klemperer recognised from 1930s Germany, a million repetitions of single words, idioms, and sentence structures or slanders become unconsciously assumed to be normal. Think of Rwanda and ‘cockroaches’.

Jo Cox MP was murdered ten miles from where I live. Her attacker shouted slogans about ‘Britain first’ while killing her. Do we think this is just unfortunate? Or do we admit the link between language, motivation and action? I doubt if there was much analysis of the meaninglessness of the phrase ‘Britain first’ and the assumptions that underlie it. But, there was clearly a dynamic between language, motivation and action – language free from social inhibition and language that legitimises violence in the minds of some people.

What on earth is going on here? Was the violent bile there already and the referendum simply opened a valve? Or has the lack of any legal or political restraint actually sanctioned or legitimised the sort of language we hear and read now? This isn’t about hand-wringing wimpishness about robust debate; rather, it now sees MPs fearing for their safety, Jess Phillips MP being openly spoken of in terms of when rape might be deemed OK, people voicing violence that would have been deemed unacceptable three or four years ago, but which now is normal. This poses a danger to our democracy and corrupts the nature of our common life. It is not neutral and it is not trivial.

Classic populist language – of Left or Right – uses simple slogans, divisive negativity and visceral emotional pull. The accuracy, factuality or truth of what is said is irrelevant. Such language is powerful and effective … and apparently accountable. What are Nigel Farage’s policies for the construction of a post-Brexit United Kingdom? Where is there even a hint of any responsibility for the future other than a rejection of the past. Just one simple message supported by a whole set of angry assumptions. The language is all of ‘betrayal’. The culprits – the enemies – are those who are not them.

This is viscerally emotional and not rational. Reality, truth and factuality are of no concern. Complex questions are reduced to simplistic binary choices. And it works.

What we are witnessing is a trading in the language of victimhood: [if I am a victim of other people’s power, then my bad behaviour is at least understandable, if not completely justifiable]. And everybody is now a victim. All sides of the Brexit shouting match claim to have been betrayed: hard-brexiters by soft-brexiters; remainers by leavers and leavers by remainers; ‘the people’ by the ‘elites’ and the establishment by the people. And everyone by the BBC. The ninth Commandment is there for a purpose: “Do not bear false witness against your neighbour.”

Surely only satire could see old-Etonian Oxbridge-educated senior multimillionaire politicians complaining about ‘establishment elites’ as if this term of abuse referred to someone else? But, no one laughs. And they get away with it. But, it is not a great leap from this to the sort of conspiracy theories that have brought anti-Semitism back into polite conversation.

When politicians speak of the PM “entering the killing zone” and “taking her own noose” to a meeting, we are in trouble.

The German philosopher Peter Sloterdijk writes that the nature of our public discourse matters because “moral and political aberrations almost always start with linguistic neglect.” Edmund Burke understood the powerful influence of abstract terms such as ‘liberty’ or ‘equality’ which have the power to move people without enlightening them.

We might be entering a dark age in these matters. But, we can put our own house in order and lead by example – for instance, by promoting a greater sense of responsibility among institutional and political figures who influence the public discourse; by making people who use such speech publicly accountable; by offering counter-narratives that ensure that our children hear something good and witness a discourse that is respectful.

We need strategies for addressing this and we need to start here, with politicians, in Parliament.

This is the basic text of a lecture at Bradford Cathedral today at the launch of the centenary year. It is quite long.

Bradford Cathedral is 100 years old in 2019. That is, this building has been a cathedral since 1919, but the building has been here for many centuries before that. It is living evidence of Christian worship, service and faithfulness through times of peace and conflict, change and challenge, struggle and joy. It was designated a cathedral within just one year of the end of the so-called “War to end all wars”. European and wider global manhood had been cut to shreds by the developing technological weaponry disposed at the hands of people the Enlightenment had told us were progressing. So, this cathedral witnessed the loss of Bradford’s youth and innocence and tried to shape a lens of experience and perception through which a bruised generation might look at its torn world and find ways of making it better.

Fifteen years later Adolf Hitler took power in a democratic election in Germany and twenty one years later Bradford was back at war. Do we ever really learn from history?

Well, here we are today celebrating the centenary of this cathedral as a cathedral, now one of three in a single diocese (a first in the Church of England), at a time of considerable political uncertainty at home and abroad. Have we learned from past experience how to live faithfully in the twenty first century with its challenges and opportunities, with its particular manifestations of age-old and oft-repeated political and social phenomena?

One such phenomenon is that of populism, a word that makes many people worry and yet one that ignites fire in the belly of some who are fed up with the status quo and who welcome any disruption of the old order. And this is the theme of this lecture – one that will only touch the surface of the current phenomenon, but will try to raise questions for fruitful consideration and debate.

It is hard to open a journal or newspaper these days without coming across the word ‘populism’ somewhere. But, although frequently cited, it is rarely defined. The lack of definition means that it is a weapon that can be wielded by anyone on any side of any political debate to describe pejoratively those with whom one disagrees.

But, why the revival of ‘populism’ now – as a term or a concept or a phenomenon?

In brief, the current world order is perceived to be changing – changing with a rapidity that leaves people feeling out of control. Like ‘post-modernism’, we know what we are ‘post’ – leaving behind; but, we don’t know what we are ‘pre’ – what sort of an order (or dis-order) we are creating. This uncertainty creates fear, and fear is not the best motivator for individual or collective behaviour. What is being fundamentally challenged in the West is the root assumption that (a) post-war liberalism is self-evidently right and obvious, (b) that the rules-based international order that grew out of half a century of global conflict (played out on the same soil that gave birth to the Enlightenment) is worth preserving, and (c) that globalisation and the pulling down of national borders benefits everyone.

Some commentators describe this challenge as a decade-delayed consequence of elite groups – international bankers and financiers, for example – who caused a global financial and economic crash and got away with it scot-free. (No one went to jail…) Poor people have to pay for the failures and crimes of the rich – which reinforces the suspicion that the dice are loaded in favour of the rich and powerful. The first casualty of this injustice is the destruction of trust in authority and institutions, accompanied by a carelessness about consequences of resistance. It is from this stable that the “we have had enough of experts” horse has bolted (even if the jockey is a privileged and Oxbridge educated journalist and government minister who has the nerve to refer to others as “the establishment elite”).

The important bit to note is the sense of impotence that all this evoked in entire communities. We can’t even control our own lives; our society is being overrun by foreigners; we are victims of decisions and priorities set by people who are unaccountable and act with impunity; we have been left behind.

Enter Donald Trump, Nigel Farage, Jair Bolsonaro, Matteo Salvini, Viktor Orban and the AfD. What they (and others) have in common is an ability to reduce complexity to simple slogans and to answer complex questions with simplistic solutions: “Take back control”; “Drain the swamp”; Islam or freedom?”; “Make America great again”. Language is key, fear is fundamental, and hope is reduced to instant gratification of visceral demand.

So, populism feeds off fear and insecurity, building a narrative of victimhood at the hands of ‘others’ who are trying to do me/us down. Well, we will come back to this later. First, let’s just note a bit of context. Nick Spencer of Theos points out:

  • In 1900 there were no fully-fledged democracies
  • In 1950 28% of regimes were fully democratic
  • By 2000 65% of regimes were fully democratic
  • From 2010 “fewer countries were making the transition to stable political accountability” and democracy began to retreat – ‘democratic recession’.

Old world assumptions were being challenged and fundamental assumptions about the inevitability of progress – technological and educational leading to moral – were being questioned. Three years ago it was unthinkable that a divorced atheist could be elected as President of the United States or an amoral liar could be appointed as the UK’s Foreign Secretary.

Of course, one of the learnings from that half-century of global violence was that populism can be manipulated by clever, charismatic and powerful people who offer simplistic solutions to complex questions. We learn from history, don’t we?

So, populism isn’t new; nor are those features of it with which we are becoming more familiar in Europe and beyond today. Human beings don’t really change. Technological sophistication and great learning do not necessarily make us morally stronger or more virtuous. As the Bishop of Hannover made clear in Ripon Cathedral on Remembrance Day, civilisation is thin, order is fragile, and chaos waits for a crack to appear. And when it does, emotional appeal trumps rational argument.

One of the books that made a deep impression on me when I was a student of German politics was called Open Thy Mouth for the Dumb (citing the book of Proverbs). It was written by Richard Gutteridge and detailed the failure of the German churches to offer opposition to the rise of Hitler in Weimar Germany. It is a painful read … and, like Christopher Clark’s great book on the origins of the First World War, Sleepwalkers, demonstrates how easily people are moved to do and defend terrible things, and how intimidating it is to oppose the powerful mass. But, it also cries out with the Christian need for courage in giving a voice to the voiceless and defying the agencies of violence, destruction and death.

If you find yourself in Berlin, visit the relatively new Topography of Terror museum (built on the site of the Nazi’s Gestapo HQ) and see how it depicts the slow disintegration of civil society as virtues are compromised bit by bit under the chipping away by the populist language and action of people who were good with words and symbols.

And remember how Ernst Thälmann rejected teaming up with other socialists in Weimar Germany because he thought that allying with Hitler and the Nazis would then allow the people – das Volk – to drop the obviously mad and bad Nazis and leave the self-evidently right Communists to rule. That miscalculation died with Thälmann in a concentration camp and the other 50 million expendables in other people’s political games.

Is popular affection always a bad thing? No, of course not. (On another occasion this year we will look at the popular resistance that led to the demise of communism – in the German Democratic Republic a resistance that was given space by churches  in places like Leipzig. We also need to recognise that this also gave rise eventually to a renewed rise of the Far Right in Germany.) But the word ‘populism’ is normally associated with a negative expression of popular will and the forces that generate division and fear. Yet, as I read somewhere recently: “Populism can sometimes sound like the name that disconcerted liberals give to the kind of politics in which ordinary people don’t do what liberals tell them.”

Much has been – and continues to be – written about populism, and there are some very good resources to help us understand what is happening in the world today. Of course, populism is, by definition, about the populace – the people. But, who are ‘the people’? If we look at Brexit and the 2016 referendum on UK membership of the European Union, for example, ‘the people’ appeared to be split down the middle: 52% to 48%. In the early hours of 24 June, as the result became clear, I tweeted: “The people have spoken, but we don’t know what they have said.” What I missed here was that ‘the people’ included both the 52% who voted to leave the EU and the 48% who voted to remain. However, it was not long before the Brexiteers began brandishing the sword of linguistic appropriation by identifying only Leavers as ‘the people’. This is what led in time to the Daily Mail loading a front page with photographs of Supreme Court judges under the heading ‘ENEMIES OF THE PEOPLE’. Not even a question mark.

At a meeting in the Cabinet Office about Brexit I asked the minister how we are to handle common slogans that are never defined, but used against opponents. I asked what we do if a slogan such as “the will of the people” turns out not to be “in the national interest”. This went down really well … and I still have received no answer to what I think is a very important question.

We shall return to the specific matter of language later, but it might be useful to summarise a few statements that might help us clarify what we mean when we speak of populism. I offer the following (somewhat selective) characteristics:

  • The language of populism assumes that society is divided between, on the one hand, ‘the people’ (noble, innocent, hard done to and pure) and, on the other hand, ‘the elite’ (corrupt, greedy, unaccountable, ignorant of life on the ground, detached from most people’s reality) – and the elite are always ‘the others’.
  • Populism feeds, and feeds off, emotion, not rational analysis.
  • Populism is more about style than substance – feeling rather than policies.
  • Populist leaders claim the ‘will of the people’ and quickly disregard democratic norms on the grounds that we are in crisis. Disruption is the name of the game: fearmongering, the promotion of conspiracy theories, the undermining of trust (in, for example, media and institutions).
  • Populism generates a culture of victimhood and diminishes resilience.

In a new book (Confronting Religious Violence) Rabbi Jonathan Sacks writes: to gain traction “populism has to identify an enemy”. It then amplifies its claims of victimhood at the hands of the enemy, using language to dehumanise or disrupt. Years before the onset of the French Revolution, Edmund Burke recognised that abstract terms such as ‘liberty’ or ‘equality’ had the power to move people without enlightening them. Words shape actions – and populists assert by slogan, use street language instead of careful and polite analysis, and corrupt the public discourse with language that defies definition, but hits at the heart of popular emotion. Just think about what is meant by the slogans I cited at the beginning of this lecture.

The disruptive language of the populists deliberately generates distrust of authorities – especially politicians, the media and experts – but feels no need to justify its own assumptions. Reality or rationality are dispensed with on the altar of visceral emotion as the populists set themselves up over against those they decry. They are ‘the people’ – their opponents are what? Identity politics are not neutral here.

Let’s return for a moment to the tweet I published the morning after the referendum: “The people have spoken, but we don’t know what they have said”. My point there was to ask a question rather than to make a point. What, for example, did the referendum result actually tell us about the EU? Or about Europe? Why did parts of the country vote strongly for Brexit when they will be poorer as a result? Why did people so easily believe bus-borne nonsense about £350 million being returned to the NHS? How was it possible for so many people to be duped by blatant lies and deliberate manipulation (by all sides)? It is simply not clear what this result had to do with the reality of the UK’s relationship with the EU and what was about giving Westminster a kicking. After all, what many Brexiteers articulated about their resentments had little or nothing to do with the EU and everything to do with policies of austerity rooted firmly in London. The wrong dog got kicked; but, who cares?

We could leave Brexit aside for one moment and cast our eyes at a different – but related – phenomenon: the appropriation of Christianity by the Far Right. Putin is supported by the Russian Orthodox Church because he fights for Holy Russia, dislikes Muslims, and has clear views on racial distinctions. Russia is Christian, so keep Muslims down. Well, that’s a long way away, so what has Russia to do with us? Look closer to home, then. Stephen Yaxley-Lennon (aka Tommy Robinson) speaks of the “Christian identity of the West” and the EDL brandish a cross – devoid of Christian theological meaning and representative solely of an anti-Muslim identity that embraces Christendom rather than Christianity. The cross is merely a flag to be waved when ethnicity is elided with a ‘faith’ identity.

What is disturbing here, however, is that the extremes of our political discourse seem to offer clarity where complexity is too demanding. “Lock her up” and “Crooked Hilary” were not thought up on the spur of the moment by Donald Trump, but were carefully crafted as short, gripping, practical and moral. Don’t unpack them – just wind up the mob to shout them. And just keep repeating the slogans; you won’t be asked to define them, but if you are, then the askers are clearly complicit in the crookery. Trump, Farage et al are expert at using language that appeals to people who want to know that their fears, concerns and unspeakable views are understood and sympathised with. It is a classic example of ‘empathy trumping competence’. Which probably brings us back to Brexit, ferries and pizza deliveries.

Of course, all agencies in society have a responsibility to promote and embody positive, constructive and truthful discourse; but, we need to pay particular attention to the role of the media in a world where populism is rife and the manipulation of emotions as well as messages is more powerful than ever. (If you want a good overview of the changes in the media landscape in the last three decades, you could do worse than read Alan Rusbridger’s recent book Breaking News: The Remaking of Journalism and Why it Matters Now (Canongate, 2018). He tells the story of how the Guardian has had to change in the wake of digital and other technological revolutions, but its value lies in the identification and articulation of the key questions and challenges facing society today when formerly trusted media of information have been overtaken by the somewhat anarchic cultures of social media and so-called citizen journalism. He illustrates why the diminution in the number and quality of professional journalists poses dangers to truth-telling, an objective understanding of the world and events, and the holding to account of power … including powerful media organisations and manipulators.)

Nick Robinson (BBC Today programme), in the Steve Hewlett Memorial Lecture in 2017, made two points that bear repetition here: (a) “Critics of the mainstream media now see their attacks as a key part of their political strategy. In order to succeed they need to convince people not to believe ‘the news’.” (b) Attacks on the media are no longer a lazy clap line delivered to a party conference to raise the morale of a crowd of the party faithful. They are part of a guerrilla war being fought on social media day after day.”

I think Robinson is touching on a phenomenon that is more than a game for those interested in such things. When the Daily Mail identifies Supreme Court judges (doing their job independently of political masters in either the legislature or the executive) as “ENEMIES OF THE PEOPLE” and the German Alternative für Deutschland revive the Nazi insult ‘LÜGENPRESSE’, something sinister is happening. The fact that they can get away with it is frightening. There is method in this undermining of authority, intelligent analysis and commentary, and the integrity of experts in mainstream media. The populists also know that the business models that have supported such media accountability are bust; social and digital media are unaccountable, endlessly manipulable, and ideal for sloganizing brevity rather than longer, more complex analysis. Richard Gingras, Vice President of Google News, put it like this: “We came from an era of dominant news organisations, often perceived as oracles of fact. We’ve moved to a marketplace where quality journalism competes on an equal footing with raucous opinion, passionate advocacy, and the masquerading expression of variously-motivated bad actors.”

These actors, of course, include the charismatic leaders who drive populist movements and shape their cultures. These are the manipulators who themselves might well be being manipulated by other ‘actors’: think Trump and Russia, for example. Trump, Orban, Duterte, Bolsonaro: these men disrupt norms of language and behaviour, thereby portraying themselves as ‘breakers with past elites’. They perpetuate a state of crisis, promoting conspiracy theories and fearmongering, always on the offensive, on a permanent campaign to convince the populace that they are not ‘establishment’. Even when they are as elitist as you can get. Anywhere. Their approach is always negative: they are anti-intellectual, anti-establishment, anti-elite, anti democratic systems of modern government (preferring direct appeal to individuals in referendums). They are essentially authoritarian, intolerant and, frequently, amoral. And they promise big, knowing that they won’t have to deliver – people prefer big ambition to slow realism, even when they know it’s all a big fib: NHS slogans on the side of a bus; “no downsides to Brexit”; etc. As Alan Rusbridger summarises it: “Populism is a denial of complexity.” (p.93)

One more word about language and then I will attempt to say something about a Christian approach to all this stuff. I realise this won’t be accepted by those who think I am a stupid Remainer who can’t accept reality; but, I am actually trying to articulate the questions all of us – whatever we think about Brexit or Trump – need to be thinking about as our society and our world changes.

I have spoken several times in the House of Lords about “the corruption of the public discourse” and this is where these reflections coincide. As Rowan Williams illustrates in his books on Dostoyevsky and language, it is always the corruption of language and confusion of meaning that leads to the chipping away of social order and acceptable behaviour. Words are actions – language is performative. Read George Orwell’s 1984 and see how the corruption and control of language are key to the corruption and control of a populace. An unspeakable idea finally gets articulated; repetition reduces the social inhibitions that normally moderate language; the language, free of sanction, then encourages behaviour – for good or ill. Dehumanise people by categorising them, and then bad behaviour becomes not even merely permissible, but both inevitable and encouraged. Call the other tribe (or immigrants or asylum-seekers) ‘cockroaches’ and see what happens.

Behind the language lies a more concerning matter. My lifetime has coincided with philosophical developments that have not all proved to be helpful to humanity. The problem is that we now live with the consequences of philosophical assumptions that, in isolation fifty years ago, seemed noble and innocent of themselves. Take, for example, the existentialism of Sartre and Camus: I authenticate my existence by choosing. Well, that is fine if you accept that making choices is what defines a human being. Individual autonomy assumes moral frameworks that depend on individuals basically choosing to behave collectively in particular ways; but, these need not necessarily include altruism. Develop this alongside the culture of human rights and eventually you get to a different set of challenges: for example, if my individual rights (to freedom of religious expression) conflict with your human rights (to freedom of speech), who arbitrates … according to what authority … according to which criteria? Hierarchies of rights introduce new questions.

Today the questions these cultural and philosophical developments have generated have to do fundamentally with truth. Is there such a thing as ‘truth’ – that which remains true regardless of opinion or partisan affection? Or do we now prioritise opinion over truth and fact? How can Donald Trump get away with constant flip-flopping contradiction and a confident recourse to what his press spokesperson called “alternative facts”? Is the deliberate division of people into ‘us and them’ – depending on their agreement with my opinion, regardless of truth or fact – ultimately sustainable? Populism, as Jonathan Sacks has stated and we noted earlier, “has to identify an enemy” if it is to gain traction; it separates in order to oppose; it polarises and generalises, fearing difference or challenge; it serves only the interests of those who collude or whose personal interests coincide with it. After all, ‘Fake News’ is simply news that is inconvenient to my opinion, perception or interests; it is a dismissive term of abuse that needs make no reference to reality, fact, truth or objectivity.

Well, so far so good. It is not a pretty picture – even at the cursory level on which I have set the debate. Populism is a threat to an ordered society and world, not primarily because it is inconvenient to the interests of powerful elites, but because the phenomenon itself embraces and legitimises language, behaviour and moralities that are manipulable by powerful elites whose morality is unaccountable. So, how should Christians handle all this stuff?

The Bible is not neutral on the matter. When I preached on this theme at St John’s College, Cambridge, a couple of months ago I had to choose two readings. I opted for Exodus 32:1-9 (the Israelites making a golden calf while Moses was up a mountain) and Matthew 27:15-26 (where the mob call for the freeing of Barabbas instead of Jesus, and “Crucify him!” frames the “Lock her up!” of that generation. This is how I began the sermon:

It’s easy to laugh, isn’t it? A primitive people, out in the desert en route from over 400 years of oppression in Egypt towards a land of promise. Their leader, who had a habit of being somewhat singleminded when it comes to how things should be done, disappeared up a mountain for a while; and, because he didn’t come back down immediately, the people found a more emollient leader who gave them what they wanted: a golden calf to worship. So, that was quick and easy. All they had experienced, all they had learned … and they threw it away in an instant. You have to read the whole book to see that this isn’t a rare experience.

Jesus has proved to be good news to some and very bad news to others. So, when those whose security is threatened by the man from Galilee finally get him before a judge, they know how to whip up the crowd – presumably including those who have seen the transformative things Jesus has done – and “Crucify him” wins the day.

As our readings have illustrated, the challenges of destructive populism are not new.

So, here we can move on to think about what the Christian tradition might have to say in our day … in a culture that confuses patriotism with nationalism and reduces the public discourse to the trading of competing slogans devoid of substantive vision. As Adrian Pabst wrote in a recent edition of the New Statesman: “The populist insurgency sweeping the West reveals a lack of moral purpose among the main political forces… At present, none of the three main traditions offers a politics of ethical purpose, hope and meaning.”

Now, it could be argued that the Christian tradition in the West has lost its roots. The irony in the USA hardly needs spelling out: the Evangelical Right didn’t let ethics or ethical consistency stand in the way of Trump. Here in Europe Christian identity has been appropriated by political movements and associated with a narrow nationalism that threatens to cut it off from a founder who said that we should love (even) our enemy, serve and not be served, wash the feet of the undeserving, and set free those captive to hopelessness, rejection and fear.

The Moses who stayed too long up the mountain in the Exodus reading is the same Moses who had insisted that the land of promise must also be a land of generosity and justice. According to Deuteronomy 26, the people must bring to the priest the first 10% of their harvest and recite a creed that reminded them of their nomadic and dependent origins. Furthermore, they must leave the 10% around the edge of their field so that there would be something for the homeless, the hungry, the migrants and the travellers. The same Jesus they crucified in Matthew 27 is the one who had opened his mouth for those who had no voice and no dignity, and met populist bloodthirstiness with a bold silence that turned the judge into the judged.

A Christian response to populism (in the negative terms I have used for the purposes of this paper) must begin with a clear theological anthropology: human beings are made in the image of God and must not be categorised, dehumanised or relativized by language that leads to violence or rejection. But, Christian discipleship goes further – as I will illustrate briefly.

For ten years I represented the Archbishop of Canterbury, Rowan Williams, at some global interfaith conferences. They did my head in. The greatest aspiration was “mutual tolerance” – particularly on the part of politicians who wanted to anaesthetise potential religious fervour (on the assumption that religions were problematic, basically all the same, but encouraged different dress and diets). Of course, they thought their own worldview was neutral and self-evidently true. Anyway, I grew to loathe the word ‘tolerance’. To tolerate someone need not involve any investment in understanding or empathising with them – the attempt to look through their eyes, hear through their ears or feel through their skin. I got bored repeating the same line year in year out: Christians are called to go beyond tolerance to love.

Now, this is the easy bit. It is easy to ask people to imitate Jesus and love their enemy as well as their friend. It’s just quite hard to do. But, unless we are to be like the German Christians (Deutsche Christen) seduced into an elision of the Kingdom of God and the Reich of Adolf Hitler, we have to learn to pay attention to those things in our society that need to be encouraged (kindness, generosity, justice and humaneness) and identify and challenge those that are destructive. Christians are called to be realists, not fantasists – loving truth (even when it is hard to discern but important to plug away at) and resisting lies, misrepresentation, manipulation and subterfuge. Lovers of light and not colluders with darkness.

This means resisting the dualisms being propagated whereby you have to be on one side of a debate or the other, but from which any nuance or subtlety or complexity is expunged. It means creating space for encounter and conversation when it seems that everyone is lobbing grenades from the trenches. It means refusing to accept the polarising premises that the ideologues represent as the only options.

Practically and as a priority, however, we can pay attention to the language we use in shaping the discourse in a collapsing society. I lead for the bishops in the House of Lords on Europe, so have spent a considerable amount of time on Brexit and the fierce debates in Parliament. I have repeatedly pleaded for our legislature to watch its language and do something to redeem our articulated common life. Everyone agrees, but many then promptly revert to the categorising and mudslinging. I could illustrate this at length.

But, the Christian tradition has something more to offer in these current dangerous circumstances of division and insecurity and growing fear: hope.

The Old Testament book of Proverbs is often quoted: “Without a vision the people perish.” So, what is the vision being offered to the people of our islands, for example, as we prepare to leave the European Union? (Or not. Who knows?) And, if we do have a vision, how is it to be expressed? For, if the devil has all the good music, the populists have all the good slogans. The Brexit debate is not about political vision or substance; it is not rational or about reality – just look at the actual consequences already; it is visceral and emotional. Poor people might well get considerably poorer, but many would still vote to leave, anyway.

But, Christians are not driven by fear; we are drawn by hope. A hope that comes to us from the future – resurrection. It is a hope that should not be confused with fantasy. It commits to the life of the present – in all its complexity and muckiness – but refuses to see the present reality as the end or the ultimate. It takes a long-term view with a reckless courage that even dares to sing the songs of Yahweh while sitting in exile on the banks of Babylon’s rivers, being mocked by those whose vision is short. It is a hope that sees ‘now’ in the light of eternity and declines to build – let alone worship – golden calves. It is a hope that, in the face of baying crowds, will still cry out for justice. It is a hope that knows what was whispered at Christmas: “The light has come into the world, and the darkness cannot overcome it.”

There is a desperate need for a younger generation to find the language for a new narrative for our politics and our common life here and in the world. A new narrative rooted in the old story … of God and his people, of the apparent bloody failure of a cross planted in a rubbish tip, and of the haunting whisper of a song of resurrection. It might take some time and we might fail a million times. But, we know there is more to be said before the conversation ends.

I concluded my sermon in Cambridge with this: Maybe our slogan ought to be: “Let there be light”. I believe it. But, we have an obligation and a challenge to turn this permissive concept (slogan?) into practical reality. If Adrian Pabst, Rowan Williams and Michael Sandel are right in their critiques of current forms of populism and the roots that have allowed these to flourish, then Christians – not just bishops in the House of Lords – must address some honest questions and take responsibility for resisting darkness and shining light, the light of the Christ who was on the receiving end of the mob’s “Crucify him!”. Our manifesto must be rooted in that which fired up Jesus as he began his public ministry in Luke 4; or the Beatitudes in Matthew 5; or the Ten Commandments which frame the obligations and inhibitions that enable a free society to thrive – including not misrepresenting your neighbour’s case.

This last reference might just push Christians to question the dualistic language being used to perpetuate a common sense of crisis, and to divide people according to notions of who is in and who is out. We need to listen for the voices of those who are silent or have no voice. We must resist those who offer simplistic (but emotionally appealing) solutions to complex questions – even if the complexity is boggling to us. We must question what we are being fed through media, and question which values are being driven by which people, especially when charismatic leaders are involved. We must insist on integrity, on consistency within clear moral frameworks, on the place of head over heart when making big decisions that have consequences for many people. (Can we think of a single Brexiteer who will suffer personally from a disastrous Brexit?)

But, I want to conclude with what might sound like an odd appeal. Politics is a rough old game. Christians should not be afraid of rough politics. I don’t mean to encourage the ad hominem bitchiness that targets individuals, questions their motives at every turn, and abuses them with language that dehumanises. I don’t mean to invite slanging matches between firmly convinced opinionators whose ignorance is exposed by a couple of sharp questions. I do mean to encourage engagement with the detail of political decision-making at every level. Those who represent us in our parliamentary (and local) democracy need our prayers and our encouragement. They need to know they can trust Christians to listen and tell the truth (as they see it). They also need to know that we can argue a case on the grounds of that case without resorting to easy slogan or dismissive attack. Yes, we can call out inconsistency between articulated policy and delivered reality; but, we can also encourage where hard and costly decisions are made, often with limited foresight and contested will.

Christians must love the light by looking at the world – and our politics, and our media – in the light of the Christ who is the light of the world. Don’t just look at Jesus – look at the world through his eyes, say what you see – always with the humility that we might be myopic or wilfully blind – and be trustworthy and faithful.

Viktor Fankl addresses where “freedom threatens to degenerate into mere licence and arbitrariness unless it is lived in terms of responsibleness” and suggests that the Statue of Liberty on the East Coast of the USA should be supplemented by a Statue of Responsibility on the West Coast. It is unlikely to happen; but, Christians should be at the forefront of holding these together at a time when there are powerful moves to drive them apart.

My last word before questions and discussion refers to two book titles by the American Old Testament theologian Walter Brueggemann: Hopeful Imagination and The Prophetic Imagination. Christians are called – in whatever time and place they live – to be people of hope, to imagine a different way and to live it. Prophetic living is not gazing into a crystal ball and guessing what the future might hold; rather, it is looking at the present in the light of the past and resolving to be faithful to God and his call whatever the future might hold.

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”?

 

A cursory glance at social media makes it clear that there is huge concern – across political and cultural divides – about the degeneration of public life, behaviour and language. It is not hard to see why.

Against the explosion of sexual harassment claims (which exposes decades of ‘normal’ behaviour that went unchallenged because of its normality), we also see an eruption of trial by media. I have little sympathy for those who find themselves caught out, but do worry about those who are innocent, but now find themselves tried and sentenced by allegation. There must surely be implications for what I am calling the integrity of the public discourse.

But, we now have a US President who is a proven liar, misogynist and sexual predator (by his own taped evidence), and he continues in power. The lying and misrepresentation does not appear to disturb those who would have strung up previous presidents for just one faux pas. Lying and misrepresenting have become normalised. And there is no penalty.

Yesterday the Brexit Secretary, David Davis, told a House of Commons committee that the 57 Brexit impact assessment papers do not exist. In October these not only existed, but went into what he described as “excruciating detail”. When Parliament demanded sight of them, a highly secretive bunch of papers was eventually submitted to a limited audience – deemed by readers on all sides to be statements of the obvious. This turn of events should, at the very least, be deeply concerning.

The question here is not about the apparent (or should that be ‘alleged’) incompetence of the government in driving the negotiations for the UK’s departure from the EU, but the fact that someone up there is misleading not only Parliament, but the British public. This is not about whether or not we should be leaving the EU; this is not about whether the government is going about its work in the right way or competently; this is not about democracy, parliamentary sovereignty or the legitimate confidentiality demanded by sensitive process; this is about the normalisation of corruption (which, in terms of language, is no less serious than in other ethical matters), the easy acceptance of lying and misrepresentation by a bewildered public, and the implications for civil society (as well as what we teach our children by word and example) of allowing language to be debased, facts to be dismissed in the face of ‘alternative truths’, and for this to be done with such casual impunity.

I have lots of conversations with concerned politicians and journalists about the corruption of the political discourse. I am less sure what to do about it other than to challenge it and try to demonstrate a different way. This goes deeper than “speaking out”.

Any ideas?

This is the basic text of my speech in the House of Lords this afternoon, not wanting to repeat what had already been said and trying to make a contribution (in a five minute speech limit) that others might not.

This House takes note of challenges to the liberal international order posed by the development of populism and nationalism around the world.

This is an important debate because it invites us to go behind the popular terms of discourse and to identify some of the philosophical dynamics at play in contemporary political developments.

The excellent Library Note makes it clear that language matters – that definition of terms is not incidental. Populism is clearly more than a movement of people who listen only to the facts that support the prejudices they have already nurtured; but, it can exploit assertive language in such a way as to obscure truth.

And this is what I wish to focus on here. Whereas others will discuss the importance of a rules-based international order, I want to say something about language in a post-truth or post-factual world, and pose a couple of questions about the assumptions we make regarding history.

The United Kingdom (as illustrated by the unfortunate reference of the Foreign Secretary yesterday) has defined itself by its share in the defeat of fascism in the twentieth century. Have we moved on? If we assume that our domestic order has been defined for ever by a past victory, we should not be surprised when our complacency finds itself undermined by events that are not trapped in that same narrative. Democracy and the rule of law are not natural and immutable givens, but are goals for which we must struggle in each generation.

This is why the narratives that guide our self-understanding as a nation among nations on a very small planet in a very large universe matter so much. It is why the UK seeing itself through the lens of a long-gone empire is so facile. It is why seeing Germany simply through the lens of Adolf Hitler is ridiculous. It is why illusions of power are dangerous when they shape language and rhetoric that are heard differently by other audiences. We need new narratives for the contemporary world – narratives of hope rooted in an authentic anthropology that takes seriously the destructive elements of human nature (what used to be known as ‘sin’).

Western liberalism has become complacent about its own self-evident superiority. It is arguable that the proper balance between individual rights and concerns for the common good has not been established. I would argue that this complacency has contributed to the sense of alienation and detachment being seen in what is being called political populism. Progress is not inevitable; it is not true that things can only get better; human rights cannot be assumed to be self-evidently right. Battles for peace, order and social cohesion are not won once and for ever. The tendency to entropy is powerful and finds it easier to pull down rather than build up.

The sorts of populism we see now (and I am trying not to load the term beyond the observation that certain demagogues claim to speak on behalf of ‘the people’) are destructive precisely because they evidently collude in destruction without a compelling vision for what should be constructed. Hence, we have seen a referendum campaign fuelled by lies, misrepresentation and an easy readiness to abuse language.

Who are the elites? Especially when they are being condemned or ridiculed by public school and Oxbridge-educated journalist-politicians who command six-figure incomes above and beyond their basic salary, and who will, whatever the outcome of Brexit, not suffer greatly? Why does it not matter that promises can be made in a referendum campaign that simply get dismissed within hours of that campaign ending? Can liberal order survive the corruption of language and the reduction of truth or fact to mere political convenience or expediency? It is not a game.

Tomorrow sees the inauguration of a US President for whom truth is a commodity to be traded. Direct contradiction of what is proven fact is loudly asserted without shame or embarrassment. I make no comment or judgement about his ability to govern the United States or contribute intelligently and wisely to the establishment of a just international order; I simply observe that the corruption of language and truth is in itself dangerous for everyone.

This debate is about the challenges to the liberal international order posed by the development of populism and nationalism around the world. The liberal international order is not a natural given or an inevitable right. It begs as many questions (of inherent legitimacy) as it addresses. Populism and nationalism are not new phenomena, and their development is a constant in societies that feel uncertain or have lost the security found in a clear sense of common or mutual identity. The particular danger of today’s developments around the world is that instability is far easier to create than stability; that order is fragile and chaos a tempting attraction; that the spectre haunting Europe and the world has little to do with ‘what the people – whoever they are – want’ and much to do with how they can be manipulated into thinking that what they are told they want is in fact what is good for them. The anti-elitist anti-establishmentarians are perpetrating a fraud in their elitist and self-promoting rhetorics. But, they will not be the people to pay the price.

I suspect that the order of the past is being challenged by the threat or promise of a new order. It is essential that we articulate a compelling vision for an order that serves the common good, shapes a good society and resists the claims of a post-truth rhetoric which tells us lying is acceptable as a means to an end.

A statement was read in the House of Commons yesterday and repeated later in the House of Lords regarding the 'Process for Invoking Article 50'. The statement was read in the Commons by David Davis, Secretary of State for Exiting the European Union, and in the Lords by Lord Bridges. Both statements were followed by lengthy and impassioned debate.

There are two elements that struck me, both of which I tried to reference in a question I put in the Lords.

First, the statement begins by saying:

The Government's priority at every stage following the referendum has been to respect the outcome of that referendum and ensure it is delivered on.

My immediate response was to wonder if respect for the outcome was being matched by respect for the people. If 17.4 million people voted to leave the EU, that leaves almost the same number who did not. They need to be respected as well as those who voted to leave. The constant referral to the motives of all those who regret the referendum result – and question the process since – as obstructive is disrespectful. We have a very divided country. Many would like to reverse the decision. But, many who regret it do not see it this way, yet still find themselves criticised and their own integrity impugned. The statement says:

And we will give no quarter to anyone who, while going through the motions of respecting the outcome of the referendum, in fact seek ways to thwart the decision of the British people.

And that is being used to justify writing off the legitimate questions being asked in Parliament and beyond.

My second point, and the one I focused on in my question in the Lords, has to do with the closing paragraph:

We are going to get on with delivering on the mandate to leave the European Union in the best way possible for the UK's national interest – best for jobs, best for growth and best for investment.

Good. The government does need to get on with its work. But, have we really reduced 'the national interest' to economics? Does the national interest not also include what will be best for social order, reconciliation and the maturity of the public/political discourse? If so, does the government not also have a responsibility to defend the independence of the judiciary and those who do what the constitution requires of them without them being subjected to ad hominem vituperation at the hands of a press that shapes the public conversation and does not simply reflect it?

In the House of Lords every attempt to get the government to condemn the behaviour of elements of the press met with a stonewall. Understandable in the circumstances, but neither helpful nor acceptable. The government cannot simply wipe its hands of a declining public discourse that its own language might be seen to encourage.

The statement can be read here.

 

I am writing this in Berlin while attending an international inter-parliamentary conference on freedom of religion and belief. Parliamentarians have come from all over the world and from every continent bar Australia. And the question put to me by almost everyone I meet? Brexit. I have yet to meet anyone who doesn't think the UK has been either mad or stupid.

My own position is that of the realist: the decision has been made (in a non-binding referendum that now puts a wider question over the nature of parliamentary democracy), the boat has sailed (with some enormous holes in it), and, even if we wanted to go back on the referendum result, our position is now seen as having moved in the eyes of our interlocutors in Europe and beyond. So, we now have to get on with it and shape the future, whatever this might bring.

In a session this morning Ján Figel (Special Envoy for the promotion of freedom of religion or belief outside the EU, and chair of the Christian Democratic Movement in Slovakia) remarked that there are three types of people: commentators, lamentators or doers. How pertinent. We can comment, lament or act. It is a choice.

So, what I go on to write now does not ignore the Brexit vote, but it does pay attention to some of the phenomena arising from it that need to be taken seriously because of the impact they have on our culture and the nature of our discourse. I'll put the point in the form of a question.

Is a promise still a promise even when the person doing the promising has no authority to make the promise, no responsibility for fulfilling the promise made, or bears no accountability for the consequences of the promise not being kept?

Well, we know that £350 million is not going to go into the NHS, despite what was written on the side of a bus and vigorously defended in the media by its authors. Actually, it was never going to happen. The only question is why so many people ever believed it. It was not costed, it had already been promised three times over, and none of those who promised it had any authority to do so. Yet, to question it was deemed disloyal or unimaginative.

Yesterday the Sun called the EU spiteful for suggesting that Brits might need to pay for a visa to visit countries such as Germany of France. Well, what did they think would happen? The EU isn't a benevolent society for people who have slagged them off for decades as corrupt, lazy and incompetent. Maybe we will learn what our £350 million actually bought us – like free movement and easy/cheap travel.

How would you answer those international MPs who ask what preparations were done in order to enable Brexit to happen? Given that the answer is 'none', and that no one in Whitehall or Downing Street seems able to answer simple questions about what Brexit will (or, even, might) actually look like, saying limply that “we have taken back control” sounds a bit feeble and empty of content.

So, we still hear politicians telling us that we “will” get great deals, that we can forge our way in the world with other countries simply giving us the best on offer – their best interests miraculously coinciding with ours. Not “might” or “hopefully will”, but “will”. A promise. A promise made by people who cannot deliver on it. A promise with no content. And still people seem to believe the promises.

I am beginning to wonder if we might have needed (and should have heeded) experts, after all.