This is the basic text of a lecture given at Bradford Cathedral on Sunday 16 February 2020, followed by a Q&A and a sermon (at Choral Evensong) on Revelation 4.

Introductory survey

”The world isn’t working. Things are unravelling, and most of us know it.” So begins the Introduction to Jim Wallis’s book The Soul of Politics. He goes on: “Our intuition tells us the depth of the crisis we face demands more than politics as usual.” He then cites Gandhi’s seven social sins: politics without principle; wealth without work; commerce without morality; pleasure without conscience; education without character; science without humanity; worship without sacrifice.

When did Wallis write this? 1994 – twenty six years ago when Bill Clinton was US President, John Major was Prime Minister, Helmut Kohl was German Chancellor, Mandela was elected as President of South Africa and, while the world was horrified by the Rwandan massacre, the Balkans reminded us that ethnic wipe-outs were not just the stuff of European history. The blurb on the back of the book helpfully says: “As the acquisitive eighties are left behind and we bask in the idea of the more ‘caring’ nineties, Jim Wallis’ book is both a sharp reminder of cold reality and an encouraging manifesto for change.” Remember the ‘caring’ nineties? They came before the nervous noughties and austerity teens, leading us into the world of Trump and Johnson, fake news and unaccountable demagoguery, brazen lying and morality-free manipulation of people and facts.

Well, in my own lifetime I have seen the colour of politics change. The ravages of the Second World War were even to be seen in the buildings and bombsites of Liverpool in the sixties when I went to school. The seventies saw battles for the economic life of this country, leading eventually to Thatcherism and the radical reordering – some would call it destruction – of many communities in the wake of social and economic engineering. And all this was going on while the bipolar world threatened nuclear war and global extinction – the Cold War turning into a very Hot War, as it were. Proxy wars were fought around the world as Right and Left, Capitalism and Communism, fought their corner in places where weapons were the most powerful currency. The eighties ended with the end of the Soviet Union and the collapse of the Iron Curtain, leaving a supposedly monopolar world in which liberal free-market Capitalism led an uncontested procession through financial deregulation, globalism and optimism (unless, of course, you lived somewhere that paid the price for all these marvellous benefits to the wealthy West).

The ‘caring’ nineties ended in Blairite optimism, facing a new millennium in which the planet could see only growth, peace and liberal ascendancy. 9/11 put an end to all that. The Twin Towers, almost a visual symbol of the dollar sign itself, collapsed under attack from a form of Islamism of which the world was largely ignorant (despite Afghanistan, Iran and Iraq, and other riven countries) and for which the world was unprepared. Assumptions about the inevitability of liberal domination bled into the dust of New York, provoking an awakening awareness of what was going on in the shadows. Economic globalism opened the windows to globalised terrorism and experiences of brutality that most civilised people thought had gone out with the Romans – or, at least, with the horrors of the twentieth century and its Hitlers, Stalins and Pol Pots. Extremist politics began to breathe the fresh air of societies unprepared for the challenges of a brave new world in which migration, once seen in Europe as an economic necessity, turned into a mass movement of people driven by fear to escape oppression, bloody conflict and violence.

At the beginning of the new decade we see the Far Right rising in both west and east, re-running Weimar in an age desperate for nostalgic certainties, but forgetful of how democracies were undermined less than a century ago by demagogues who loved power more than truth, morality or integrity. Brexit has exposed much that we might have preferred to keep hidden beneath the complacent skin of a Europe that assumed its liberal credentials without ever really checking them. Nationalisms are growing, language is being corrupted, lies are deemed acceptable, and, in the USA, people who would have damned Obama for kissing the wrong woman excuse the amorality, stupidity, recklessness and incompetence of Donald Trump (who will probably get re-elected in November). I have said enough elsewhere about Brexit, Boris Johnson, the public discourse and the triumph of slogan over truth.

Where we are now

But, contemporary politics in the UK and wider western world face other challenges. The legitimacy of electoral systems, assumed until very recently to guarantee security and democratic accountability, is now being questioned. A referendum seemed a reasonable mechanism to use in gauging the mood of a nation until, too late, we realised that it has little or no place in a system of parliamentary democracy in which representatives (not delegates) are elected to make decisions together on our behalf. The stability of German political life is currently strained by the presence in both the Bundestag and state parliaments of the Far Right pro-nationalist Alternative für Deutschland – now evoking memories of Weimar: they are getting into power by electoral means, but their manifesto is one that, once in power, will undermine the very democracy that allowed them to be there in the first place. (As I discussed in a sermon in autumn 2019 at Manchester Cathedral for the start of the new legal year, democracy depends not on the rule of law, but the rule of good law.)

The 2019 general election in the UK made clear that, for now at least, old tribal identities and loyalties have been replaced by new alliances around eclectic identities and affections, often based on false associations. As I have said more than once in the House of Lords, the surgery of Brexit will not address the disease that ostensibly caused people to vote for it: most complaints about the EU had little or nothing to do with membership of the EU, but everything to do with Westminster, austerity (a choice of the UK government without any interference by Brussels) and metropolitical complacency. Wealthy Old-Etonian, Oxbridge-educated professionals, immune from any economic consequences of a bad Brexit, persuaded the rest of us that other people were the ‘elite’ ‘establishment’. How did that happen?

Behind this lies a feature of political life that certainly isn’t new. Those profiting now from the reordering of political life and discourse are those who know how to disrupt, cause chaos, kick the furniture around. While everyone else is either distracted or disorientated the disruptors exploit the chaos, capitalise on the collapse, and then proclaim themselves as the saviours from the chaos they caused, but for which they take no responsibility. Trump, Cummings, Salvini, Bolsonaro, Orban: I could go on.

Well, that’s all pretty miserable, isn’t it? And that is only a rather selective thumbnail sketch of where we are and how we got here. Others will see it differently and describe where we have got to as progress. And that is a debate for another time and another place. For today, however, I want to pose questions about the nature of good politics, healthy discourse, and accountable power.

Politics

Politics is simply the discourse of our public life – our common life. Bring two human beings together and you have politics: potentially two different perspectives, two understandings of what matters and what should be done, two parties to a power relationship, and so on. The negotiation of a common life and ordering of how we live is the stuff and raison d’etre of politics. It has to do with people, priorities and principles, praxis, personalities and power. (So many ‘p’s.) Rowan Williams puts it like this in his introduction to an excellent book edited by Nick Spencer and Jonathan Chaplin and entitled ‘God and Government’ (SPCK, 2009): “… if God’s purpose for humanity is a common purpose, not just a set of individual blueprints for escape from a disaster area, we have a duty to ask how the organising of society makes this purpose harder or easier, more or less attainable.”

This is why the rather tedious protestations that religious leaders should keep out of politics is so absurd as to defy rational discussion. (The establishment by law of the Church of England and the place of bishops in the House of Lords are up for debate, but in a completely different category: that of political ordering and democratic accountability.) Speaking for myself, Christian commitment is about human flourishing (the kingdom of God) rooted in a theological anthropology that holds sacred the infinite value of every human being and the need for mutual sacrifice in costly love in the interest of the common good for all in a particular society. Good politics, in this sense, places people and their essential dignity at the heart of the discourse. Made in the image of God. If politics is about people, it is hard to see how religion can have nothing to do with it. If religion is about people, it is hard to see how it can have nothing to do with politics.

You might be wondering where the title of this lecture came from. ‘Waiting for a Miracle‘ is the title of a 1987 song and album by Canadian singer-songwriter Bruce Cockburn. It recognises that people keep plugging away at making the world more just and more generous, but all the while waiting for a miracle. The task seems both endless and unachievable. The powermongers keep winning out. Like the lament of the Psalmists and the prophets of the Hebrew scriptures, we long for heaven while being chained to earth where the poor suffer at the hands of the rich, the weak under the boot of the powerful, the meek in the shadow of the self-interested. But, waiting for a miracle – or someone else to ‘do something’ is an abdication of responsibility on the part of a citizen whose citizenship brings both privilege and obligation.

I remember a number of conversations with Zimbabweans during a visit to that beautiful country over a decade ago. Inflation was around 10,000%, the secret police were everywhere, there was no water in the city of Gweru (all four pumps into the city had broken beyond repair), food was scarce, and social infrastructure was in a state of collapse. And there was real fear. In addition to those who wanted me to give them a job in London (where I was serving as the Bishop of Croydon), others also suggested that “someone must shoot the President”. “We hope there will be change.” I would ask how this hope might be realised and received the same reply: “We pray that God will do something.” I would ask how they might be the answer to their own prayer – not in shooting the President, but in organising and acting to get him out. Somehow. No answer.

Now, I would never be critical of those who live in constant danger and for whom opposition can be hugely costly. My point is simply that hoping and praying should accompany action, not replace it. Citizenship brings responsibility and accountability and that inevitably has political expression because it involves the ordering of society, shaping it for the common good, and the promotion and defence of human flourishing. So, create the miracle, by all means, but don’t just hang around waiting for it. Work at it and for it, but with the patience of waiting.

Wisdom and faith

So, why speak of wisdom and faith in the same sentence as politics?

Well, as I touched on earlier, there is an oft-repeated expression in our society and media of the charge that Christians should stay out of politics – as if neutrality was ever a possibility. I have rehearsed this argument too many times before, so I am not going to flog it again now. But, there is no such thing as a neutral voice and there is no neutral space. Everyone comes at life and politics from a particular perspective, with a particular world view and associated values, and with particular interests at heart. A secular world view is no more neutral than a religious one. (This is something tackled head on, among others, by the American philosopher Alvin Plantinga as far back as the 1960s.)

Wisdom is something we derive from history and from experience. It comes from deep learning and the humility to admit the provisionality of knowledge. Wisdom depersonalises politics, seeks to understand both the polis and the populace, identifies where (and upon which values) integrity lies, discerns which moral framework cannot be negotiated away amid the pragmatic claims of political debate, and informs the reflective conscience that keeps hubris in check.

Which is why faith and wisdom cannot be separated in a consideration of the political task. Because faith is what every individual and society places on certain assumptions about, for example, why people matter, what actually constitutes a good society, what integrity looks like – what I call a ‘theological anthropology’.

Let’s begin to apply some of this to the politics of today. We can start at home, especially in the light of the political behaviour emanating from Downing Street this week. I will be categorical in my language, but you might choose to differ.

Our current Prime Minister is a man who has made a living out of lying. His personal as well as political/professional life betray a set of utilitarian values that revolve around and are oriented towards his own personal ambition, power and hubris. I refer to his admitted invention of stories aimed at misrepresenting and ridiculing the European Union in the Daily Telegraph; his behaviour towards two wives and an uncertain number of children; his deliberate use of misleading language during the 2016 referendum campaign and subsequently; the breaking of too many promises (playing the hero before the DUP, then agreeing a border down the Irish Sea, for example); and his willing subjugation to the strategic will of his Chief-of-Staff, Dominic Cummings.

“Get Brexit Done” was always a slogan disconnected from reality, as the UK will soon find out. “Unleash the potential” assumed that potential had been leashed – and saw the new Chancellor of the Exchequer state only a week or two ago that the UK would now be able to establish freeports for the first time, ignoring the fact that we could already do so and have done so as members of the EU (until we opted out in 2012). I am not arguing here that this is a reason for not leaving the EU; just that the electorate has been repeatedly misled.

Now, why might I be singling him out? Well, basically because the political discourse, so corrupted by the whole Brexit process, has diminished the importance of truth, reality and integrity in our public life. The reshuffle saw the sacking of the one man who has actually achieved anything and who commands the respect of all sides in a deeply divided Northern Ireland – Julian Smith. Threatened by competence? Needing to surround himself with sycophants who will not challenge him? Unwilling to hear what he does not want to hear? Afraid of anyone who might be honest about the costs of policy or who does detail? Fearful of being challenged by the junior prefects? I guess we will eventually find out. But, the point here is that big words and huge ambitions do not compensate for weak character, lack of attention to detail, or the re-discovery of some magic money tree that was absent for the poorest in UK society for a decade. Promises are reneged upon; commitments are laughed off; contradictions are ignored; in a previous age, any one of these would have seen outrage across the political spectrum, action within the party, and a campaign in the media to secure a resignation.

Not any longer. We have now sold the pass by accepting that amoral, immoral and hubristic language and behaviour are acceptable if they promise to deliver on a pragmatic solution to a different problem – whatever the cost, especially to our moral or political culture. It is easy to look across the Pond and mock the Toddler in the White House, marvelling at how, for the Republicans, love of power allows them to dismiss all those things that they would have railed against in a Democratic President. Imagine if Obama had had an affair or told a lie. Remember Clinton’s impeachment. Imagine the response by evangelicals if Clinton or Obama had said something misogynistic or deliberately and openly contradicted reality? But, Trump knows he can get away with anything because morality is selective and power trumps everything else.

The point here is that these guys get away with it because we collude in it. Someone recently complained to me about a ‘culture of deference’ in the Church. I don’t buy this; I think it is a cop-out. When we resort to blaming a ‘culture’ it can only be because we are denying our responsibility as agents who create that culture. A culture is constituted by the behaviour of those involved, and their behaviour is shaped by the choices they make as to how to act – or not act – within it. Not speaking up is a decision; you can’t blame ‘the culture’.

And so it is with politics. If we still value wisdom and accept the claims to responsible action that faith both assumes and imposes, then we must take responsibility for the culture we create. So, when we are told deliberate lies by those in public office (not to be mistaken for errors of information or interpretation), we either allow it to pass – shrugging our shoulders and saying that “this is just how things are” – or we call it out and refuse to bow at this altar of shame.

This is why it is so important for a critical scrutiny to be applied to current political developments. This week’s Church Times carries a commissioned article by me on the danger to democracy and its institutions when a government with a big majority decides to control its own narrative, declining to justify or explain its policies, absenting itself from interrogation by external experts on behalf of the public. In other words, prioritising propaganda over accountability. This is a slippery slope and, if the BBC becomes a casualty of this cultural slide, it will not be for reasons of economics or the vital-but-difficult role of a publicly-funded public service broadcaster, but for reasons of political vindictiveness and a dangerous tendency by the powerful to bypass scrutiny.

Political language, assumptions about the political task, and changes to our political culture all need to be taken more seriously than they are. It is not enough for leaders to ignore challenge in these areas with either hubristic ridicule or sweeping and patronising dismissal. Passivity on the part of the governed brings its own culpability. Visit the Topography of Terror museum in Berlin if you want to revisit how civil society is so easily corrupted by a gradual ceding of territory in language, culture and courage.

Reflections

So, before concluding these provocative reflections, I want to point the way a little further into what a good, ethical politics might look like, and what the place in it of faith and wisdom might be. And I want to do this by commending three books in particular: Rowan Williams, ‘Faith in the Public Square’ – a series of lectures, writings and addresses, some of them easier than others; Luke Bretherton, ‘Christ and the Common Life’ – a recently-published treatment of the theme by a British theologian living and working in the United States; and, briefly, Tom Holland, ‘Dominion’.

The Christian Church has since its beginning held claims against the power of the state. Caesar was not Lord; Jesus is. What Rowan Williams calls ‘procedural secularism’ “was born because Christians insisted that a distinction must be drawn between communities that understand themselves to be faithful to a sacred power and political communities whose task is to sustain the arguments necessary to balance and manage the inevitable differences that constitute our lives.” He goes on to say, effectively that Jesus did not come announcing that the Big Society was at hand.

In other words, the Christian Church – and, particularly, the Church of England established by law – has a responsibility in a democratic society to hold on with both theological and rational confidence to its narrative of the Kingdom of God, being clear how this shapes our understanding of what is either permissible or destructive in and of our particular society. If the narrative told by those in power – that lying is acceptable, that people can be patronised and corrupted by meaningless slogans, that revenge can be taken against judges because the rule of law is to be subjugated to the rule of power, for example – clashes with the narrative of justice, mercy, integrity and accountability, then a stand must be taken.

Hence the role of the Lords Spiritual in the UK Parliament: whether welcome or not, to shine a possibly unique light on matters of our common life and, without fear or favour, to hold power to account. Not with any sense of entitlement or moral superiority, but, rather, with the confident humility that light must be shone.

(I am always struck when in the chamber of the House of Lords that I ’inhabit’ there a remarkable constitution. When (in the Queen’s Speech) the Monarch reads her Government’s legislative agenda before the executive, the legislature and the judiciary – the three legs of a stable parliamentary democracy – she does so in the name of God. The three legs do their work in the name of the monarch who recognises her accountability to God. But, if she looks up, she will see the statues of the twelve barons who drafted the Magna Carta and held King John to account at Runnymede in 1215. That is the political space we inhabit, even if it is difficult to explain.)

So, for example, when we hear language or policies that reduce human beings to economic cogs in someone else’s machine, we need to pay attention and more. When we hear the world spoken of in terms that assume domination instead of dominion, exploitative control instead of accountable stewardship (especially accountability to those generations not yet born), then our voices must be raised in questioning challenge. As John Gray has pointed out (from an atheistic perspective), “The distinctive contribution of Christianity to morality – which is reflected in liberalism now – is that if you think back to the ancient Roman world, then one feature that came in with Christianity was the idea that human beings, reflecting the nature of a Christian god, had some responsibility for not being cruel or not even tolerating cruelty… So this aspect of modern liberal morality – don’t be cruel to people – is hardly found in pre-Christian morality. It’s a gift of Jewish inheritance that Christianity continued.”

Remember who said: “Politics have no relation to morals”? It was Machiavelli. Enough said.

Tom Holland, whose brilliant book ‘Dominion’ describes how the morality of the western world and beyond was uniquely shaped by Christianity, despite the many devastating failures by Christians to live out their distinctive theology, quotes Zhivago’s uncle in Dr Zhivago: “You have to remember that until the dawn of the Christian era, the Mediterranean world was a world of slave empires.” As the new Conservative MP for Devizes, Danny Kruger, implied in his maiden speech in the House of Commons earlier this month, the sort of wisdom that informs and shapes good politics might well be found in the past and not just in the pragmatic present. Good politics needs a good answer to a good question: what is a human being and why do we matter?

These are the matters with which Luke Bretherton wrestles in his book ‘Christ and the Common Life’. I concur with his important observation about secularism and its assumptions: “It is traditions with a cosmic imagery that have the resources to foster the plurality and sense of contingency that is necessary for a faithfully secular, democratic, common-life politics. Without them the state and market have no epistemic, social or institutional limits.”

As Bretherton says: “Sustaining a common life requires commitment to a vision of human flourishing.” Christians – Anglicans in particular – must not be shy in helping to shape that common life by conscious and deliberate engagement in political life as citizens of this world who are drawn by the demands, freedoms and obligations of their citizenship of God’s Kingdom.

The language used in the House of Commons last night is probably unprecedented. Drawing the name of a murdered MP into the fight was, at the very least, questionable. To describe the contribution of female MPs, pleading with the PM to moderate his language in the light of violence and death threats, as ‘humbug’ is appalling.

I am the bishop of a diocese in which Jo Cox is remembered with massive affection and in which there is great sensitivity to utilisation of her for political purposes. Her family are not just names to be traded.

Words are not neutral – they can become weapons. Words in the mouth of leaders can shape the language and behaviour of all sorts of people, and not always positively. The challenge of leadership is to lead, to behave like the adult in the room, to see the big picture, to hold the long-term perspective, and not to lose sight of the key issue.

The Prime Minister has a particular and weighty responsibility in our current crisis to lead by example. A fundamental element of strong leadership, rooted in character, is to demonstrate humility. The language he is using is destructive and has caused distress. An apology would be in order. More importantly, he needs to lead a recalibration of language, mood and relationship. What we are witnessing currently is the further corruption of our public discourse and the norms of democratic debate.

A colleague said to me this morning that we are in urgent need of recovering the three Rs: respect, responsibility and restraint. Respect for people (opponents as well as friends), the law and language; taking responsibility for our own language and behaviour as well as the common good; restraint even when provoked.

It is incumbent on those who lead to tell the truth, use language wisely (with a view to consequences) and behave with responsibility and respect.

This is the text of a commissioned article published today in the excellent Yorkshire Post.

Anything can happen. A statement of the obvious, maybe, but it is also the title of a song by Canadian singer-songwriter Bruce Cockburn in which he runs through some of the disasters that might hit if you as much as walk outside today. It also seems to be the dominant feeling around the country as we enter another week of political life in which what looks clear at breakfast is redundant by teatime. Things are moving quickly, and anything can happen.

However, there is one thing about which we can be fairly confident: there will be a general election some time during the autumn. If, like me, you are trying to organise a diary around so many uncertainties and unknowns, you will understand the anxieties this state of affairs can generate. We have no idea when the election might come, but we still need to prepare for it.

The first thing is to get people to register to vote. In a parliamentary democracy the people exercise their political preferences by voting in an election and putting in (or removing) their representatives in the House of Commons. As we have seen during the last three years, this moment of choice – whatever our particular convictions about the issues of the day or the content of a political manifesto – matters to the proper functioning of decision-making and the right ordering of society.

But, given the heat (if not light) ignited by Brexit, Boris Johnson and current political events, there are wider issues to be addressed in advance of any election. How, for example, is the campaign to be conducted? How far will we interrogate political statements and promises, not only from those we might instinctively oppose, but also from those we might naturally support? And what language will we use as the election campaign drives on?

These aren’t just hobbyhorse questions. Language goes to the heart of communication and we know how words can be deployed to distort, dehumanise and distract – either deliberately or incidentally. Truth matters and facts matter.

A couple of examples. When we are told that the proroguing of Parliament simply adds a few days to recess, so there is nothing to fuss about, what are we to think? Well, it isn’t a party-political dogma to insist to the electorate that this is a deliberate misrepresentation of reality. When Parliament goes into recess the work continues, the committees continue to meet, the scrutiny of government goes on. When Parliament is prorogued, everything stops. There is a fundamental difference, and the implications are clear (and serious). So, the public ought to be clear and then be able to challenge both the statement and the motive behind its iteration.

Secondly, and somewhat randomly, if a politician waves a kipper and tells us that the EU forces us in the UK to present it on a bed of ice – a shackle that must be cast off by leaving the EU – then we ought not to fear asking whether or not this is true. Of course, it isn’t.

I accept that these examples are easy and recent ones. However, they help to make the point that the public need to question political statements for their factual basis or truthfulness without resorting to ad hominem attack. Yes, having judged that we were told a fib, it is then reasonable to go on to questions the ethics of the person who said it. But, the first response should always be to the truthfulness of the statement or promise.

This is serious. In response to things I have written on current political phenomena I receive a quantity of negative reactions. That is the point of writing in the first place – to start or contribute to a debate during which I might learn something new or even change my mind. But, what interests me about most of the negative stuff I get is that it doesn’t address the points made; the abuse is directed at me as a person. It doesn’t usually worry me, and I don’t waste time on it. It does worry me, however, that demagoguery thrives on emotive attacks on people who say uncomfortable (or wrong) things without addressing the basic issue.

The great Christian apologist CS Lewis once said that if Christianity is true, then it is true because it is true; it is not true because it is Christianity. And he was exactly right. It can’t be true because it ‘works for me’ or ‘makes me feel better about myself or the world’; it can only be true if it is true. The same will apply when we get to an election.

The ninth commandment forbids misrepresentation (bearing false witness) of my neighbour. If we want light and not just heat, then we need to pay attention to this.

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?