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?

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The best place to consider what is going on in the UK is somewhere away from the UK. Look through a different lens and listen through distant ears.

So, I am holiday for a week, have read five books (Robert Harris’s Conclave, Sebastian Barry’s excellent and moving Days Without End, Graham Swift’s Mothering Sunday (echoes of Ian McEwan’s On Chesil Beach?), Martin Luther’s Von der Freiheit eines Christenmenschen, Clinton Heylin’s Trouble in Mind – on which I will post later), and am now glancing with incredulity at the Brexit debate back home.

Disclosure first. I voted to remain in the EU. I thought Brexit would be a disaster for the UK, and was not reassured that those leading the Leave campaign had the first idea how to make Brexit actually happen. Maybe it had something to do with the despising of experts, the lack of whom now presents us with something of a challenge? However, 52% of those who voted in the referendum voted to leave. Like it or not, and like the whole farce of a referendum set up (a simple majority to decide a far-reaching constitutional change?) and campaign or not, the outcome committed the UK government to begin a process to leave the EU.

This meant that the country entered a new phase of debate and process – one for which we were totally unprepared and remarkably ill-equipped. Nevertheless, never run away from a challenge, even if the nature of the particular challenge demands levels of competence that do not appear evident.

The thrust of the Brexit argument was that the UK should reclaim its parliamentary sovereignty. Having won the referendum vote, however, parliamentary democracy then fell off the democratic wagon, being seen as a perverse obstruction of the inevitable freedom awaiting us. All arguments about the shaping of actual Brexit are, apparently, simply attempts to thwart the clear will of the British people.

So, what happened to democracy, political argument and parliamentary sovereignty?

Let’s just assume for a moment that the vote had gone the other way, but by the same margin. Then let’s ask some simple questions of the 48% who had lost the argument.

Well, actually, we can’t ask the questions before rejecting the previous sentence. There is a massive difference between losing an argument and losing a vote. It can be argued – without too much brain strain – that the referendum itself threw up more questions than it ever resolved. But, for now, let’s assume for the sake of this game that Remain had won and considered the matter settled once and for all. Here come the questions:

  • Should Leavers have regarded the matter of the UK’s membership of the EU as having been finally settled?
  • Should Leavers have accepted that the argument against EU membership had finally been settled, and then packed up their minds and gone home for a long sleep?
  • Should Leavers have stopped arguing their political points and merely accepted that “the people had spoken” and, therefore, had to be obeyed?
  • Should Leavers have ceased to write newspaper articles and jumped on the BBC every time the Corporation questioned (or gave a voice to those who continued to question) our continuing membership of the EU?

OK, enough for now. But, this is how absurd the situation has become. We might expect the Daily Mail to question the integrity of universities whose academics dare to think for themselves and ask awkward questions; but, we all get it – all the time. If your argument gets wobbly, start going for the person and his/her integrity.

It is the intellectual and moral vacuity of the situation in the UK that is leaving other Europeans with their mouths open in disbelief. Vigorously debate everything, by all means; but suggest that debate should cease once a vote has been recorded, and that is boggling in a modern democracy. (I was going to quote Hegel here, but that will only get me accused of intellectual snobbery again.) Intelligent Europeans – including those known to me who respect the UK’s decision to leave the EU – are simply boggled by the nature of the public discourse in the UK (though never surprised by the Daily Mail and other organs of the press).

OK, some of the responses to ‘threatening’ letters by MPs to universities might be just part of the whole overblown embarrassment we are compelled to endure just now; but if the original arguments for opting out of the EU still hold (restoring parliamentary sovereignty, etc.), then those involved in the democratic process cannot be cut out of the debate or the information required to make intelligent decisions as it proceeds.

Instead of bland assertions that “it’ll be alright on the night”, we need proper, informed argument about the nature, consequences, benefits and costs of the decision made in the referendum. Being slagged off for asking legitimate political, economic and social questions is unworthy of any person or body who wishes to claim democratic credentials.

It is time to grow up.

This is the script of an article written in London within hours of being released from Westminster Abbey in the aftermath of the terrorist attack on Parliament yesterday. It was published in the Yorkshire Post this morning.

When I got to the Bishops’ Room in the House of Lords on Wednesday morning the screen above me said ‘Threat Level Severe’. It usually says that. And I usually ignore it. I park my coat, grab the papers for the day’s sitting, then head for the library or the tea room.

That particular day I had some meetings before preparing to lead Prayers in the chamber at 3pm. I was already in there when a colleague told me that something had happened outside. Within minutes we were locked down and told to remain in the chamber. The rest is, as they say, history.

Having been moved by heavily armed and camouflaged police to a courtyard at the other end of the Palace of Westminster, we could look through the archway to the scene where the policeman Keith Palmer had been killed by a terrorist. The story of the mayhem outside was beginning to drip through. School children on a visit to Parliament were kept with us while we awaited further instruction. Having been moved into Westminster Hall, scene of many triumphs and tragedies throughout history, we were eventually taken over to Westminster Abbey where we remained until released around 9pm.

From a Palace of democracy to an Abbey of prayer.

The police were magnificent throughout. The emergency services were massively impressive. Parliamentary staff were utterly professional. Westminster Abbey swung into action and showed not only pastoral care (and prayer), but also the hospitality that characterises such places. Parliamentarians, visitors and officials – more than 1,000 of us – used the time to talk and wait and conduct the sort of human relationships that defy the chaos that some would wish to reap. People around Westminster showed courage and compassion, helping the injured and dying on the bridge, holding those whose life had been horribly changed for ever.

Here we saw the worst and the best of humanity. And here we saw the brutal reality of human mortality in a world that shares both fragile beauty and appalling violence.

I am writing this only two hours after getting out of Westminster, so my thoughts are immediate rather than considered. But, my thoughts are irrelevant to those of the families torn apart by this particular violence. So, why offer them now?

Well, it is human to wish to bring order out of chaos, to make some shape from the destructive formlessness of mayhem. In the coming days millions of words will be written and spoken about how this criminal tragedy happened. Many will provide analysis, others judgment. Assumptions will be made about the motives or mental state of the perpetrator. And, no doubt, his religious affiliation – should there have been one – will be held up for inspection and condemnation. And why not?

The problem with religion is that it involves people. Violence is not a religious problem, it is primarily a human one. It all too often has a religious root or complexion, but violence is not the sole preserve of religious individuals or communities. If you don’t believe me, then look at the mass murders that characterised the 20th century. But, that does not exonerate or excuse violence when it does have a religious root.

Human beings seem to find violence and destructiveness quite easy to slip into. Yet, at the heart of Christian faith is a man who was crucified by religious and pagan imperial powers that couldn’t cope with love or mercy or forgiveness or generosity. Jesus wasn’t a mere do-gooder who annoyed people by telling them to be endlessly nice to each other. Rather, he got nailed because he lived and embodied and taught a faith that was so radical that it placed a huge question mark above the natural impulses of human beings to love power.

And yet even those who follow him find it easy to miss the point and turn protection of the faith into a commodity of power or preservation.

And Christians are not alone in this. Religious people are always prone to lose the heart of their faith to a divine construct designed to justify their own narrow interests. This is why the Old Testament prophets cry out at the tragic irony of a people who worship a merciful God whilst displaying anything but mercy to those around them. It is a scandal. But, it is also deeply human.

So, what is there to say about the carnage in Westminster? Well, it happened. It is impossible to have total security. The Palace of Westminster is about as intimidating as you can get: armed police everywhere, security checks at every entrance and exit, concrete blocks and solid railings surround the buildings. But, there is no such thing as total security. Determined people, lone-wolves set on murder and mayhem, will not be stopped by barricades. It is the responsibility of everyone to be alert to danger.

And now life must carry on. Parliament resumes and I shall lead Prayers at 11am on Thursday. We will express our grief, shock and sadness – especially for those killed, injured, bereaved or traumatised by the events of Wednesday. But, then we shall carry on and do our business in the two Houses of Parliament. Democracy will not be damned by this violence.

The murderer would have been disappointed to find that he didn’t stop the world – he just got off while we carry on.

The beginning of wisdom, says the Book of Proverbs, is fear of God. This means simply that when we acknowledge our own human fragility, weakness and accountability to more than ourselves, we begin to live with humility, generosity and carefulness. It might sound a bit deep, but it is this wisdom that emerges from Westminster today: that we might reflect the mercy of God in how we serve one another – especially where innocent blood is shed.

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Beware the Ides of March…

Before resuming debate on the European Union (Notification of Withdrawal) Bill the House took four oral questions. Lord (Norman) Tebbitt, commenting on emissions of nitrous oxide from cars in London, was invited to “get on his bike”.

OK, you had to be there…

The final straight of the Brexit debate then resumed. I cannot speak in the debate because to do so I would have had to be in the chamber yesterday as well as today. (In a listed debate you have to be there for the beginning and the end of the debate, and this one is taking two full days – 184 speakers.)

Many speeches have been informed, passionate, realistic, pragmatic, principled and intelligent. Read the record in Hansard. But, the consensus is clear: the UK must leave the EU and the Government has to be given the power to trigger Article 50. However, there is not consensus about whether or not the House of Lords should allow itself to be intimidated into ducking its responsibilities under the constitution to scrutinise legislation that comes from the House of Commons. Threats to abolish the Lords if they dare to do their job is not worthy of a mature democratic discourse.

I think Lord Birt probably summed up what even many Brexiteers in the House believe, however reluctantly, when he began his speech last night as follows:

My Lords, I was a passionate remainer but I will vote to pass this Bill without a moment’s pause for we simply must respect the people’s choice. However, we are woefully underprepared for the gigantic challenges ahead.

There is no sense here – despite the slurs to the contrary – that peers wish to delay the inevitable, or that amendments are being put down in order to frustrate the “will of the people”. Assertion (that all will be well) is not the same as argument (for how best to ensure that it may be well). Amendments are intended to ensure that debate is had and questions addressed.

It is clear that the Lords will not stop Article 50 from being triggered. But, the central plank of the Brexit campaign – that parliamentary sovereignty be restored to “the people” of the UK – surely means that this parliament should be encouraged to do its job as part of the democratic process.

Does anyone really think that had the referendum gone the other way, the Leavers would have declared, “Well, the people have spoken and we must shut up, accept it and embrace membership of the EU without comment, demur or debate”?

“The people” include not only the 48% who voted to remain in the EU, but also those younger people who have (or will have before the two-year negotiation period is concluded) reached the magic age of suffrage – and will endure or enjoy the consequences of “the deal” that is done on their behalf. The people have spoken, but the concerns of nearly half of them also need to be heard as together we build the new country and settlement chosen by the majority in the referendum.

Despite all the bold assertions, “we are woefully underprepared for the gigantic challenges ahead”.

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

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

First, the statement begins by saying:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The statement can be read here.