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?

Advertisements

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.

 

I have been in the House of Lords all day today. I didn't put in to speak in any debate, but wanted to listen to debates on the European Union in particular. (The business for each day is established only a week or so beforehand – not great for people with diaries like mine.)

Following a debate on “the conditions in which Palestinian children are living and the impact on their health and wellbeing”, the first EU debate was a Topical Question for Short Debate (limited to sixty minutes): “to ask Her Majesty's Government what assessment they have made of the impact on British farmers of the decision to leave the European Union”.

The debate was good, intelligent and informed – normal for the House of Lords. Then we moved on to the second debate (limited to 2.5 hours): “that this House takes note of the European Union referendum result for government policies in ensuring safe staffing levels n the National Health Service and social care services.”

What was notable about contributions to both debates was the realism rather than romanticism about our Brexit future. The EU referendum debate was not rehearsed by Leavers or Remainers, but promises, 'facts' and 'lies' were given a good run around by many contributors on all sides of the House. The debate will be available on Hansard tomorrow, so I won't rehearse them here. But, two phrases used repeatedly by government ministers stand out for me, and both have ongoing resonance as we now walk into our promised glorious future.

First: until we actually leave the EU it is “business as usual”. It sounds reassuring; just a shame it is patently not true. Ask the NHS with its recruitment challenges. Ask academics who already are finding very real (and expressed) threats to funding – not only in the future, but now. Ask farmers who will be waiting a long time to find out what will happen to their subsidies when the Common Agricultural Policy no longer applies. I could go on, but read the debate when it is published.

In one sense, we can live with the prolonged uncertainty we have chosen, and we can take responsibility for facing the consequences of our decision. But, we should do it on the basis of reality and not language that promises what it cannot deliver. If we were going to have “business as usual”, there was clearly little point in having the referendum and voting to leave.

Second: statements that the UK “will” get the best deals for Britain, and so on. I have rehearsed this many times before. Negotiations have two or more parties. We don't negotiate with ourselves, guaranteeing the best deal for our benefit. We negotiate with countries we have mocked for decades as being incompetent, duplicitous and corrupt. And they are going to be well disposed to giving the UK the best deals – presumably at the expense of their own countries? Really?

Well, we will see what emerges in time. I hope we will get good deals, but this cannot be taken for granted (especially when we don't have any skilled negotiators anyway). And that is the point. The government should use the word “may” and not “will”. I guess “will” is intended to create (or reinforce) confidence that all will be well and all things shall be well. But, it cannot be justified at this point. “May” is more accurate.

Language matters.

 

It barely seems possible that only 40 hours ago a young MP was murdered on the streets of a quiet West Yorkshire town known previously for science (Joseph Priestley) and the Brontes. I spent much of the last two days in Birstall, doing media interviews and trying to support the local vicar and church. I make the following brief observations not for the benefit of the wider world (as if…), but in order that I should not lose for myself the impressions of the last couple of days.

  • Jo Cox was an unusual MP because she represented the place she grew up in and the people among whom she grew up. She not only did not forget her roots in Yorkshire grit, she returned to live among them. Hence the emotional impact locally – she was one of them.
  • The thoughts that keep,me awake have little to do with politics and everything to do with her husband and children. This is a grievous loss – an unimaginable cruelty to them as well as to Jo herself.
  • The man charged has now owned in court his far right, nationalist motive: he gave his name as “death to traitors, freedom for Britain”. Although speculation about motive was unhelpful in the early hours after Jo's death, there was one observation that merited consideration: the political discourse in this country is poisonous – and recognised beyond our borders to be so. To put it bluntly: if the linguistic and cultural pool we swim in is poisoned day after day – with opponents in the Referendum debate being dismissed as dishonest, corrupt, abusable and our European partners being daily written off as corrupt, incompetent and (their real crime) foreign – then we shouldn't be surprised when some people, for whatever broken and destructive reason, push language to consequent action.
  • If you haven't seen it, watch the German film Die Welle ('The Wave').
  • I am so proud of the local church in Birstall and the vicar, Paul Knight, who, never having been faced by anything like this before, did what the Anglican Parish Church is there to do: created space for all-comers to come together and share shock and grief. But, this space was not empty space – the few words spoken by Paul, by me and by the Bishop of Huddersfield were intended to do two things: (a) offer a vocabulary for grief and lament, and (b) to offer a framework for living for a time with unspeakable reflection not only about Jo Cox and her family, but also about our own mortality and fragility. Civilisation is thin. But, it is not bishops who do this day by day in a particular place; it is clergy and their people who, confident that the cross speaks of looking the real world in the eye (with all its brutality, injustice and agony), make space for grief in the context of resurrection. This violence and appalling destructiveness do not and will not have the final word.
  • Many of Jo Cox's fellow MPs were there at St Peter's, Birstall on Thursday evening. I feel strongly for them. For several of them – young parents themselves – the fragility was clear. As I said in the vigil: MPs do not simply curse the darkness, but light a candle to dispel it. They commit themselves to a vision for which they then work amazingly hard. What they get from a public fed by a cynical media is abuse, suspicion and sneering resentment. This must stop. Social media do not help in this, but consideration must now given to the potential legal consequences for those who threaten and abuse on social media.

Enough for now. I have a family celebration to go to in Liverpool. And I am not insensitive to the poignancy of this.

Having published on the Reimagining Europe blog (with a good opening joke) a somewhat exasperated post about the political discourse around the EU Referendum in England, I went on to read the latest tract published by the William Temple Foundation and found it addressing – more eirenically than I did – some of the central issues that lie behind our limited discourse.

Written by Craig Colhoun, Director of the London School of Economics & Political Science (LSE), it is entitled Religion, Government and the Public Good. Commending the importance of imagination (imagining the world we wish to create), he identifies three problems for our contemporary political discourse, and they are pertinent to our current debates:

We live in an era that is shaped by three difficulties in being articulate. These are difficulties in saying things that we want to say but can’t quite get out, things that we know at some level but have trouble making explicit. Articulacy depends on language, on narratives, on the way we represent the world to ourselves. But we have trouble putting things properly in the focus of attention. We find it hard, I’d suggest first, to articulate a sense of purpose greater than instrumental self-interest. Second, to articulate a shared identity that is strong enough really to bind us to each other and at the same time capacious enough to recognise differences among us. And third, to articulate our relationship to history and the future, and thus to time beyond the most short-term, immediate and even ephemeral engagements.

Not a bad place to start. Or, to put it more pointedly, who is articulating a bigger vision for what the UK might become in the world of which we are inextricably a part – a vision that goes beyond mere self-interest or short-term utilitarian individualism?

Suggesting that the loss of a religious vocabulary has been harmful to our secular discourse – not primarily because it was religious, but because the imagination that fired it has not found articulation in any other vocabulary – he reflects on William Temple's social vision and invites us to constitute a new imagining of (and, therefore, commitment to) the world:

Religious traditions can be powerful shapers of such understanding. They influence how we understand not just God or angels or the power of prayer. They also influence how we understand moral obligation and social relationships. Religious imaginaries can make marriage more than merely a contract between two individuals because it is a sacrament and embedded in a community. They can impose a sharp differentiation between the sacred and the worldly. They can encourage a relationship of either stewardship or dominion in regard to the earth. This suggests why it is misleading to try to reduce religion to a set of propositions about the world that are either true or false. That misses the extent to which religious understandings, embedded in practice as well as thought, are constitutive of the world.

I doubt if Donald Trump will find his own social or economic assumptions reflected here. But, the questions Calhoun asks dig beneath some of the glib, shortsighted and purely instrumental (utilitarian) language that currently fires the passions of those arguing about our future in the European Union.