Religious Intolerance and Prejudice - Motion to Take Note

Part of the debate – in the House of Lords at 9:38 pm on 17th October 2018.

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Photo of Lord Cormack Lord Cormack Conservative 9:38 pm, 17th October 2018

My Lords, the noble Lord, Lord Singh of Wimbledon, has given us several thoughts for the day in that rather splendid speech, the subtext of which was that hostility is bred from and fed by ignorance. That is something we should all bear in mind. In his very interesting speech, the noble Lord, Lord Triesman, talked about our becoming an “ugly and intolerant” society. He went on to indicate that ugliness and intolerance are fed and propagated by social media. We have to bear that in mind.

It is difficult when you are the last speaker in a debate to say anything new, as the noble Lord, Lord Desai, said, but I want to try to put this in a historical perspective. When I go across to the great cathedral in whose shadow we live in Lincoln, I go in—perhaps appropriately for a politician—through the Judgement Porch, and the first thing I see are the remains of the shrine of Hugh of Lincoln, who was canonised in 1220. We will be commemorating that in a couple of years’ time. His shrine, which was a centre of pilgrimage second only, for part of the Middle Ages, to that of Thomas of Canterbury, was despoiled—smashed up—and his body taken. He had two shrines, one for his body and one for his head. This was during a period of repression, when Henry VIII, having despoiled and dissolved the monasteries, was taking the treasures from our cathedrals and did not like the idea of shrines, making an exception only for the shrine of Edward the Confessor across the road, because it was pointed out to him that Edward was a king as well as a saint.

I go into that cathedral and look at that shrine. As I walk down to St Hugh’s Choir I see more evidence of intolerance: all the brasses commemorating great figures were ripped up, not during the Reformation but 100 years later at the time of the English Civil War. Then I see the most moving thing of all—one entirely relevant to today’s debate: the shrine of Little St Hugh. Until the last century the story was told of how Hugh, a little gentile boy, wandered into the Jewish quarter of Lincoln. We had—and I am proud that we had—a Jewish community in Lincoln of enormous importance in the Middle Ages, of whom St Hugh was a great protector. St Hugh was dead by this time. The little boy did not re-emerge, and the story was told that he had been set upon and murdered by the Jewish community. Many of them perished because of that. This was an early example of anti-Semitism, and within a few decades the Jews had been expelled from England by Edward I. They did not return until the time of Oliver Cromwell, who did not bring them back because of great tolerance on his part—he was not the most tolerant of men—but because he thought that they could contribute to society and the economy, as they undoubtedly did.

That early example of anti-Semitism should bring us all up sharp. Only about 30 years ago the Chief Rabbi, I think—it was certainly a very senior rabbi—came to Lincoln and, in a very moving ceremony, a plaque was put up that ended with the word “Shalom”, indicating that this was a deed of which we should all be ashamed. You cannot apologise for what other people did centuries ago, but you can deeply regret it and feel ashamed of it. I always think of that when I go into the cathedral, and I think also of the hatred and bitterness of those times, which, sadly, is being replicated in our own time.

However, we must be very careful when deploring these things not to get the whole issue out of perspective. The most reverend Primate touched on this when he talked about the importance of freedom of speech. One of the things that has made our country great over the centuries has been true freedom of speech. We cannot legislate against human feelings. Although it is right to punish hatred, we have to be careful how we define it. Something you deplore, which you yourself might hate, can be entirely legal. I was brought up always to think of the words of Voltaire:

“I disapprove of what you say, but I will defend to the death your right to say it”.

We have to be very careful when discussing these things not to get them out of perspective. Hatred is always to be deplored. To hate a man or woman for his or her religious belief is about as low as you can get. But we have to be careful. We have to recognise that a repudiation of a belief, even if it is a Christian belief that I, as a Christian, might deplore and deeply regret, is not in itself a gesture of hatred. The most reverend Primate the Archbishop touched on that.

If I were to give your Lordships an example of what I am talking about, I would say, “Go across to the Abbey, where Stephen Hawking was commemorated. Pick up your paper of this morning, if you have not yet read it, and see that in his last work, he emphatically stated: there is no God; there is no afterlife”. Yet, a truly tolerant society properly recognises that man’s genius and his contribution to the degree that he is memorialised in the Abbey along with so many of those who have made our country what it is. We must be very careful indeed in deploring hatred. In seeking to protect those who wish to practise their beliefs, we have to be careful that we do not slip over the edge and trash our own reputation for freedom of speech.

I was one of those who was very glad last week when I read that judgment of the Supreme Court, which has been referred to in this debate. The cake bakers of Belfast were exonerated, not because they had refused to serve anybody—they had not refused to do that—but because they refused to put a slogan in which they could not believe on a cake. That was a very important landmark judgment, and I hope it will play a part in making us more understanding of each other. I was very glad to see an article in a paper that is not necessarily my favourite, the Daily Mail, the next day, by a journalist who himself is gay, saying how much he supported the judgment and that he would think of commissioning a cake from those people to mark his own civil partnership. That is beginning to get the balance right, and we must get it right.

I want to touch on one other thing. I have very great admiration for my noble friend Lord Pickles, and I have as much legitimate hatred as he has for the Holocaust. As the founder chairman of the campaign for the release of Soviet Jewry, I think my creditworthiness in being fundamentally opposed to anti-Semitism is okay. I was also one of those who spoke out in the other place, when neither Front Bench would do so, against the atrocities in Bosnia, and Srebrenica in particular.

It is right that we should commemorate and remember these things, but we must also have regard to where it is best to do so. I have to say to my noble friend Lord Pickles that although I yield to no one in wanting to see a Holocaust memorial, I think that the site chosen is not necessarily the best. Seven Members of your Lordships’ House, all or most of whom were Jewish, sent a letter to the Times on this subject, and I hope my noble friend will be prepared to reflect further on that.

We have had a good debate and I see that, at 12 minutes, my speech has been one of the shortest. As I sat through every single speech I began to think that there was something to be said for a 10-minute time limit. That I have exceeded, but now I look forward to the final speeches, by the noble Lord, Lord Griffiths, and my noble friend Lord Bourne, of what has been a remarkable few hours.