Bishop of Ely on the challenges for the UK following the EU referendum

On 5th July 2016 the House of Lords debated a motion to take note of the result of the referendum on the UK’s membership of the European Union. The Bishop of Ely, Rt Revd Stephen Conway, spoke in the debate, focusing on leadership, common values, education and the rural workforce.  

Ely 2The Lord Bishop of Ely: My Lords, I cannot match that passion, but I join other noble Lords in saying how much I appreciated the speech earlier of our boss—I mean of my friend, the most reverend Primate the Archbishop of Canterbury. He and I have both worked in the north-east and been welcomed by the people of that area, many of whom voted to leave, just as people in fenland in my current diocese and people in east Kent, beloved of the most reverend Primate, did. These people were not, it seems to me, voting against the European Union but were making a great cry—a lament—about not having been heard for several generations by us, the political class. This was their opportunity to make us listen, after feeling excluded for so long.

About 20 years ago I read an essay by JK Galbraith called The Culture of Contentment, which seems prophetic now. It said how politics in the West has been organised for the wealthy at the expense of the poor, and that we would reap the whirlwind of this. In a peaceable way, that is what we are experiencing. There is a poem by the Christian poet George Herbert which includes the line “lament and love”. There now seems to be the opportunity to move ahead together in hope about the future that we might construct together. If I were to point a finger at the noble Lord, Lord Griffiths, the presbyter on the other side of the House, there would be three fingers pointed back at me. Although recrimination is a natural human desire, it seems to me that we have to move beyond that and see how, together, we can as a Parliament support the Government in offering a new kind of leadership for the future.

There are various collective nouns which the clergy have for bishops, the polite one being a blessing. I strongly ask us to think about how we, as Parliament, might seek to be a blessing in the way in which we support government in an urgent redefinition of the leadership that we need across all political parties. It will not do for us to think about a steady-as-you-go way forward, but we need to have leadership which is radical in its imagination, generosity, transparency and rigour for the future of all of our country and all of our fellow citizens.

We are talking about the flourishing of all our people and not for some at the expense of others. As the most reverend Primate the Archbishop of Canterbury referred to, one way of looking at this is through what we, as the Church of England, see as a vision for education into the future. The four pillars of this are wisdom, hope, community and dignity. So many of the people who have expressed their lament have been badly served over generations in developing their skills and aspiration for being real stakeholders in our economy and society.

If we are going to support wisdom, then we need to seek to invest in all that our people need in terms of training and being equipped with the right kind of education, which not only makes them economically productive, but grows in them—in us—the character to be mutually regarding as citizens, as those given to public life in the public service. We need to express hope that nobody is written off. One of our pledges in Church of England education is that no child is to be written off or excluded. That must apply too to the parents of children—no one is to be written off in our society and there is always hope for restoration and transformation across our communities. It is the purpose of all those engaged in political life to seek to make that happen.

All of us belong to community, one with another. I applaud everything that has been said by those who have been speaking against the way in which xenophobia and race hatred have been allowed to creep through the cracks lately and particularly in the last couple of weeks. We need to find new ways of living well together as one community and in fact, of course, it is in churches, temples and mosques where it is most likely that people meet cross-generationally to influence one another in places of safety. On dignity, some of the things people say—often to me—particularly in areas which have voted to leave, is that they do not count and there is no respect for them in the way in which any policy is framed. Dignity and respect are key.
All of this needs to be framed in outward-looking international environments, so that we do not become little Englanders but look outwards. We have a bold and vivid tradition as a country which has looked beyond its shores, not just for imperial adventure but to seek to transmit our values—all that we hold dear—for the advancement and encouragement of other peoples in other places. This is particularly true of our universities. In advance of this debate, I had a long conversation with the vice-chancellors of the University of Cambridge and Anglia Ruskin University, and both were keen to stress their first priority. There was concern for the migrant workers in Wisbech and the EU citizens who form a large proportion of their student body. They are anxious about the free movement of scholars. Scholars no longer live in ivory towers; there are now great highways of academic endeavour across the world, and Cambridge is the most important research university in Europe. How do we continue to make this vivid and real, not only for our own sake but for the sake of others?

The rest of my diocese is largely rural, but the fact remains that many of our farmers farm not just in this country but abroad; every year, half a million packets of lettuce come back into England from a farm that one of our big farmers has in Spain. He is profoundly concerned that proper respect is given to those people who, from abroad, make it possible for our food to be harvested. If it were not for overseas workers, there would be food rotting in our fields right now. So we need to be clear that our emphasis, even when we are concerned about our own country, is on all the implications for community worldwide, for the sustainability of community, and for the common good of which the most reverend Primate the Archbishop spoke, rooted in our application to wisdom, hope, community and dignity for all, so that all our citizens may flourish into the future.


Lord Curry of Kirkharle (CB): [extract] …Let me just emphasise a point made by the right reverend Prelate the Bishop of Ely. Immigration policy must recognise how important seasonal labour is to the agri-food sector. Our highly efficient food producers, processors and manufacturers will have to move production overseas if they do not have access to seasonal labour. We actually have a great opportunity to increase our self-sufficiency in food and to reverse the current downward trends, as well as to increase our exports, but only if the key components are in place, including seasonal labour. I hope that the Government will recognise these important issues.

Lord Collins of Highbury (Lab) [frontbench]: The right reverend Prelate the Bishop of Ely called it a “lament” about not having been heard for several generations. Those mining communities were left isolated, and several generations have been ignored by the political class. As he said, this was their opportunity to make us listen, after feeling excluded for so long.

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