Schedule 26 — Hatred on the grounds of sexual orientation

Part of Orders of the Day – in the House of Commons at 9:30 pm on 6th May 2008.

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Photo of Richard Bacon Richard Bacon Conservative, South Norfolk 9:30 pm, 6th May 2008

I was not originally going to speak in this debate, because I came along just to listen. I listened with interest to David Howarth. I thought that my right hon. Friend Miss Widdecombe was a little unfair in describing his contribution as waffle, because I think he made out a liberal rationalist case quite well. Rather like my hon. Friend Sir Patrick Cormack, the more I listened to the hon. Gentleman, the more I became convinced that it was my job to vote against him and everything he stands for. He spelled out clearly, from his position, exactly what so many Conservative Members object to—that is why so many of us are present.

These are not all liberal positions, and I say, without hesitation, that they are not all purely rationalist positions, because things such as religion, love of country, and culture and heritage are not purely rational. When I listened to the hon. Members for Cambridge and for Oxford, West and Abingdon (Dr. Harris) I kept thinking that they started, as Liberals so often do, from a position of theory, they then tried to work out whether the practice fits it and if it did not, they scrubbed it and packed it all away.

I start from the opposite side of the argument, although I will use the framework used by the hon. Member for Cambridge. The first argument that he decried was the one that Britain is a Christian country. I agree with my hon. Friend Mr. Howarth that it is. Britain is a Christian country. He made the point that we have discrimination in our law already, through the established Church, and that the leaders—and many members—of most other faith groups, not just the Jewish community, are glad that we have an established religion.

Our established religion has evolved in such a way that it has become a tapestry on which all other religions can comfortably hang themselves within our culture. The very coronation of our monarch, who is the supreme governor of our Church, is organised by the senior Roman Catholic in this country—the Earl Marshal, the Duke of Norfolk. We have managed to avoid the turmoil that has afflicted many other countries precisely because we have started not from theory, but from what works. There is a famous Rembrandt painting—I saw it in an exhibition in Berlin, but it has also been on display in Amsterdam and here—of Dutch merchants in the 17th century. I will not try to name the painting, but what was interesting about it was that although the merchants all looked the same their religious backgrounds varied, but they had reached an accommodation that enabled them to rub along and live together in harmony.

It is an enormous tribute to our country that we can have you, Mr. Speaker, sitting in the Chair as a Roman Catholic without anyone commenting on that or its being a matter of great public debate, let alone concern. It is a huge tribute to the way in which our country has developed that that can be a matter of such little comment.

It remains the case that we are a Christian country, and more people go to church on a Sunday—even now in these times of diminished observance of the Christian faith—than go to football matches on a Saturday. I went to a Catholic church in the west midlands on Sunday morning because it was the first communion of my godson. I was allowed to become his godfather, even though I am not a Catholic. That might not happen in all countries, but it is not considered odd here.

I shall come on to the second argument outlined by the hon. Member for Cambridge—about the affirmation of identity—in a moment, but I wish first to address his third argument about the state needing to play some role in maintaining the distinction between the sacred and the profane. He thinks that that is wrong, and he is entitled to put that view. However, not only does the state have a role in distinguishing between the sacred and the profane, but it is normal for that to be the case in most countries.

Some years ago, I heard Rev. Ian Paisley, who recently retired after serving as First Minister in Northern Ireland, make an interesting speech, which I looked up afterwards. He referred to many European countries—I can remember only four—where similar arrangements obtain. It is the case in the Netherlands, Sweden and Denmark that the head of state has a specifically religious role. In Sweden and Denmark, the head of state must be a member in good standing of the Lutheran Church, and in the Netherlands of the Dutch Reformed Church. Even in Spain, which has an explicit division between the state and religious life, the Spanish constitution provides a special place for the Catholic Church.

The hon. Member for Cambridge referred to the United States—we are all familiar with arguments about the first amendment. In the past, many people from my own constituency went to the US to obtain more religious freedom. The hon. Gentleman said that it was not an accident that the churches in the US flourish as they do, given an environment in which there is complete separation between Church and state. He may be right, but it is also not an accident that people who wanted that went to the US, and that people who did not stayed here. Many people did not leave my constituency in Norfolk or anywhere else, and some of those who went to Massachusetts in the 1670s or before came back to this country. We have to remember our culture, tapestry and traditions, and not just those of other countries.

As I said, the second point made by the hon. Gentleman was about the affirmation of identity. He is absolutely right: that is what all this is about, although he thinks it is wrong to use our religious traditions and institutions to establish identity.