This is the text of a speech I gave in a debate in the House of Lords (Grand Committee) yesterday. The debate was secured by the Lord Bishop of St Albans and explored the implications of the UK’s changing role on foreign policy. I came in at number six on the speaking list and tried not to repeat what others had said or were likely to say.

My Lords, I do not wish to detract from the power of the questions that the noble Lord, Lord Alton, has put to the Minister. I promise I will not add more questions to them; I will come at the debate from a different direction. There are two ways of addressing this Motion: first, the role of the UK as seen through our eyes in the UK, who can easily assume that ours is the only way of seeing; secondly, our role as seen through the eyes of “the world” doing the looking in.

I am not being pedantic, but why do we in the UK find it so difficult to look at ourselves through the lens of those who might see the world differently?

In his excellent Chatham House speech on 27 April, the Minister for International Development, Andrew Mitchell, addressed the future of international development. Among the very good, welcome and perceptive observations in his speech, one line is understated and easy to miss: the admission that the UK Government’s cut in aid from 0.7% to 0.5% of national income has “dented the UK’s reputation”, as well as being “painful for our partners”.

Dented? Only the partners who suffered the consequences of that decision can really tell us what they think our role in the world is now and how it is experienced. Painful reality is more persuasive than optimistic rhetoric.

The question that underlies this debate is this: do we in the UK listen to ourselves and the language of mere aspiration, or can we look through the eyes of those who experience us? I ask this simply because there is often a great gulf between our perception of ourselves and that held by others. In fact, the constant repetition of the language of “world leading” and “world beating” in just about any government statement indicates a basic insecurity about which psychologists could probably say a great deal. I would be happy with just “functional”, in some respects.

I raise this question simply because Andrew Mitchell’s speech admitted a glimpse of light into what has been a depressingly dim discourse in the last decade or so. He offers a language that sounds grown-up. In his stress at the outset of his argument on partnership, progress and prosperity, he returns us to something that sounds both sensible and realistic. Global Britain, whatever that was supposed to mean, seems to have subsided and partnership is back—thank goodness. Gone is the hubris that the UK is still a world-beating power that can function alone in a world of shifting economic and military power blocs. We can argue for ever about the rightness or wrongness of Brexit, but I contend that the corruption of our language with regard to the wider world was damaging in ways we rarely take time to understand.

For example, I have been met with incredulity in Germany and elsewhere in Europe when we make statements about the importance of the rule of law, and our moral demand that countries such as Russia and China should stand by it, at the same time as we draft legislation that consciously seeks to breach it. Just remember the internal market Bill, the overseas operations Bill, the attempt to prorogue Parliament and so on. Our rhetoric has to be supported by our action, for the latter speaks louder than the former.

The 2021 integrated review was a good start in recalibrating our self-perceptions, and the 2023 refresh helpfully illustrated how a nation’s role can change quickly depending on the shifting and sometimes dramatic intervention of unexpected factors, unpredicted behaviours or uncontrollable contingencies. At least, it was an attempt to join up different areas of foreign policy to focus on perception, priorities and planning.

To return to Andrew Mitchell, partnership holds the key to future progress and prosperity, not hubris or romantically hanging on to what we think Britain used to be. One way of thinking about this is to look through the lens of those who look at us from the outside. A week or two ago Der Spiegel published a very unflattering piece about a number of aspects of decline in UK culture, referring, for example, to food banks, poverty, the cost of living crisis and neglected urban infrastructure. Read other newspapers and listen to serious political programmes in neighbouring countries: waving a flag does not change hard reality. We might not want to agree with the perceptions of outsiders, but we would be unwise not to take them seriously.

I want to be positive about a change in direction, signalled by Andrew Mitchell’s grown-up approach to partnership, which inevitably assumes what I call a renewed sense of confident humility. I read his speech before considering the conversation among Robert Kaplan, John Gray and Helen Thompson in a recent edition of the New Statesman, which took as its starting point the ideas behind Kaplan’s new book, The Tragic Mind. Indeed, any pragmatic search for policies that drive partnership and progress and dream of prosperity has to be set against the wider and deeper thinking about the existential challenges of great-power rivalry, resource scarcity and what they call the crumbling of the liberal rules-based order in a “global Weimar”. The assumptions underlying political rhetoric and the language in which this is framed must be honest about these challenges, not seduce people into thinking that domestic or foreign policy can inevitably be forged in a world of depleting resources and increasing military threat around finite resources.

Given my previous career as a linguist, it might not come as a total surprise that I want to conclude with this plea: if we are to take seriously the existential as well as pragmatic challenges we face as we seek to plough our furrow in a field that is becoming ever more rutted and poisoned, we must listen through the ears of those beyond our shores who might not think as we do in the UK. This means that we must prioritise the learning of the languages of others if we are to know how we are seen and therefore how we might behave or speak—even framing any future foreign policy in a way that can be accurately understood by those we oppose or with whom we might partner.

Language learning is impoverished in the UK. The assumption that everyone else speaks English is both arrogant and ignorant—a dreadful combination of non-virtues. Our children need to be educated in the confident humility of learning to look through the eyes of others. Only then, as the late German Chancellor Helmut Schmidt repeatedly emphasised, can we understand our own culture, by seeing how we are seen and hearing how we are heard. The Empire has gone, and imperial thinking is embarrassingly redundant —although I strongly commend Timothy Garton Ash’s recent piece in Foreign Affairs, “Postimperial Empire”. We will waste time, energy, money and resource if we in the UK do not learn quickly that learning the languages of others is a massive strength and not a sign of weakness.

The UK’s role in the world must be framed in terms of realism and what I have called a confident humility. It must be framed in the languages of others, and rooted in deeper thinking than mere pragmatism or flag-waving optimism.

When I have sounded off about the media in the past, one of the journalists to respond with vigour has been Martin Beckford of the Daily Telegraph. Some of his responses have been illuminating and helpful – especially where he took time and trouble to address some of the charges I and others were levelling at journalists. So, despite thinking that the Telegraph has to be handled like a tabloid these days, I do respect Martin and I listen to what he says.

In this week’s Church of England Newspaper he asks why, when politicians and other public personalities don’t whinge about their treatment in the press, the church (or, let’s face it, bishops) does. It’s a reasonable question and, if I was in Martin’s position, one I would pose with a degree of frustration. I am one of the people who exasperates him, but at least I don’t stop getting stuck in with the media on their terms. So, what I am returning to here is a discussion we have had before about expectations of the media.

I think this point sets us off:

[George Pitcher] should know, as should everyone who reads newspapers, that the bottom line is that they are businesses and they sell copies by finding stories that are new and interesting. Of course that doesn’t mean making things up or distorting them, but at the same time they are within their rights to interpret what public figures say and highlight the parts that are new and controversial.

I couldn’t agree more. With every point. But, what Martin misses here is the perception of some of us on the receiving end that ‘making up’ and ‘distortion’ are precisely what has gone on. Hence, the story is not about the core substance, but about the journalist’s perception of or spin on it. That’s why I pointed out in this blog that justice should be done to the subject of the story even if the content of what he says then gets roasted on the spit of analysis. In this respect, the Archbishop of Canterbury’s views on politics are game for all the inflated and angry comment they provoke. But, the context in which his views were expressed must dictate the nature of theme addressed, the register of his language, and so on. An editorial that introduces a series of guest articles debating precisely the issues he opens up in his editorial surely has a certain status as interrogative or provocative; but, it can’t be seen in isolation from those later articles and their context. That is where – rightly or wrongly – some of us feel stitched up.

Martin goes on:

I don’t think the reason clerics [complain] more than politicians is because they are other-worldly or naive, I just think MPs are much more realistic about the nature of the press and appreciate that we are overall a good thing for democracy even if occasionally we go a bit too far. After all, reporting is not a science and there is never just one way to write a story.

The implication of this is that we must simply accept the nature of the press as it is, rather than express some desire that it should be better than it currently is. My personal issue with this is both ethical (the role that the media play in the democracy Martin wants to defend gives them enormous power and influence and, therefore, affects behaviour as well as discourse) and professional (as a former professional wordsmith I would have been very uncomfortable about putting a spin on a story in order to create a story when I knew I was distorting the original). Surely a democracy that needs a free and bold press is one in which its citizens have the right to demand that its journalists do justice in their role as ‘players’ and not just ‘observers’ of the democratic substance? Accountability works both ways.

Martin writes that he had originally intended to write his piece about how Rowan Williams “was the sole survivor of what was once a large group of outspoken figures in the C of E”. Is it not just possible that many of the current ‘figures’ see what happens to their outspoken counterparts and decide (a) you can’t win and (b) it isn’t worth the hassle? I am not defending that response, but I do think it is understandable.

Martin goes on to observe that the Archbishop “knows exactly how his words will be received; he just doesn’t crave positive headlines like most public figures.” He concludes:

For the sake of the church, as well as those who make their living reporting on it, I very much hope he will continue to speak his mind.

The journalist (rightly) is not responsible for dealing with the aftermath of what they write. But, they will get more outspokenness if those speaking can trust the intelligence and integrity of those doing the writing. Most people who have contacted me about the Archbishop’s views derived their understanding (and frustration with him) not from his original words, but from the Telegraph’s reporting on them. Having read the original, several were cross about the latter. And this mirrors my own experiences in similar (but less serious) circumstances.

The conversation will, no doubt, continue. However, if the written-about are to understand the nature and business of the writers, is it too much to ask the writers to understand the experience and perception of the written-about?

I have been out all day visiting clergy and parishes in Airedale. Time was tight and I wasn’t able to get stuck in to the Rowan Williams media frenzy – although I did manage to do two quick radio interviews in-between meetings. Having read the actual article in the New Statesman, I am wondering if the media are actually feeding from the wrong menu. If Rowan wanted to attack the government, he could have done it better than this. But this isn’t the purpose of his article. It clearly suits the agenda of the media to look for conflict where there is only debate.

First, it is clear that some commentators haven’t actually read the original article, but are responding to the second-hand articles produced by others. Good for a story and venting a little spleen, but not terribly useful.

Second, whatever answers people want to give to the questions he articulates, is anyone seriously suggesting that the questions aren’t the right ones?

Third, aren’t some of the attacks on him simply a form of distraction therapy for people who find his questioning embarrassingly on target?

One of the more bizarre elements of this business is the suggestion that the Archbishop of Canterbury shouldn’t interfere in politics. That view assumes that either politics is the preserve of those who think they have a right to occupy a fantasy ‘neutral’ space or that politics has nothing to do with real life. At least David Cameron acknowledged the right (if not the imperative) for the Church to speak out on such matters. However, his response seems to be to reporting on the Archbishop’s article rather than the content of the article itself.

It is worth noting also that the article is the leader written by Rowan as guest editor of this edition of the New Statesman. It introduces articles by several politicians who go on to address the questions raised in ways which the Archbishop might find unconvincing. In other words, the leader has to be seen in the context of the whole and read as an introduction to what is intended to be an intelligent discussion of the very themes the Archbishop thinks should be raised more widely.

I would love to ask some of the screaming commentators when they last trod the pavements of some of the poorest communities in our cities and rural areas. When did they last encounter people who are genuinely bemused by what is going on with the economy, education or the NHS? When did they last listen to the stories of those who constantly lose out and for whom the future looks hopeless?

David Cameron (interestingly) was heard to say that he disagreed that people whould be paid to stay out of work. I have no idea to which question that was deemed to be a relevant answer. Identifying the consequences of economic and other policies on poor people is not to say that they should be kept in perpetuity by the State. But it is to ask what sort of society we wish to shape, how we will cope with the dispossessed or the disaffected (who won’t simply disappear quietly into the ether), and which values should run through that society. Indeed, the Archbishop is asking politicians – not just the government, but those failing to state a credible alternative – to articulate the values and philosophical assumptions underlying their  determined policies.

Why is that request deemed inappropriate or odd? Do we not think that our democracy is impoverished if we simply accept electoral apathy, political disconnectedness or lack of engagement with the public discourse on those values that will shape us – wittingly or unwittingly? Do we really not need a more diligent and intelligent debate about which values we wish as a society to espouse – or do we just accept uncritically the notion that pragmatism should be unchallenged? Shouldn’t the electorate have been given an opportunity to know where any potential goverment might take education or the NHS – or are we just to accept that elections are to be seen as a sort of shadow boxing after which the lights can be changed and the shadows ignored in favour of some other substance?

When the frenzy has ended and the calmer commentators are picking over the bones of this matter, I dare to think that the questions and challenges put by the Archbishop will be seen to be the right ones – prophetic in the best sense of the word. As he says towards the end of his article:

… a democracy capable of real argument about shared needs and hopes and real generosity: any takers?

Forgive me for being amused, but it does seem quite funny that people who get so worked up about God in general, religion in particular and Christianity in particular particularity can’t stop talking about it all. They have done a remarkable job in reviving and keeping alive the discourse about God when their deepest desire is to eradicate God and all talk of him.

wilsonLast week’s New Statesman focused on religion (prior to Easter) and brought a number of people into the conversation. The most interesting by far was the interview with AN Wilson who, a couple of decades after having declared himself an atheist, is now back in the theistic and Christian fold. He is not stupid, illiterate, ill-educated or morally weak and in need of some intellectual or emotional crutch with which to limp through life. He is honest and open and has clearly irritated those who can’t comprehend that anyone with half a brain could possibly be a Christian. Instead of arguing, they sneer.

AN Wilson has followed this up with a fuller explanation of his journey back to faith in an intriguing and sharp article in the Mail written last Saturday. In it he points to the embarrassment of being a known to be a Christian – on the grounds that it isn’t ‘sexy’ or cool. I know exactly what he means: try sitting on a train in a clerical collar and watch the eyes…

But Christians can take heart and be confident. Unlike some of the evangelists for atheism, people like AN Wilson are simply telling their story and not imposing it on anyone who doesn’t want to hear it. He does not come over as being evangelistic about his re-found faith, but simply open about it in all its simplicity and complexity.

Perhaps the New Atheists should just relax a bit more. In the meantime, we should thank them that their aggressive evangelism keeps the language of God alive in the street, in offices, in pubs and just about everywhere else. I think they call it the ‘law of unintended consequences’.