Bishop of Blackburn on standards of behaviour and integrity in political life

On 23rd June 2022 the House of Lords debated a motion from Lord Morse, “That this House takes note of the impact on the democratic process of any reduction in the standards of behaviour and honesty in political life.”

The Lord Bishop of Blackburn: My Lords, I am grateful to the noble Lord, Lord Morse, for this debate because it gives us the opportunity to speak here about what the country is talking about: a general concern about behaviour and honesty in political life, and I trust, therefore, about the institution of Parliament and democracy. It raises the key question: are there standards and values that govern and guide our way of life and our dealing with one another? If so, what are they are where do they come from? Or is there a vacuum in which everyone decides what is right in their own eyes? I would argue that, without a moral framework, we are bound and dictated to by those who shout the loudest and make their voices heard. That is a dangerous path to go down.

This week, there was big, cross-party support for the amendment of the noble and right reverend Lord, Lord Harries, to include in the Schools Bill a reference in the curriculum to teaching on the values of being a British citizen. Five were outlined: democracy; the rule of law; freedom; equal respect for every person; and respect for the environment. Children and the next generation need to learn to operate within this framework for the common good and for the future, but I would argue that so too do adults—and that applies now. If children and young people do not see these values modelled and lived out by those who are older and by those in public life, they will not see them at work or see the good difference that they make and the wisdom they impart, and they will not see a path which they themselves can follow. I believe that it is incumbent on all in positions of authority and influence, whether as royalty, celebrity, faith leader, parent or politician, to consider what impact they are having by their attitudes and behaviour on the next generation.

Our culture so promotes the rights of the individual that the consequences of our actions for others are often forgotten or ignored. In many minds, “my truth” has taken prior place over any sense of absolute or objective truth; I decide, rather than allow someone, some group or some institution to rule on what is true. Truth is a category that is being sidelined more and more in our generation—a casualty. Generation Z is said to trust what social influencers say more than what politicians say in terms of what is true. Lying and fake news are increasingly not challenged, and it is increasingly more difficult to do so. How can we trust when we are unsure about the reliability of the information that we are given? Trust is something that builds as confidence grows; it is something earned, and cannot be assumed because of a position or a role.

We face an opportunity in our nation to fill the vacuum caused by the growing absence of a moral compass. As a result, we find ourselves drifting according to the prevailing current of the day. One consequence is that our hard-won liberalism is becoming illiberal, where it is unacceptable to hold certain opinions, and cancel culture and no-platforming have taken over. The values of our liberal society arose out of Christian convictions, but now those underpinning attributes are no longer adhered to as they were in the past. As a recent article in the New Statesman declared, liberalism will decline as it has lost its foundation.

We are in a fascinating period of change, all of which argues the case for stronger adherence to a moral framework to steer us through the complexities of modern life. How easy it is to be tossed to and fro by the waves, and blown here and there by the wind. This diagnosis of our current plight needs to be challenged. While there will always be resistance to guidelines, directives and values, because they place the authority to decide what is true outside the individual, we must maintain that we are truly free when we know and live within certain boundaries and frameworks. To that end, I support any move to raise and uphold standards of behaviour and integrity in political life.

Hansard

Extracts from the speeches that followed:

Lord Cormack (Con): I begin by referring to a character mentioned by the noble Lord, Lord Anderson of Swansea, because it helps to put this all into context. The problems we are facing at the moment—I shall come on to these in more detail—are very real, but to have rogue politicians is not new. Most of your Lordships will know the famous story of Maundy Gregory. Sentenced to a prison term, he was sewing his mail bags when he was visited by one of his former colleagues, who asked, “Sewing, Gregory?” “No—reaping”, he replied.

Of course, there have been rogue politicians through the ages, but we are in a different context now, because until relatively recently, we all accepted the basic ground rules. The right reverend Prelate the Bishop of Blackburn also referred to this. Whether believers or not, we had a fundamental Christian structure to our society, where almost everybody accepted that certain things were right and certain things were wrong—certain things were done, and certain things should not be done—although there were those who transgressed. We think perhaps of John Profumo, but what an extraordinary comeback he had by devoting his life to Toynbee Hall and being properly recognised—I think here of the Christian doctrine of redemption—by being given a CBE.

But we are in a different context today. Again, the right reverend Prelate referred to this when he talked about my truth and your truth, rather than the truth which we all held to and accepted. Almost every politician now seems to think that as long he thinks what he is doing is all right, it does not really matter— whether it is telling a fib on the Floor of the House of Commons or watching questionable material on an iPhone. But it does matter, and it is important that we recognise that. We must have a machinery, a structure, for supervising and, to a degree, policing that. I was taken by the very thoughtful speech and suggestion of my noble friend Lord Wolfson, whose dignified letter of resignation is, I hope, framed on the walls of 10 Downing Street.

Lord Wallace of Saltaire (LD): The Higher Education (Freedom of Speech) Bill, which has its Second Reading next Tuesday, is based on Policy Exchange papers which at one point state that 80% of the academic teaching in British universities is left wing. This would puzzle the nearly 35% of scientists who work in universities and many others, but that is what Policy Exchange and the Telegraph have stated on a number of occasions. When judges disagree with the Government, they are dismissed in the Daily Mail and elsewhere as “lefty lawyers”. BBC and Channel 4 public service broadcasters are regularly attacked; I am bored by the number of occasions every week that the Times runs anti-BBC stories. This also happens when the Bishops say anything which is deemed to be political. It seems to have escaped the new right-wing consensus, as it were, that the gospel is systemically left wing in a number of ways, particularly in its clear bias towards the poor and against the rich—but the Bishops are told that they should not mention that. (…)

(…) Since we are talking about public life, this also applies to the role of the media, which in Britain has contributed to the decline in our standards. The Daily Mail has become the Fox News of British life in its denunciation of anyone who disagrees with whatever the government line may be at the present time. The Telegraph is a pinnacle of English nationalism, owned by people who escape British tax by living in the Channel Islands. Culture wars, the dismissal of experts and the constant attacks on the BBC are all damaging the quality of the idea of democracy as a process in which we argue and disagree with each other while also respecting each other’s opinions. The right reverend Prelate the Bishop of Blackburn mentioned the importance of civic education and ensuring that we encourage our public to take an informed approach to politics and public life, not treat them as spectators of a game that is simply played in Westminster.

Lord True (Con, Minister of State – Cabinet Office): I agreed with what the right reverend Prelate the Bishop of Blackburn said about the need to adhere to a moral framework and with his remarks about a growing illiberalism in our society. That is not a comment about the Liberal party but about how a sense that one has to think one way appears to be emerging—he referred to the so-called cancel culture. That is a form of intolerance which is unattractive.

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