It is obvious why Russia is being blamed for arranging the apparent attack on former double agent (Russian military intelligence office and MI5 spy) – there is a phenomenological association with the case of Aleksandr Litvinenko in 2006. But, correlations do not make explanations, nor do they imply necessary cause.

As I and others observed in the House of Lords this afternoon, speculation prior to proof is a dangerous thing. Although we seem to be getting increasingly blasé about it, judgement by headline is not a wise way of ensuring that justice ultimately is done.

One or two Russia experts have been urging caution about rushing to judgement. My reason is simple, possibly naive: what does Russia have to gain from this?

  • If revenge for Skripal’s treachery against Russia, why wait until now – he was released and deported to the UK in 2010?
  • If deterrence, why not do it sooner – and why pardon him before his spy-swap?
  • If to stop the “selling” of secrets, that boat sailed many years ago and there will be nothing useful left that hasn’t already been told.

I scanned Russian media and social media this afternoon (briefly) and they have reported the Foreign Secretary’s answers to the Urgent Question in the House of Commons earlier today. However, his typically careless remarks about England possibly withdrawing from the World Cup in Russia this coming summer (which – yet again – had to be clarified by officials later) provided just the distraction from the main matter: possible Russian complicity in the poisoning of Skripal and his daughter in Salisbury.

A couple of very eminent and experienced former diplomats said to me after the debate in the Lords that Putin can gain from this insofar as it boosts his strong-man image in Russia ahead of the elections. He is a shoe-in, but fears a low turnout and the questions of legitimacy that this would raise domestically.

The problem with this line is that it is not clear that Putin would actually gain anything from having a retired and harmless ex-spy bumped off in England. Crimea, Eastern Ukraine and Syria have established for his domestic audience that he is a strong leader willing and able to defy the aggressive and victimising West. His sanctions-weakened economy has not deterred him from increasing defence spending and strengthening the military with new-technology weapons and a motivated armed force.

Of course, I might be missing something here. It is entirely possible that the security services in the UK know stuff they can’t tell the rest of us. There might be a political rationale that currently eludes my limited mind. But, a simple identification of cause and effect is neither helpful nor wise.

At a meeting a couple of months ago with the Russian ambassador to the UK I was a little surprised by the smooth ease with which he alluded to what we would call “extra-judicial assassination” of Russians who had gone to fight with IS in Iraq and Syria. Killing is clearly not something the Russians are squeamish about … if it gets the job done quickly and effectively.

But, even that does not provide a causal link with the plight of Skripal and his daughter. I am not naive about Russian potential for politically sanctioned violence, but it cannot simply be assumed – even if, in the end, it is proven in this case.

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This is the basic text of my speech in the House of Lords during the Second Reading of the European Union (Withdrawal) Bill:

My Lords, many speakers will attend to the technical and legal details of this Bill, and they will be better equipped than I am to do so. I want to use my time, therefore, to pay attention to a question that lies behind the nature of this Bill and the choices we are required to make in scrutinising and attempting to improve it. This question applies to all sides of the argument, whether we think leaving the European Union is an unmitigated disaster or the best thing since Winston Churchill mobilised the English language and sent it into battle.

The question goes beyond economics and trade deals, haunts constitutional matters, and refuses to be submerged by ideologically-driven assertions that promise what can’t be promised and ridicule arguments that are inconvenient. Brexit has unleashed the normalisation of lies, and rendered too easily acceptable the demonising of people who, with integrity and intelligence, venture to hold a contrary view. We are in danger of securing an economic platform at the expense of a culture of respect and intelligent democratic argument.

The question I allude to is simply this: at the end of this process what sort of Britain – and Europe – do we want to inhabit? I accept that this is almost an existential question – challenge, even – but as we debate the legislative detail, we must not lose sight of the point of it all. Existential questions can’t be determined by statute, but the shape of statute speaks loudly of what we think our society should be for, and for whom. This is why debate about discretionary powers of ministers to make laws with equivalent force to primary legislation is of such importance. When such powers are so wide that this House is asked to leave to the judgement of ministers the meaning of such terms as “appropriate”, it is only right to ask for definition. After all, history is riddled with the unintended consequences of what might be termed “enabling legislation”.

But, let’s be honest. Brexit is technically so demanding and complex that, if I were Prime Minister, I would want the authority to deal flexibly with anomalies and technical weaknesses as quickly and smoothly as possible as the consequences of Brexit become known. I understand the technical element of this; but, this Bill goes beyond legislative technicalities and impacts strongly on constitutional arrangements and the balance of power. Surely, if “taking back control” by Parliament is to mean anything, it must mean refraining from bypassing the essential scrutiny that Parliament is privileged and required to provide. Hard parliamentary scrutiny might be inconvenient, but the long-term consequences of granting ministers unprecedented powers (as set out in this Bill) must be considered as they will shape the deeper culture of our state and change our assumptions about democracy.

I think this suggests that, although any sane person will recognise the government’s need to have significant powers to ensure that process (and legal certainty post-Brexit) is as smooth as possible, there must be limits to the use of such powers – or, as a colleague of mine put it succinctly and colourfully, we must avoid Brexit Britain turning into Tudor Britain.

Clearly, there is a balance to be struck here. I do not believe that this Bill, as currently formulated, achieves that balance; nor does it demonstrate that the genuine fears of constitutional experts and lawyers have been properly heard.

I have two concerns about the culture in which this debate is being conducted in this country – looked on with incredulity by those looking at us from beyond these islands.

First, almost every paper, every debate, every statement about Brexit is clothed in purely economic terms. It is almost as if the economy were everything and economics the only Good. Yet, the economy – one might add the word ‘trade’ – is not an end in itself, but rather a means to an end … which is about human flourishing and the Common Good. The economy – trade – exists for the building of society, but society is more than the economy. It is not enough for us uncritically to assume that a market society (as opposed to a social market) is a given or an ultimate good. Culture is more than money and things.

Secondly, the referendum tore off the veneer of civilised discourse in this country and unleashed – gave permission for, perhaps – an undisguised language of suspicion, denigration, hatred and vilification. To be a Leaver is to be narrow-mindedly stupid; to be a Remainer is to be a traitor. Our media – and not just the ill-disciplined bear pit of social media – have not helped in challenging this appalling rhetoric or the easy acceptance of such destructive language.

Yet, beneath this lurks an uncomfortable charge articulated in a recent Carnegie report on tensions between Russia and the West by the deputy director of the Russian Institute for Political and Military Analysis in Moscow: if Russians would still die for the Motherland, what would we die for? Or, as Martin Luther King suggested: if we don’t know what we would die for, we have no idea what we would live for. Once we have ‘done’ Brexit, then what? What was it for? Who do we think we are?

If this debate on Britain’s future is to have any lasting value, and not just undermine long-term relationships of respect and trust, then attention must be paid to the corruption of this public discourse. Politicians could begin by moderating their language and engaging in intelligent, informed and respectful argument that chooses to eschew personalised or generalised vindictiveness or violence. My Lords, we must not allow our body politic to be defined by Brexit; rather, we will need to transcend the divisions currently being forced by the terms of discussion. Peers have an opportunity to model good ways of disagreeing well that might encourage others that there is an alternative to a political culture that appears sometimes to have been reduced to an unbridled tribalism where the first casualty is too often the dignity of the other.

My Lords, please let us not lose sight of the deeper question that lies behind the technical detail of this Bill.

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?

A few days holiday allow space for recording a few books read recently.

Doctors at War, ethnographer Professor Mark de Rond’s powerful record of his time embedded with a medical unit at Camp Bastian in Afghanistan, provokes much thought and emotion. It is clear that exposure to the sheer unnecessary and seemingly random suffering of ordinary people as well as combatants raises questions of theodicy. This disturbs Mark’s own faith questions, and leads him ultimately to an expression of atheism. Reading the book, however, provoked in me a different question: not how we account for suffering and evil, but, rather, how we account for joy in a world of such suffering? This is not glib; I would love to see a further discussion of it.

At the other end of the scale is Simon Jenkins’ entertaining romp
through Christian faith and its oddities, Jumble Sales of the Apocalypse. The book comprises columns Simon published in the United Reformed Church (not ‘Reform’ as it says in the book itself) magazine Reform. Making theology simple and accessible is not as easy as Simon makes it look. He shines an unusual light from an unusual angle to open up our thinking and not close it down. As I know from years of writing scripts for Radio 2, this isn’t always an obvious or simple task.

Sitting here in Berlin waiting for a thunder storm to break, it is worth
recommending James Hawes breathless race through the entire history of Germany. The Shortest History of Germany is excellent and enlightening, but it is clear he neither likes nor trusts Prussians. A better overview of Europe’s most important country you will not find – and in these days of Brexit and Trump, with a German election coming up later this year, it is worth the quick read.

Finally for now, Tom Fletcher’s book about the impac of digital change on international diplomacy, The Naked Diplomat, is excellent. Again, an easy read, it says a lot about communication, leadership and handling change. It also contains the most memorable quote about diplomacy – inevitably from Winston Churchill: “Diplomacy is the art of telling people to go to hell in such a way that they ask for directions.”

Discuss.

A meeting of bishops from the Church of England and the Roman Catholic Churches is coming to an end here in Birmingham. It has been a stimulating, encouraging, challenging and good time together. In brief, we have looked at the international scene, the European scene, prayer and evangelisation, and where we go from here together.

Haunting the meeting is the spectre of a Trumpian revolution in the United States – with considerable implications for the rest of the world – and the debate about Brexit.

One of the interesting features of debate about the USA and Brexit is the constant attempts to close down debate on detail on the grounds that “we won, so shut up and let the winners get on with it”.

Politics cannot be run only by politicians. Politics is about people who hold different views, different values and have different priorities. In other words, all of us. A vote does not end the conversation. Had the UK voted to remain in the European Union, there is little chance that those who ‘lost’ would be accepting the status quo and going quiet; nor should they.

The referendum on membership of the EU delivered a decision to leave. However, almost half of those who voted did not vote that way. It was not overwhelming or decisive (as has often been stated). The country is divided – almost in two – over the matter. So, how we proceed from here must take seriously the concerns of the half the country that does/did not want to leave the EU. How we leave matters. The language we use in the course of the debate (on how to leave) matters.

From my own experience – and despite some of the public posturing – some of those in government take the 48% seriously and understand the need to hold the country together.

I have not changed my view that much of the language of certainty and promise is at least speculative and at worst fantasy. This means that we have to be prepared for huge disillusionment and further resentment when many of the Brexit promises turn out to be unfulfilled. Yes, the gains must be identified, too, it is the deficits that will provoke the reaction.

Donald Trump might well be doing what he said he would do – which is his prerogative – but democracy means that the debate continues. If lies are told, this matters; and the nature of the lies must (if we believe truth has any value) be named. However, not everything inconvenient to my preferences are necessarily lies.

It is right that serious questions are asked about policy from any democratically elected government. Protest must be legitimate. The questions we must ask about the questions raised pertain to very basic stuff: what is a human being? why do people matter? what is a good society? from what (theological) anthropology do our values and moral judgments derive? what responsibility do I take as a citizen for shaping our collective common life?

For Christians the answers will be rooted in the nature of the world as God’s creation, people as made in the image of this creator God, and neighbourliness being rooted in more than seeing others as commodities or merely economic entities.

 

This is the script of this morning's Thought for the Day on BBC Radio 4's Today programme:

It is said we live in interesting times. Europe is on an uncertain political trajectory, the Middle East is challenging, Russia is flexing its muscles, and the United States are about to choose a new president whose influence will reach far beyond their own shores. Who'd be a leader?

But, what is interesting about what the Nobel laureate Bob Dylan called 'Modern Times' is how the arts play around with the world's big issues, shining different lights onto what we see in the news. Jude Law's new film series in which he plays the fictional first American pope appears to be less interested in the power politics of the Vatican and more in what religious power does to the people who wield it. Bruce Springsteen uses music to express protest against the lot of ordinary people in parts of America that are remote from Washington's eyes. Gospel music itself was a creative expression of lament, hope and confidence on the part of people suffering human injustice for generations.

I mention this because I suspect the world needs more poets and artists. And possibly fewer lawyers – although the lawyers I know are wonderful.

Hymn-writer extraordinaire Charles Wesley maintained that we learn our theology not from what we hear from the pulpit, but from what we sing. Put a good tune to it and we'll happily sing anything – occasionally even nonsense. So, he wrote hymns and songs in order to help Christians find a vocabulary for their experiences of God, the world and each other.

Bruce Cockburn, the award-winning Canadian singer-songwriter does a similar thing with words and music, though not to be murdered by a congregation. One song he wrote thirty years ago suggests that the poets and musicians shine a different light on experience and dare us to look differently in order to see and think differently. The chorus goes like this: “Male female slave or free / Peaceful or disorderly / Maybe you and he will not agree / But you need him to show you new ways to see.”

The prophets of the Old Testament got it straight away: use words, images and stories to expose reality and prompt the questions that easily get overlooked by those with the power to preserve.

Jesus got it, too. He told stories and used images that don't just prod the intellect, but scratch away at the imagination.

But, perhaps what this shows us is simply that political vision needs more music and poetry if it is to haunt the imagination and capture hearts. Argument and shouting won't do it. Or, as Byron put it: “What is poetry? – The feeling of a former world and future.”

 

This is the script of this morning's Thought for the Day on BBC Radio 4's Today programme:

I have just got back from the reading of fat books on holiday. The one that grabbed me this time was Tom Holland's 'Dynasty: The Rise and Fall of the House of Caesar'. It all sounded so contemporary. The voice in my head kept repeating the plaintive phrase from the book of Ecclesiastes, “There is nothing new under the sun”. Power, violence, subterfuge, ego, leadership struggles, populism and politics – it's all there. It always is.

I also kept hearing the line from Proverbs: “Where there is no vision the people perish.” The problem with vision is that it emerges from memory. Rabbi Jonathan Sacks said this week that Judaism is a religion of memory. So, I would argue, is Christianity. Both remind us, for example, that empires come and go, that hubris is ultimately embarrassing, and that history sadly repeats itself. Christianity makes no sense at all without rituals that are there to compel compulsive amnesiacs to re-member their story: in this case that by recalling that we were once slaves, we will refrain from treating other people like slaves; that we are set free to serve; that we are to do justly, love mercy and walk humbly with God (and one another). For Jews the Passover goes to the heart of this memory; for Christians the Eucharist re-tells the story into which we fit ourselves and shape our future.

We can only know who we are if we know from where and from whom we have come. The problems emerge when either we think we have been born into the ultimate 'now' – that nothing valuable went before us – or we choose the bits of memory that are convenient to our present or future self-justifications.

And that is as dangerous for nations, continents and communities as it is for individuals or religions.

With this in mind, and having read about the Caesars, I wonder if every government should appoint a Cabinet Historian to remind it of the past and challenge policy for the longer-term future in the light of experience.

Of course, all readings of history are partial, and memories are always susceptible to selectivity. But, some of the challenges we face (for example, in the light of Brexit) would be informed by a sober re-membering. Memories are short, but how will anyone born in this millennium understand Russia and Ukraine when they have no experience of the Cold War – and a world divided not just by affluence but by starkly competing ideologies? Memory is not quite the same as history, but both can become commodities in struggles for power, as the biblical narrative reminds us.

Well, I won't hold my breath, but without a memory the people cannot form a vision. And without a vision the people perish.