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.

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