Reverend Rose Hudson-Wilkin, Chaplain to the Speaker of the House of Commons, appeared on BBC2’s Newsnight programme on 7th September 2017, discussing faith and politics alongside Guardian columnist Polly Toynbee. The interview was preceded by a clip of an appearance by Jacob-Rees Mogg MP on ITV’s Good Morning Britain, where he had been asked about the influence of his Roman Catholicism on his position on abortion and other matters. A transcript of the interview is below:
Kirsty Wark: If someone’s deeply held religious views conflict with secular values, should that be a barrier to high political office? And might that depend on the importance of religion to the wider population? This week in a survey for the National Centre for Social Research, for almost the first time over half the people, 53% – it was the same in the Eighties – described themselves as having no religion. With me are Rose Hudson-Wilkin who is chaplain to the Speaker of the House of Commons and indeed the Lords, and the Guardian columnist Polly Toynbee. Good evening to both of you.
Rose Hudson-Wilkin: Good evening
KW: First of all Rose, do you think that Jacob Rees Mogg, as a religious man, was perfectly entitled to say what he said and it should not disbar him from high political office?
RHW: We live in a liberal democracy. Freedom of speech, freedom of conscience. And so it is important for anyone in any particular role to be able to express that this is what they feel, or this is what they believe. I do not believe it should bar them from leadership of any kind.
KW: But what about if the consensus goes the other way? Does that make a difference?
RHW: What do you mean?
KW: If the consensus is, for example, that people may have various views on abortion but, for example, views about incest and rape, that particular position is not one that is held by the majority of the population, does that matter?
RHW: Well, the population will soon do something about that in terms of how they vote, and they will say ‘I’m sorry, we don’t want to have these views’. But I’m talking specifically about religious – religious views should not be a bar from leadership, full stop. Political leadership, any kind of leadership.
KW: [to Polly Toynbee] It’s a form of discrimination isn’t it, to say that someone who holds deep religious views is perhaps someone that isn’t suitable to hold high political office? It is discrimination?
Polly Toynbee: Yes, I think I’m with Elizabeth the First; you wouldn’t make windows into men’s souls. What people believe is their own business. What matters is their policies and their politics and often those two get in the way. If he [Jacob Rees-Mogg] wanted to advocate restoring the kind of abortion restrictions that he wants, he probably wouldn’t get elected. There’s nothing to stop him standing for office. The Conservative Party might be mad enough to select him.
KW: He’s made it clear of course that would not be a platform that he would be standing on, to make that point of policy; he’s made that quite clear. It’s a personally, deeply held view. Now in this day and age is that acceptable or not? We live in a democracy; presumably all views, whatever their stripe or religion, should be acceptable as long as they’re not hate speak or violence, or whatever?
PT: Well, I think gay people might think it is hate speak to say that they are so disgusting that they shouldn’t be allowed to get married; that they shouldn’t be allowed to do various things. But I agree, and I agree with Rose; it’s up to the electorate to decide who they want to vote. I think he wouldn’t have a hope in hell. I hope not, partly because those views are part of a much wider package of where he stands. He is on the very, very, far right. People think ‘oh, he’s rather a charming, facetious man, who’s full of jokes and..’, but in fact he’s on the very far right, he’s a climate change denier, he wrote an article in the Telegraph the other day…
KW: But that’s a different…just sticking to this position of religion, basically we know what happened to Tim Farron after the election. He said that he felt that to be a committed Christian and to be leader of the party was just impossible for him.
RHW: I’m sorry that he felt, that he came to that conclusion. And I am sorry about the enormous pressure that was placed on him in many ways. But the reality is that one’s faith is not a coat that we occasionally put on depending on what the weather is like; it is who you are. So to ask someone to leave their faith at the door, it’s just not right. And we need to guard against a level of intolerance that we’re beginning to see in this country in relation to people’s faith.
KW: That is interesting…
PT: Can I just say about Tim Farron, I think it’s a different question. He was leading the Liberal Party and it’s what it says on the tin. They have always been liberal reformers, social reformers…
KW: But to be liberal is to allow for other people’s views as well…
PT: Indeed, but he was very out of kilter with the sentiment of his own party and the people he was trying to appeal to, by being anti-gay. I mean that was a problem. I think if you’re in the Conservative Party the majority of a lot of Conservative Party members who are older and more socially conservative might well support you. But I think he had a real problem…
KW: He does not believe in gay marriage. That’s different from actually being anti-gay.
PT: Well I think a lot of gay people would say there’s no difference. It’s a root prejudice there that’s expressing itself in one particular policy.
KW: Is there something about Christianity that we feel that actually you can take a pop at people who’ve got deep religious faith?
RW: I think at the moment that’s what we’re seeing in this country; and [to PT] I’m not saying that you’re doing that, clearly, but I think that’s what we’re seeing. We’re seeing a level of intolerance that says ‘Christianity – oh, let’s kick them into touch’ or ‘let’s kick them out of the public space’. And actually I applied for this role as Chaplain to the Speaker of the House of Commons because I actually believe that faith ought to be in the public square. It is who we are. And after all, if you look at our history and where we’re coming from in this country, the Christian faith contributed lots of positive things to our country and I think for us to throw it away because there are some raving secularists saying ‘absolutely not!’; I think we’re barking up the wrong tree.
PT: I don’t think you have to be a raving secularist to say you have twenty six unelected bishops sitting in the House of Lords who have a very strong influence, particularly on questions like the right to die.
KW: Thank you very much, I’m afraid I’m going to have to stop you there.