Bishop of Chelmsford on trust in public life and institutions

On 30th June 2016  Lord Fairfax of Cameron led a debate “That this House takes note of the role of openness and transparency in reinforcing confidence in public institutions.” The Bishop of Chelmsford, Rt Revd Stephen Cottrell, spoke in the debate:

Chelmsford 251115The Lord Bishop of Chelmsford: My Lords, I thank the noble Lord, Lord Fairfax of Cameron, for introducing this debate. I am still relatively new to this House, so you may not know that if there is a stick lying on the ground with a label on it saying, “wrong end”, I am prone to pick it up. I was drawn by the title of this debate and therefore went to the Library to read the briefing pack, which was fascinating. Its conclusion opens by saying that overall, the survey suggests that the public continue to have a very poor valuation of current standards in public life; respondents generally gave negative answers. That is something we should be concerned about.

My contribution will be over in 10 minutes and then you can get on with the debate that obviously some of you want to have, but I want to speak about what I see as the moral and spiritual dimensions to this issue.

When my middle son was seven—he is now 22 and one of the most examined children in history—he sat the first of many tests: the dreaded SATs, which parents of my generation will know about. He attended a wonderful Church of England primary school in Huddersfield, where we were living at the time. To avoid undue pressure on the children, the school sensibly played down the fact that it was a test and encouraged us parents to do the same. Amazingly, we did. When the day came, he hardly knew what was in store or its significance. When he got home that day, he said, “Dad, what a funny day it’s been”. He told me that the whole class had been marched into the hall where they normally have their lunch and been given some “special work” to do. But what really surprised him was that, before they did the special work, the teachers had impressed upon them that they were not allowed to help each other. It was his first foray into the values of an overly competitive adult world, where you learn how to be an individual and a consumer but rarely a community.

Hitherto, this school, like virtually every other school in the country, prized as a core value helping each other. More than this, it was a Church school, where loving your neighbour as yourself was at the heart of the school’s ethos. However, in the world of the exam, we have another name for that value whereby we help our neighbour if they are struggling: cheating. Do not get me wrong: of course we need exams—that is not the point I am making. However, this seems to me to be a helpful little parable for our time. As we grow up, as targets and league tables take their toll, and as many feel left behind, the value of collaboration—helping each other—is superseded by another value: competition. We stop seeing ourselves as a community and learn to see ourselves as individuals set against each other in a dog-eat-dog world. This affects everything. Little wonder then that we in public life, who appear to be dining at the top table, are therefore often judged harshly and there is great delight when we fall.

It also affects so much of our public discourse. Our ways of interacting with one another are often combative and adversarial. That is the way we have learned to do things. In this of all weeks, we need to see national and global solutions for the new place we find ourselves in. Thinking merely in terms of winners and losers disfranchises half a nation. However, at the same time, it is interesting that many of today’s most successful businesses, like our very best schools, prize collaboration as a way of encouraging enterprise, harnessing creativity and, in so doing, developing different and more collaborative models of leadership. We also see this in some of our best local authorities and councils. My well-being and success are now intrinsically bound up with the well-being and success of others and of the whole. I discover that, when I am trusted, I am much more likely to trust others. Incidentally, that is why our Select Committees here are such a joy to be part of. If the public saw this side of our political life rather than the bear pit of PMQs, we might begin to change perceptions. But we need only to look around ourselves at the layout of this space, let alone of another one. Here, at the centre of public and political life, we are formed and schooled in a way of making decisions that is not primarily about reaching consensus and finding a common mind but about winning an argument.

Let us place this alongside the other influences that I have mentioned—not least the dispiriting weight of always being viewed as a consumer. You cannot drive 100 yards down the road nowadays, let alone switch on your phone or open a magazine, without somebody trying to sell you some new great lifestyle. The world is kind of saying, “If you bought this fast car, or if you wore that perfume, or if you got those designer-label jeans, you would be happy”. Well, none of it works—or perhaps to be more accurate, it works just enough to get you addicted. All this has created what I see as a nation of junkies, lusting for the wealth to deliver the goods that they think will buy them happiness and then realising that it does not really work.

Then there is the increasing professionalisation of political life, where other influences and experiences are fewer than used to be the case. Add all this together and there is an inevitable disconnect between different groups of people in our country, and we are part of that. There is also a disconnect between the public and the private: between the things we value and the way we do things in, let us say, our schools and our families—even the things we experience in some of our more innovative businesses—and the things we do and see in public. This breeds cynicism and we should not therefore be surprised when the evidence shows us that the perception of the public, albeit an unfair one, is that we cannot be trusted.

But what if our families and schools were right? What if this way of doing things is best and what if we allowed it to shape our public life? I quoted Wilfred Owen earlier today; let me now quote WH Auden. In his wonderful poem “In Praise of Limestone”, he said this:

“The blessed will not care what angle they are regarded from,

Having nothing to hide”.

The transparency of life, where I am the same person at home and at work, when the door is closed as well as when the door is opened, is formed in us by values of responsibility and ownership—by ownership here I mean not of goods but of ourselves and our actions—and by collaboration. It is where we know that we belong to each other and are accountable to each other and, I suppose most of all, accountable to ourselves, able to look ourselves in the eye over what we have said and done. This is, thank God, taught and valued in all our schools. It is the elusive ethos that parents and politicians crave, but it is often lacking, or at least diminished, in public life, where we have allowed a separation of who we are in one place from who we are in another, and where the values we espouse at home are not always the values we espouse at work.

I spoke to a woman recently—I think this is wonderful—who said that her rule of thumb in elections when deciding who to vote for was, would she let them babysit her children? That is quite a good test to apply. I can certainly think of worse reasons.

I conclude with one last story because parables often help more in these matters than anything else. I heard recently about a teenager who was caught stealing pens from WH Smith. He was arrested and cautioned. His parents were distraught. “I cannot believe it”, said the father, “My son a thief. If only he had told me that he needed some pens—I could have brought him some back from the office”. No amount of principles, protocols, guidelines or codes, useful though they are, will make a difference if we have not allowed the fundamental value of seeking the common good, loving and valuing our neighbour as ourselves, to form our personhood and shape our institutions. Rebuilding trust and changing perception is a spiritual and moral issue, and it begins in the heart. Until we have decided to be one person rather than several, there will be no change at all.

Baroness Hayter of Kentish Town (Lab) [extract]: …My Lords, first I thank the right reverend Prelate the Bishop of Chelmsford for raising the standard of the debate, if I may say so, and also giving us an insight into why his sermons are so popular.

A noble Lord: It was not a sermon.

Baroness Hayter of Kentish Town: No, but he has good stories…

Baroness Chisholm of Owlpen (Con) [extract]:… The comments by the right reverend Prelate are why I enjoy these debates. Noble Lords can come in here and suddenly hear a speech of such interest, which is funny, amusing and intelligent, that they realise why they are in this House. That was certainly the case today. He mentioned that when someone is trusted, they are much more likely to trust others—I could not agree more, it is a very good statement. Everything that he said was thought-provoking and Auden’s poem hits the nail on the head. I also agree that I certainly use the marker of whether I would let somebody babysit—in my case, I am referring to my grandchildren now, but it used to be my children. It was an excellent speech.