Archive speeches: Bishop Tom Wright – ‘The constitution is far more important than party politics.’

017 - Bishop of Durham“Voting matters, but doing the job matters even more. The belief that only elected Members can have any sort of legitimacy, or that once someone has won a vote it gives them carte blanche to do whatever they like for the next five years, rings extremely hollow when it is precisely some of the elected Members in another place who have brought the system into disrepute. Our whole political system has encouraged career politicians who have never run a farm or a shop or a school or a ship, and who lurch from utopianism, which gets most of them into politics in the first place, to pragmatic power-seeking, which is what they turn to when Utopia fails to arrive on schedule.” – Bishop of Durham, 11/6/09 


On 11th June 2009 Peers met to debate a motion from the Liberal Democrat Lord Tyler on “the legislative proposals for constitutional renewal”.

The debate took place against the backdrop of a developing scandal over MPs expense claims. In May the Daily Telegraph had published a leaked list of expenses claimed by MPs, which dominated the political and news agenda for months to come. The then Archbishop of Canterbury, Dr Rowan Williams, had written in the Times that

“The continuing systematic humiliation of politicians itself threatens to carry a heavy price in terms of our ability to salvage some confidence in our democracy..It would be a tragedy if our present troubles spelled the end of any confidence that politics and public service could and should truly be a calling worthy of the most generous instincts.”

The Government of Gordon Brown would soon publish a Bill proposing widespread constitutional reform, involving changes to the civil service, elections, judicial appointments and the House of Lords. Many of these proposals – including on hereditary peer by-elections and discipline of Lords members – were ultimately abandoned so did not feature in the 2010 Constitutional Reform and Governance Act.

Speaking earlier in the debate the then Bishop of Liverpool, Rt Revd James Jones, had set out his own view of the relationship between the two Houses of Parliament:

“In this one Parliament, there should be—I long to see this recovered to our debate—a mutuality between the two Houses, each distinctive in character and composition but mutually dependent, the elected looking to the other for the wisdom of experience, the appointed deferring to the elected and acknowledging their authority to have the last word as the voice of the people: one Parliament of two Houses under the Crown, as a sign that our own accountability is in two directions; below to the people, above to the source of our moral intuition.”

The then Bishop of Durham, Rt Revd Tom Wright, spoke later. The full text of his speech is below and the full debate can be read at

The Lord Bishop of Durham: My Lords, I, too, am grateful to the noble Lord, Lord Tyler, for his timely raising of this subject, in line with the Green Paper of two years ago, the White Paper of last year and his own Bill of March this year, which subsequent surprising events have shown to be—shall we say?—prophetic. I know that my right reverend friend behind me will join in celebrating the fact that the noble Lord who has just spoken is the ham in the episcopal sandwich. We hope that the noble Lord enjoys that status while it lasts.

The constitution is far more important than party politics. One might almost propose that party politicians should be kept away from constitutional reform lest it appear that they were rejigging things this way or that for party advantage; whereas the constitution ought to be the framework within which those debates take place, and not itself subject to them. That is the point made by the noble Lord, Lord Tyler, about a citizens’ assembly; though if an appointment to such an assembly were made partly by the Prime Minister, and then under a scheme run by the Secretary of State, it is hard to see how independence would be seen to have been achieved. Most people in this country think that the House of Commons is the citizens’ assembly, and, if that is not working, it is not clear how putting another structure above it would do the trick. One can imagine an infinite regress—perish the thought.

That leads to my first main point. It is alarming that the Prime Minister is using the need to clean up the expenses system as a Trojan horse to smuggle in major constitutional proposals, threatening to force them through in a rush. If even a Government in happier times, with no whiff of scandal or internal division, were suddenly to propose such a package, we would be startled: how much more when this is bound to appear as a diversionary tactic, a displacement activity, a desperate attempt to flail around in the water as the sharks close in? We need constitutional reform, but this is not the way to go about it, and this Government are not the team to do it. If we are to have serious change, it must command massive assent across the country, and the Government are now incapable of achieving that.

We now have on the table creative proposals from the noble Lord, Lord Tyler, and others—nobody has yet mentioned that, last Monday, Professor Vernon Bogdanor published his new book, The New British Constitution. With proposals like this coming out, we must have a debate and not suddenly be pushed in one direction. That is not an invitation just to more talk—I take the noble Lord’s point—but to a wider discussion in which his particular and interesting proposals are to be understood. Most people in this country have only just become aware of the depth of the constitutional problem. It is time to let the saucepan simmer a little longer, rather than quickly serving the vegetables half-cooked.

In case anyone should imagine that by criticising the Government I am implicitly supporting one of the other parties, let me be even-handed. I regard with equal suspicion the call for an immediate election, or for PR. These do not address the problems in hand—either the problem of the breakdown of trust in Parliament, or the problem of the constitution. They both assume that if we only voted again, or voted differently, the sun would come out from behind the cloud and everyone in the country would smile again. No—the people I meet day by day in the north-east of England are not eager for an election, and they are not fussed about proportional representation. They want representatives they can trust who will address their real questions and interests. They do not think that another vote, of whatever shape, will achieve that. That is the real problem. It is a problem of legitimacy and accountability. Those are the issues underlying the proposals of the noble Lord, Lord Tyler, and we need to attend to them urgently.

Fine-tuned regulation matters, but the political malaise runs much deeper. We were warned just now about getting too philosophical, but I will say this. The cultural transition sometimes called “postmodernity” has at last washed up on the shores of politics. What does that mean? Our political systems have been relentlessly modernist, wedded to a philosophy of sociocultural progress and evolution; but most people do not think like that now, and they distrust people who do. That distrust has now been magnified a thousandfold. We cannot go back to the old modernist politics, with its embedded 18th century prejudice; but too many of today’s politicians are still playing those games—and playing them to the Press Gallery—as though they were the real thing. It is time to ask the big questions about how we move through the postmodern morass, the failure of trust, and out the other side into new ways of doing things. Tinkering with bits and pieces of the system will not do. This is not just a political problem, and it is not just about Parliament: it is about where we are in the entire western cultural world.

Let us step back from the immediate flurry and point-scoring to ask what a constitution is for. A constitution is there to balance freedom and order; to ward off tyranny on the one hand and chaos on the other; to strive for justice and mercy; and to foster wisdom and responsibility. It is there particularly to ensure the proper balance between the Government and the people, with the people participating as fully as possible in the common life. Part of our problem is that we have gone on too long assuming that voting every few years will ensure those things. It does not and will not—hence the crisis in legitimacy and accountability. These are complex concepts. This is not the moment to explore in detail how they work, and how to create structures within which they can work; but it is because we need that exploration that I hope that the Government will be dissuaded from rash and hasty reform, replete with multiple unintended consequences.

We can at least say this. As the Prime Minister acknowledged yesterday, legitimacy does not arise just from having people vote for you. Legitimacy is also sustained by doing the job and being trusted. Public consent and approval can come through the ballot box, or in other ways. When you do not get the second form of legitimacy, sustained trust, people lose interest in the first, the ballot box. That is why more people vote in “Big Brother” than in general elections. Just as the “celeb” culture is conscripting the monarchy it imitates, so now the “Big Brother” culture is conscripting politics into its spurious and shallow populism.

These rather obvious reflections have an immediate bearing on the key questions that we must address, not least about reform of your Lordships’ House: voting matters, but doing the job matters even more. The belief that only elected Members can have any sort of legitimacy, or that once someone has won a vote it gives them carte blanche to do whatever they like for the next five years, rings extremely hollow when it is precisely some of the elected Members in another place who have brought the system into disrepute. Our whole political system has encouraged career politicians who have never run a farm or a shop or a school or a ship, and who lurch from utopianism, which gets most of them into politics in the first place, to pragmatic power-seeking, which is what they turn to when Utopia fails to arrive on schedule. The suggestion that we should solve our present problems by electing more people like that to replace the widely experienced specialists on these Benches shows how out of touch some people are with the real problems.

Many of the interesting proposals of the noble Lord, Lord Tyler, have to do with accountability, which is obviously needed—let us reform the expenses system et cetera as soon as we possibly can. However, we still hear it repeated, and again from the Prime Minister yesterday, that MPs are accountable to their constituents. Well, they are and they are not: a great many seats are completely safe, and will be even if we redraw boundaries.

Further, the media and party advertisements encourage voters to vote primarily for a party and its leader and only secondarily for the candidate. But the real problem is that if we vote “this lot” out, that will simply mean voting “that lot” in, and for many in the country today, it is the whole lot who are felt to be the problem. You and I know that that is overly simple, but voting, or not voting, for someone every four or five years remains an extremely inexact and inefficient way of holding them to account for a complex and demanding job. We need accountability, but voting twice a decade—even if we made it compulsory as in Australia; now, there is a thought—does not come anywhere near providing it. Greek and Roman democracy used sometimes to put their rulers on trial, sometimes even during, but certainly after, their term of office. The Athenians invented in the fifth century BC an interesting system called ostracism, where you could have a popular vote to banish somebody for 10 years. It occurred to me that one of the forthcoming new Members in your Lordships’ House might be rather interested in that. I can envisage a television programme which would have as its slogan, “You’re ostracised!”

Accountability needs to be built back into the system. The House of Commons needs to return to real debates and real holding of the Government to account. Perhaps we need a Government appointed outside Parliament, as in America—as the noble Lord, Lord Howarth of Newport, indicated, and the noble Lord, Lord Maclennan, also suggested. That is at least worth discussing. Certainly, the present system, with up to 100 MPs in ministerial roles and another 100 eagerly awaiting their chance, has eliminated the debating and accounting role of the Commons and reduced MPs to constituency activists who rubber-stamp the Executive’s decrees instead of holding them up to the light of serious discussion. We need in turn a strong House of Lords that will hold the Commons to account, which we will not get by voting in another few hundred party-Whipped career politicians. As I said yesterday, be careful before you chop down your ancient trees. Political topsoil erodes faster than you might think. We may need some kind of outside, non-parliamentary body or figure, such as the Prime Minister is proposing, or perhaps the kind of independent Attorney-General favoured by the noble Lord, Lord Tyler in his Bill. But how such a person would be appointed if the office is to be free from the taint of special party pleading and how such an office is to be held to account are difficult matters requiring careful consideration. I do not see that that has yet been addressed, far less resolved.

In and through it all, we are in the business of doing justice and loving mercy. You do not achieve those either by issuing more regulations or by tinkering with the structures; you get them by humble service.

“Do justice”,

says the prophet Micah,

“love mercy, and walk humbly with your God”.

That last does not simply superimpose an old-fashioned personal piety on the practicalities. It closes the gap, the gap between freedom and order, between justice and mercy, between responsibility and trust, and between utopianism and pragmatic power-seeking. Whether or not you believe in God, humility—the recognition that we are only stewards of something greater than ourselves, as the noble Lord, Lord Howarth, said—is absolutely necessary to keep the system in balance, to foster and sustain the real legitimacy and the true accountability that we lack. Without that, we shall lurch from one sort of tyranny to another and one sort of chaos to another—we have a bit of both at the moment—even if, perhaps especially if, people keep voting from time to time and so imagine that they belong to a participatory democracy while the inward meaning has been lost.

These are only short notes towards the much fuller discussion that we should have, but I hope that they point towards that fuller discussion and warn against blundering ahead with ill-considered proposals on the one hand or an ill-timed election that will not solve the underlying problems on the other. We have a chance in the next few years to engage creatively and constructively with the issues which the noble Lord, Lord Tyler, and others have outlined. Let us not squander that opportunity by being bounced into giving wrong answers to wrong questions. There are right questions out there, and we on these Benches want to work with the whole House and the country at large to find the right answers. As I said in your Lordships’ House a couple of years ago, it looks as though constitutional change has been done on a wing and a prayer. We on these Benches are very happy to supply the prayer, but we want to be assured of the quality of the wing.


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