I shall not focus on the choices before us, but I note that, whether by intention or default, we will make a choice—a choice will be made—and, beyond that choice, we have to live together. We are experiencing a time of extraordinary turbulence and toxicity in our political life, and it is how we navigate and respond to that turbulence and toxicity now and in future that I shall address in the remainder of the time available to me this afternoon.
Since taking up the office of the Bishop of Newcastle, I have had many conversations with MPs from the diocese, who range right across the political spectrum. Without exception, I have been encouraged and moved by their sense of public service and their compassion for those whom they serve. They work extraordinarily hard, and they care.
It is deeply disturbing, then, to see that a routine part of the daily working life of an MP is that they and their staff endure verbal assaults, attacks and threats. It cannot be right that carrying a panic alarm is now a necessity for some MPs and that constituency offices and homes are considered as places of risk for them.
It is just under three years since June 2016, when Jo Cox was murdered. As a nation, we were horrified and united in believing that this must never happen again. Yet over the past few months, intimidation and death threats against Members of Parliament, including MPs from my diocese, have become so commonplace that they struggle to secure space in newspapers and on news websites. MPs on both sides of the conversation have been labelled as traitors, as being engaged in acts of betrayal. Anyone coming in or out of this building will have seen the placards and heard the shouting, and often it is women parliamentarians who receive the worst of it.
Whatever the outcome of this week’s events, and whatever choice we make about our future relationship with the European Union, the even more important question is: what kind of democracy and society will we be left with? The former Archbishop of Canterbury —my right reverend friend Lord Williams of Oystermouth —reflected on this with characteristic thoughtfulness in a recent article in the New Statesman. He wrote that,
“two salient aspects of a consistent democracy are that we go on arguing, and that our freedom to do so is protected. The law defends us from coercion and forcible silencing. Without these, we have naked populism, a reversion to the situation where the powerful (in numbers, wealth or status) determine what is ‘right’. Genuine politics gives way to suppressed or threatened violence”.
This is the chasm into which we are staring. Whatever happens next, approximately half of us will be unhappy and angry. We will need the kind of democracy that protects our freedoms and the values we hold dear. For democracy to be exercised, the space where it is practised—whether in the real world or online—must be kept safe, and those who are called to serve must be protected. This is not someone else’s job: it falls to all of us to call out hatred, abuse, intimidation and threat wherever we see it happening.
The Church is in all communities and has learned how important it is to work across divides with others, of all faiths and none. We understand that reconciliation must be placed at the centre of our life together. Across the diocese of Newcastle we will gather to share our hopes and fears for the coming months, and to pray together. I am encouraging people to light three candles: “One for me, one for my neighbour, and one for our shared future together”.
My friend the most reverend Primate the Archbishop of Canterbury has challenged the Church to ponder how our actions will look a century from now. Will we have stoked tension and hostility, or worked to defuse it? Will we have demonised others with whom we deeply disagree, or called for civility and respect in how we speak about and treat each other? The challenge is to the Church, but all of us could do worse than to ponder these words. Three years ago, it was our privilege, at the request of our local MPs, to open Newcastle Cathedral for a time of prayer for Jo Cox immediately following her death. The huge response from members of the general public was deeply moving, but let that be both the first and the last such occasion.
Lord Alderdice (LD)…Even in your Lordships’ House, my sense of the past couple of years has been that people have held to positions and tried to defend and promote them rather than understand that the deep divisions that have opened up in our country and our continent are extremely dangerous and that we must find a way of resolving them. That is why I identify strongly with a number of the comments that have been made but perhaps most particularly with the words of the right reverend Prelate the Bishop of Newcastle…
Lord Judd (Lab)…We have a tremendous challenge to leadership here—I was very struck by how well that was spelled out by the right reverend Prelate the Bishop of Newcastle earlier in our debate…
Lord Goldsmith (Lab) …I was particularly struck by the speech of the right reverend Prelate the Bishop of Newcastle. She reminded us of the risks to which Members of Parliament, particularly female Members, have been exposed—and not just by this issue but by another that is taking place at the moment, about which nobody can be the slightest bit proud. I wish her well with her three candles project, which sounds a tremendous way of trying to heal some of these divisions, as the most reverend Primate the Archbishop of Canterbury told us would be necessary on a previous occasion…
The Minister of State, Department for Exiting the European Union (Lord Callanan) (Con)…It is worth saying again that the experience and expertise demonstrated by noble Lords today is consistent with the valuable contributions this House has made to the process of the UK leaving the EU. I thought the debate started off very well and I agree with the noble and learned Lord, Lord Goldsmith, that the right reverend Prelate the Bishop of Newcastle spoke some wise words in calling for a calm, civilised debate. I am pleased to say that everybody in this House certainly abided by her instructions…
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