Religious Intolerance and Prejudice - Motion to Take Note

Part of the debate – in the House of Lords at 9:51 pm on 17th October 2018.

Alert me about debates like this

Photo of Lord Griffiths of Burry Port Lord Griffiths of Burry Port Opposition Whip (Lords), Shadow Spokesperson (Digital, Culture, Media and Sport), Shadow Spokesperson (Wales) 9:51 pm, 17th October 2018

My Lords, I can only concur with those words of the noble Lord, Lord Cormack. I thank the Minister for honouring the pledge that significant time would be made available for the debate—and, indeed, for his opening remarks, which set out the stall admirably and pointed to a number of government initiatives that we must all welcome, although we shall also want to keep an eye on them to make sure that they are doing what they are supposed to.

I admit that I stand here in some difficulty. It was refreshing to hear a different point of view from the Conservative Benches, which mitigated my sense of inadequacy as the Labour spokesman in view of the nature of the debate, especially as it concerns anti-Semitism. I have been devastated, to be honest, by the speeches of my noble friends Lord Kestenbaum and Lord Triesman. I pay them tribute for having been so frank with us, although that does not help me with my sense of devastation. We have reached a truly parlous state when esteemed Members of this House feel it necessary to speak in that way.

I have loved the Labour Party all my life: I have been a member of it for longer than I have been a Christian, for example. It was the Labour Party of the post-Second World War years that gave me all my life chances, and I have stood by the Labour Party through thick and thin—through the 1980s and all the rest. When I was a boy my Member of Parliament was Jim Griffiths, deputy leader of the Labour Party, who brought in four of the six Acts of Parliament—on national assistance, family allowances, injuries at work and national insurance—that put the welfare state on to our statute book, but who has been forgotten by everybody. So I have it in my blood, and I do not find it easy to give voice to my feelings in the light of the comments that we have heard. I am glad we have heard them; I am glad the debate has offered us the opportunity to share opinions in this way—but comfortable I am not.

I am very grateful that we began with my noble friend Lord Hain, in view of what I have just said, who reminded us that we must set this debate within his view that the toxic attacks on Jewish, Muslim and black people—I take the point of the noble Lord, Lord Singh, that we must be careful to be more inclusive when we mention those who are on the receiving end of prejudice and discrimination—represent a broad canvas. We have tended, inevitably, to focus on anti-Semitism and there is a properness about that, but we must remember that it is a very pernicious kind of racism, set, at the moment, in a context where racism in various mutations is doing damage across the field.

The noble and learned Lord, Lord Mackay of Clashfern, reminded my noble friend Lord Hain of his seniority in these matters, and of the longer period during which he could say that he too had never seen a situation quite like this one. The noble and learned Lord went on to ask how we could identify the powerful forces that are at work beneath the epiphenomena. That is really where I would like to concentrate. Indeed, I think it was the noble Lord, Lord Singh, who came nearest to where all my thoughts were as I prepared for this debate. It is true that those conferences and symposia, those seminars that you go to, full of blandishments and fine words unrelated to causes, are about ephemeral and marginal issues. I am so pleased to hear that said. I would not have had the courage to say it, but I am delighted to have the courage to echo it. We must find a way to get to the core of the things we need to discuss together, the things beneath all the things that happen on the surface.

It was a privilege for me, 20 years ago, to find some seed-corn money to set up a study centre in Cambridge, at that time between Christians and Jews. It has subsequently blossomed and has been patronised by the noble and learned Lord, Lord Woolf. It is now called the Woolf Institute and it is for the three Abrahamic faiths. I feel proud to have been identified with the very beginnings of that. It does simply astonishing work but I must resist the temptation to just go on and expatiate about that, because there is one strand of its work that caught my attention. Woolf Institute specialists are brought in to advise the Foreign and Commonwealth Office and the Metropolitan Police, through anti-Semitism awareness courses. I feel I can draw some comfort from the fact that somebody is working systematically with these major agencies of our state—and other bodies to, I should say—to help people identify what lies under the surface, how to recognise it and how to understand why it is there.

I remember in the 1970s attending an anti-racism course. My wife and I had been living as the only two white people in a community of 250,000 black people. I had been living in those circumstances and felt that I was going to attend an anti-racism course so that people could tell me who the racists were, but I ended up coming away recognising the racism that was in me. That was a significant thing, and I would say the same thing about these anti-Semitism awareness courses. How can it be otherwise: a country such as ours, which has had a long imperial past, subjugating so many parts of the world to our rule and keeping the “race problem” at bay because it was all overseas, and yet germinating the seeds of attitudes towards those whom we governed? How could it be that embedded deep in our psyches is anything other than something that can flourish as a racial question of one kind or another? How can it be that I, as a Christian, can be part of a faith that, during the 2,000 years of its history, has significantly and continuously persecuted, stigmatised, marginalised or ghettoised the Jews? How could it be that I should be surprised to find within myself something that could become hateful and odious? The indigenous population has to understand that it may be germinating the problem, rather than focusing on minority groups as if, in some way, they are the problem. This is a generous way of looking at what is a very significant issue in our general social situation at the moment.

There is a vision of how religions might come together. It might include Sikhs and Hindus—although you will tell me afterwards whether it would or not. This vision is one I read and, although it is late, I hope your Lordships will forgive me if I read it. For me, it touches a possibility that, if religions were capable of the self-criticism needed, this could yield a fruitful outcome.

“The radical transcendence of God in the Hebrew Bible means nothing more nor less than that there is a difference between God and religion… Religion is the translation of God into a particular language and thus into the life of a group, a nation, a community of faith. In the course of history, God has spoken to mankind in many languages: through Judaism to Jews, Christianity to Christians, Islam to Muslims. Only such a God is truly transcendental—greater not only than the natural universe but also than the spiritual universe articulated in any single faith, any specific languages of human sensibility. How could a sacred text convey such an idea? It would declare that God is God of all humanity, but no single faith is or should be the faith of all humanity. Only such a narrative would lead us to see the presence of God in people of other faiths. Only such a worldview could reconcile the particularity of cultures with the universality of the human condition”.

I see in that a vista which will not be pleasing to those for whom their particular religion is their all in all. However, these are not my words; they are the words of one whose name has been quoted again and again in this debate—the noble Lord, Lord Sacks. He wrote them in a book called The Dignity of Difference. It might behove us to think about them very carefully.

The noble Baroness, Lady Warsi, mentioned dinner-table talk. The indigenous population is racist around the table all the time. I do not care about being or not being policed; it is just odious that, when we are on our own, we say things that we would be ashamed to say anywhere else. We have to admit it. Dinner-table talk is a bit the same as locker-room talk for another part of the Atlantic family.

We have a long way to go. The obstacles are great because, in the end, we are fighting against human nature, but the goals are worth while. Living together is an infinitely richer thing to dream about than going on fighting our corner in the way that we do.