Bishop of St Albans leads debate on civil society, the common good and the Bishops’ General Election pastoral letter

“I am convinced that there is urgent work to be done to establish a new politics that seeks the common good. Indeed, I am keen that we will be able to explore the forms that such an approach to politics might take and the role that churches, charities and voluntary organisations, and indeed all intermediate institutions, can play in moving us in that direction.” – Bishop of St Albans, 11/6/15

On the 11th June 2015 the Bishop of St Albans, Rt Revd Alan Smith, led a House of Lords debate on the pastoral letter of the House of Bishops for the General Election of 2015. The debate was titled:

‘That this House takes note of the role played by civil society, in the light of the pastoral letter from the Church of England’s House of Bishops, Who is my neighbour?’

The Bishop’s speech is below in full, along with his closing remarks and links to the speeches of the other 16 participants.The speech and subsequent debate can also be watched here.

Bishop St Albans June 2015The Lord Bishop of St Albans: My Lords, there is much in our nation for which we can be profoundly grateful. Next week, as we mark 800 years since the sealing of Magna Carta, we give thanks for the long, yet sometimes tortuous, path that has led us to becoming a modern democracy. That moment was if not the birth then perhaps at least the conception of civil society at the beginning of a long gestation.

Last month, we celebrated 70 years of peace since the end of the Second World War, by which time civil society as we know it today was coming of age. As a nation, we have experienced extraordinary levels of economic growth over recent decades. Life expectancy has increased significantly and, importantly for this debate, in many communities in our nations, civil society is still strong and thriving. I for one am immensely grateful to be living in modern Britain and do not want to give any time to sentimental talk about a bygone era that probably never existed.Nevertheless, some trends in society and in our political life are worrying and we cannot ignore them. Everyone here in Westminster is only too aware of the decline in the levels of voting and of increased apathy about politics. Those are not party-political issues: they are things that affect us right across the political spectrum. There are also the well-documented declines in volunteering, a decrease in the proportion of income that we give to charity and some evidence that charts a decline in our levels of well-being and happiness.

Those were just some of the issues that the House of Bishops raised in our letter, Who Is My Neighbour? As the letter stresses, we deliberately, and I believe successfully, avoided a document that was party political, although I know that some noble Lords do not agree and feel that we trespassed on to territory that they wish we had stayed away from. However, this morning I want to be absolutely clear that I tabled this debate not to attack the Government or indeed any political party. I sought this debate in an entirely non-partisan spirit, not wishing to single out any side as being particularly culpable, but rather to highlight the need for a fresh approach to politics that transcends tired polarisation. I hope that this debate will give us space and time to think about what can be done to strengthen our political life and reinvigorate civil society.

I am convinced that there is urgent work to be done to establish a new politics that seeks the common good. Indeed, I am keen that we will be able to explore the forms that such an approach to politics might take and the role that churches, charities and voluntary organisations, and indeed all intermediate institutions, can play in moving us in that direction.

I have already mentioned that we are marking the 800th anniversary of the sealing of Magna Carta next Monday. As noble Lords may be aware, the first meeting about Magna Carta took place in 1213 in St Albans Abbey, which today is my cathedral, although it was another two years before King John had his arm twisted to seal it. That sealing marked a major shift in devolving power and so strengthened the role of civil society. The church was deeply involved in those events leading up to the sealing of the charter led by Archbishop Stephen Langton’s opposition to King John. Part of the charter relates to the protection of the rights and responsibility of groups other than the barons, including the church. So we perhaps might frame today’s debate in terms of how the legacy of Magna Carta can be both developed and strengthened further in our time.

I return to today. We are all aware of the widespread and well-documented disillusionment with the current state of political discourse. Politics of the common good was not much on display during the general election campaign. Rather, I suggest, identity politics prevailed, with headline policies repeatedly demonstrating the belief that voters are fundamentally driven by self-interest. That is not to say that politicians deliberately go around driving wedges between different social groups. Nevertheless, we have all seen how this retail politics generates even more entrenched polarisation, closing the door on potentially constructive collaboration. Such tribalism also ignores the diversity of participants that we urgently need in order to bring long-lasting social, economic and political change.

As the House of Bishops’ letter pointed out, disillusionment with politics has been expressed in falling turnouts at general elections since the Second World War to below two-thirds of the population. The declining number of people exercising their democratic right to vote reflects a worrying level of non-participation. Many are choosing instead to boycott the established democratic channels, as evidenced in interventions made by Russell Brand and more recently by Charlotte Church, for example, and the concomitant rise of single-issue politics through online and social media campaigns.

Alongside voter disillusionment and apathy, there is also widespread concern among politicians, social commentators and community leaders over the gradual weakening of civil society in the western world, as attested to in research such as that provided by the British Social Attitudes survey. This decline can be discerned in the decreasing number of people who are willing to be actively involved in their communities, such as by volunteering, being on a PTA, being a school governor, leading scouts and guides, or being part of a neighbourhood watch scheme. While everyone seems to agree that these are eminently sensible and good things, fewer people are prepared to personally undertake them.

As part of this declining sense of mutual responsibility and community life, we have also experienced growing levels of loneliness and isolation, especially among the elderly through the more general loss of what the House of Bishops’ letter terms “neighbourliness”. The loneliness, solitariness and isolation that we have diagnosed as a significant feature in our society are also related to aspects of our welfare system. We are all aware of and agree that we are facing profound challenges, and it is not likely to help us find a way forward if we all lapse into familiar defensive positions. We need a new rationale for state welfare that is about incentivising human connectivity. Like all rationales for welfare, it rests of course on a tension or a paradox: how do you support those who cannot fully support themselves without creating disincentives for others to be self-supporting? How do you introduce incentives for neighbourliness without generating dependency in others?

All welfare policies have to negotiate these paradoxes. We require a justification for welfare policies that encourages more community involvement, promotes local neighbourliness where possible, and turns to state provision only where there is no community to mediate care and support. In other words, where there is nothing between the individual and the state, it can be dehumanising. If we are to increase levels of neighbourliness, our welfare strategies need to be geared towards that end just as much as to other areas of policy. All of us, including the churches, need to think beyond a case-by-case opposition to welfare cuts; rather, we need to commit to rethinking what welfare ought to be for our times, and how this can promote and not erode neighbourliness.

The decline in neighbourliness is linked at least in part with our politics. As many people have experienced an increasing sense of disfranchisement and powerlessness, there has also been an increase in the centralised nature of much of the power in this country. This is utterly counter to the spirit of Magna Carta, and there is much agreement across the political spectrum that accumulations of power, whether those of the state, corporations or individuals, are fundamentally unhealthy.

We must therefore seek to reverse these accumulations of power, if we are going to enable civil society to play its proper part, by involving people at a deeper level in the decisions that affect them most. This entails the recognition of the unique contribution of each citizen, not only out of a desire to honour the dignity of each human person but as an acknowledgment that viable solutions to the social problems that we all contend with require broad participation.

In this, I advocate a return to the principles of subsidiarity and solidarity that undergirded and predated the big-society agenda of the 2010 election campaign. We must not dismiss those ideas on the basis that they did not achieve at their last airing all that we might have hoped. The big-society sense of community and common life has been described by the academic Robert Putnam as “social capital”. The call for power to be devolved must not be mistaken for simply enabling citizens to secure their own narrow interests more directly. If more and more power is given to local communities, we cannot automatically presume that they will use that power for the greater good of everyone in that community—they might use it to increase nimbyism. For example, as we are faced with a shortage of housing in this country, on what basis can we presume that devolving greater powers to local areas will break the logjam? Indeed, some people argue that devolving the planning of housing could just as easily stop building.

As we devolve power more locally, we need it to be accompanied with a higher level of what Putnam terms “bridging social capital”, which he differentiates from “bonding social capital”. Bridging social capital is about the common good. I will elucidate that distinction a little, if I may, because it is quite helpful. Bonding social capital is where a group of people have such a strong sense of identity that they look after one another. For example, in clubs and associations, members may lend each other their mowers, do each other’s shopping or babysit for one another. That is all very good, but bonding social capital can be exclusive and does not necessarily look out for people who, for example, are new to the area. Communities based on bonding social capital can quickly become cliques of like-minded people who are extremely friendly, but—this is the important point—they are friendly just to each other.

In contrast, bridging social capital is demonstrated where a club or a group of people is so confident in itself that it can reach out to people who do not belong to it. This form of social capital is inclusive, giving people the confidence to meet strangers and encountering those who are different. Bridging social capital is evident in the existence of many of the institutions that comprise our national lives, such as our schools, hospitals, hospices and so on.

The church continues to be the locus for myriad contributions to civic society. In my diocese, we run centres for the homeless in Bedford, Luton, Watford and St Albans. We are involved with key partners in a homelessness project in Stevenage. We have four debt advice centres. We are involved in a number of credit unions; indeed, just a few weeks ago a leading credit union opened a new branch in one of our churches in Bedford. Noble Lords will also be aware of the large number of food banks that have been set up all over the country.

I mention those not to blow our own trumpets, because I am profoundly aware of how little we are able to scratch the surface. Nor do I want to get into a discussion in this debate about why, for example, we have food banks. That is not what I think this debate is primarily about. The question I am asking today is: what can we do to encourage the development of more intermediate institutions, which are the places where we are most likely to build bridging social capital? The acceptance of the imperative to devolve power leaves us with questions of how we ensure the presence of strong communities that can accept this power and use it for the common good. Thus, intermediate institutions play a foundational role, as neighbourhoods are built on institutions that are strong enough to enable people to move away from the language of “I” and “me” to the language of “us” and “we”.

I very much hope that this debate will be a constructive forum in which we can explore how to go forward in facilitating the mutual flourishing of communities and how we might strengthen our political life as a nation. I beg to move.


Click on the following links to read the speeches of the other participants in the debate:

Lord Griffiths of Fforestfach (Con)

Lord Griffiths of Burry Port (Lab)

Baroness Barker (LD)

Baroness Neuberger (LD)

Baroness Royall of Blaisdon (Lab)

The Lord Bishop of Rochester

Lord Patten (Con)

Lord Judd (Lab)

Baroness Butler-Sloss (CB)

Lord Cormack (Con)

Lord Graham of Edmonton (Lab)

Baroness Uddin (Non-Afl)

Lord Anderson of Swansea (Lab)

Baroness Prashar (CB)

Lord Kennedy of Southwark (Lab)

The Parliamentary Secretary, Cabinet Office (Lord Bridges of Headley) (Con)

Closing speech:

The Lord Bishop of St Albans: My Lords, as a bishop of the Church of England and as a Member of this House, I am used to having some pretty strange titles, so I was grateful to the noble Lord, Lord Anderson, for creating a new one for me—“noble troublemaker”. I cannot respond to all the points made but I am grateful to noble Lords for their wide range of contributions—significantly, from all Benches in this House. People really have sought to rise above simply reiterating party-political points and have tried to think about some of the more long-term and deeper questions underlying our political and civic life.

I would be the first to acknowledge that Who Is My Neighbour? does not deal with many issues. The noble Baroness, Lady Barker, and the noble Lord, Lord Anderson, raised issues which we were not able to address. However, I need to mention in passing that there was a section on environmental sustainability in the report. I also say to the noble Lord, Lord Griffiths of Fforestfach, on his concerns about one or two of the statements on unemployment, that I would be delighted to send him the background statistics if he wants. I simply reiterate that I am of course delighted by the decline in levels of unemployment and the creation of new jobs. I have said that on a number of occasions, including in this House, especially where those jobs are permanent posts. We need to acknowledge that and be grateful for it.

Finally, the noble Lord, Lord Patten, was just a little disappointed when he turned to the conclusion. The pastoral letter was one to members of the Church of England, and we invited others to eavesdrop on our conversation, but we were clear that we wanted it to be part of a larger debate. That is what we have been doing today. We hope that this will not be the end of it and that others will engage. I hope that it signals the intention from the Bishops on this Bench that, during the coming years, we want to play a full part in those debates as we think about how we can strengthen our political institutions, and reboot and restrengthen our civic life to the benefit of all those who live in this nation. I thank noble Lords very much for their contributions.

Motion agreed.


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