Bishop of Rochester – national conversation with unifying narrative needed to overcome toxic public debate

On 9th May 2019 the House of Lords debated a motion from Lord Harris of Haringey, “to move that this House regrets the conduct, and toxicity, of debate in public life; of the divisions in society which result from that; and calls on Her Majesty’s Government to take steps to address such divisions.” The Bishop of Rochester spoke in the debate and a transcript is below. The Bishop of Leeds also spoke in the debate and his speech can be read here:

The Lord Bishop of Rochester: My Lords, I join other noble Lords in thanking the noble Lord, Lord Harris, for bringing forward this debate and for his characteristically robust, thoughtful, clear and evidenced introduction. I also thank other noble Lords for their contributions. I look forward to reading in the Official Report what the noble Lord, Lord Parekh, has just said, because there is a lot to reflect on.

Others have spoken from these Benches in recent months on this and related matters, referencing a number of scenarios which have given rise to language and expression that cause hurt and offence and do no credit to our public life. The right reverend Prelate the Bishop of Leeds will, I understand, speak later in this debate about the power and importance of language in our public discourse. My contribution, which I hope will be brief, is to raise a question about one part of the context in which such harmful, toxic, destructive and even violent expression may come to flourish.

The phrase attributed to Aristotle about nature abhorring a vacuum has many applications. I suggest that one of the reasons for this flourishing of destructive and harmful conduct and debate may be that these things are rushing in to fill a vacuum.

The Motion put down by the noble Lord, Lord Harris, asks the Government to address the consequent divisions, which is very difficult indeed. One approach—already suggested—might be an entirely understandable effort to control and restrict through legislation, regulation or other methods. In some instances—not least where lives are at risk—that is absolutely right, proper and necessary. However, my question to myself and to this House is whether part of our response might be to fill that vacuum with something rather more wholesome, so that what is not wholesome is less able to flourish in that space.

Might part of this vacuum be the absence of, or at least the difficulty in articulating, a coherent, inclusive, overarching and compelling national narrative which helps us to understand who and what we are, what our place is in the world and how we might shape our common life for now and for the future in ways that are both visionary and realistic? I am aware of all the dangers and difficulties around that, not least that it can end up as a rather esoteric exercise with lots of nice-sounding words, although words have power. What we do not want is anything overly nostalgic and rose-tinted in relation to some perceived national past or unrealistically utopian about a hopeful future. I am not against holding out and expressing hope—some might say that is what people like me are meant to be about—but if it is to have meaning and reality, hope must, if you will allow me a few words from my world, be like that biblical ladder which connects earth and heaven, both visionary and realistic. It is based in the everyday, but looks beyond it.

Could we find some way to shape a national conversation which might have some chance of offering us the unifying and enriching narrative which I suggest we currently lack? This is in large part about identity and connects with some of what the noble Lord, Lord Parekh, has just said on that theme. Identity is complex and difficult for each of us, let alone for nations or, in our case, a nation of nations. I am resident in England, was born in Germany, have Irish and Scots heritage and various other bits and pieces make up who I am. What is the story which helps me to know who I am? It needs to encompass and value all my various identities, and the same needs to be true of our national story. It must therefore be a story which affirms the richness of our diversity, be that historical, religious, ethnic, economic, educational, cultural, geographical or one of many other dimensions. It must be a story that helps us to recognise and express the value we see in one another and can articulate that which is shared in our common life.

Parts of our national being, including, importantly, the constituent nations of our United Kingdom and some of our faith communities, already have coherent and compelling stories that shape their understanding and affirm their identity. My question is more around the narrative that applies to the whole of this United Kingdom, which, as others have indicated, is sadly not as sure of its unity and identity as we might wish. The story needs to enable us to have a proper pride in who we are and what we stand for and give us the language and desire to affirm that positively and confidently, not least in the face of those who would attack it. I do not underestimate the difficulty of this when, as a nation or nations, we are so clearly not of common mind or intention on so many things. However, I fear for our future if we do not make some attempt to do something of this kind. I wonder whether there could be some opportunity for your Lordships’ House, given its peculiar nature—peculiar in the proper sense—to be instrumental in suggesting and shaping such a conversation. Perhaps this debate is part of that.


I propose to your Lordships that we should all think very hard about trying to get together a group of sensible people, who would be widely recognised as that but also as not being politicians. Broadly speaking, we politicians are thought to be the cause of the problem in the first place. I mean a bunch of people who might be chaired by some acceptable celeb—perhaps someone from the entertainment world who is instantly recognised but perhaps someone from the medical world, from environmental protection or whatever. She or he should not be readily recognised as being a politician in any way but as a free-thinking person who, with a group of other free-thinking people, would say “Enough’s enough, so let’s spend time talking in some place”. The right reverend Prelate the Bishop of Rochester suggested your Lordships’ Chamber but perhaps it should be in a less partisan place than the Palace of Westminster. The group should talk for a few hours—perhaps half a day—and say, “It’s got to stop, and this is why”. They would need the advice of people who think spiritually such as the humanist associations, who have valuable insights into all this, and those in minority communities, such as the Muslims or the Jews. The Jews rightly feel threatened and afeared, just as they felt in 1939 when those vicious arguments were used.

We would certainly need someone such as the most reverend Primate the Archbishop of Canterbury to be there. Doubtless, the right reverend Prelates from Rochester and Leeds would have some other brother or sister bishop whom they would like to see there on the day. I will probably get into terrible trouble in the confessional, as I have not consulted him, but I would also like to propose and volunteer the services of his eminence the Cardinal Archbishop of Westminster, firmly rooted as he is in Merseyside and Liverpool…

…Lastly, the right reverend Prelate the Bishop of Rochester talked about a new national narrative, and I could not agree more. I spent some time on the Government’s advisory committee on the commemoration of the First World War, on which we fought a number of battles about how far we should represent this as more than just Britain beating Germany but as a wider conflict with wider responsibilities. I suggest again that we might consider a sessional committee on the teaching of national history in England. Mrs Thatcher attempted to address the question in her last year in government and intensely disliked what the committee she appointed came up with. Michael Gove is about to tackle it again. Let us do it on a non-partisan, cross-party basis and see how far we can get. There is a lot to do; our democracy is in serious crisis, and we should work together across the parties.

Baroness Hayter of Kentish Town (Lab)…My Lords, I also thank my noble friend Lord Harris for tabling this timely—indeed, all too topical—debate. It is sad that we need it but, as he said, we need to detoxify political debate and to heal divisions being fostered within society. The dual contributions from our Bishops were noteworthy—I was about to say “interesting” but, having heard from my noble friend Lord Winston, I think “noteworthy” is a better word to use—but when the churches witness the depth and effect of what is going on, I think we should take heed. Acknowledging the scale of the problem is a necessary start to addressing it…

…A Daily Mirror poll showed that three-quarters of the public feel that the country is more divided than ever before, with four in five having lost faith in British politics. This arises from more than just the tenor of debate, of course, but our very language, the lack of respect for the other and simplistic promises of quick fixes for complex problems—described by my noble friend Lord Liddle—all diminish trust in the political class. Both sides lose: the politicians and their families at the receiving end of some of the vilest material I have seen, but also the public, for whom a stable political world—albeit with its democratic swings between parties—forms part of the comfort blanket of our “common life”; I think those were the words used by the right reverend Prelate the Bishop of Rochester…

…Of course, the other place should never be like your Lordships’ House, where herbivores like me prefer our debates without the large decibel count, personal animosity or a binary approach to issues. We need to embody civility—a word raised by many during our debate. I agreed with what the noble Lord, Lord Winston, and the right reverend Prelate the Bishop of Rochester said: this might be a better forum for addressing the issues we have been discussing than the other place. I cannot remember who complained about it, but there are fewer people in the upper House who read out prepared scripts from the Whips’ Office…

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