On 19th May 2021 the Bishop of Leeds spoke in the House of Lords in the fifth and final day of debate on the Queen’s Speech. He focused on ethics, the EU and Russia.
My Lords, I am grateful to follow the Noble Lord Campbell and for the Noble Lady the Minister’s comprehensive and ambitious speech introducing this debate. I welcomed the Government’s Integrated Review as a necessary attempt to hold together the diverse interests, challenges and opportunities facing the UK in the future.
One of the things I learned in my early career as a linguist at GCHQ was that words and assumptions need to be interrogated as they can be used to obscure reality. For example, in our context, an increased “cap” on nuclear weapons tells us nothing about numbers that might actually be intended or the rationale for them.
So, I think it was remarkable that reference in the Review to the European Union was almost completely missing. Now, this had been widely predicted as it seems that, for the Government, any such reference might be heard as an ideological Remainer capitulation. Yet, the rationale for a tilt towards the Indo-Pacific only makes sense to a point: it is not just what we are “tilting towards” that matters, but also what we are “tilting away from” that has to be considered.
Put the fractious and loaded politics of Brexit to one side for a moment: we are still going to need a strong common alliance with our European neighbours if, for example, China and Russia are to be rightly understood and handled by the democratic West. Pretending we can simply ignore the EU like a bad smell is ridiculous, and this ideological tilting at windmills needs to be challenged. To argue that we will engage with the EU by way of its member states – the Review singles out three: Germany, France and Ireland – is to impose our own understanding of how we think our European allies should organise themselves politically rather than engaging with them on their own terms. In so doing, we overlook the point that the EU is more than the sum of its parts and has agency in and of itself. To ignore this agency is to shrink the diplomatic networks that the Government has access to in support of its stated diplomatic objectives.
However, my Lords, as cuts to the Overseas Aid budget – and Yemen in particular – demonstrate, there is a potentially serious discrepancy between our rhetoric and our observed behaviour. We assert that we want to be a world leader in upholding the rule of law … having a number of times threatened in the last couple of years to abrogate our responsibilities under international law – not least in the recent Internal Market Bill and the Overseas Operations Bill. We might think we can simply move on, but that doesn’t mean that our damaged reputation and the obvious (to everyone else, that is) gap between our rhetoric and behaviour go unnoticed both internally and externally. It also reduces our credibility when we seek to hold other countries to the rule of law – and that impacts inevitably on global security in the longer term.
Ethical assumptions lie at the heart of our political and economic choices. Ethics matter.
My Lords, I come back to Russia. Chatham House published an immensely helpful paper this month addressing a number of myths and misconceptions about Russia. I commend it to the House. Basically, it urges a deep questioning of the assumptions that lie behind how we see, understand and strategise in relation to Russia. As we noted to our cost during the last five years negotiating our exit from the EU, any party to a relationship – especially a changing one – needs to develop an expertise in looking through the eyes of the other party, listening through their ears, hearing their language, and interpreting it in order to know where to begin in offering a language of proposition or proposal. Failure to learn the language of the other is both stupid and costly.
The Church has to do this work every day, not least because we have partnerships in parts of the world where the world looks very different and our behaviour is read very differently from our intention or expectation.
My Lords, my work as a Soviet specialist developed during the Cold War – for my children and grandchildren as remote as the English Civil War. But, for most of us here it has shaped our world and the way we see it. I am not convinced that the Integrated Review will lead us to a deeper understanding of why Russians see the world the way they do. Building back better demands looking more seriously at the foundations of history.
My Lords, the UK needs to see how we are seen and why. Can the Noble Lady the Minister assure us that the work of translation, interpretation and realism will be at the heart of implementation?