Conduct of Debate in Public Life - Motion to Regret

Part of the debate – in the House of Lords at 3:00 pm on 9th May 2019.

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Photo of The Bishop of Rochester The Bishop of Rochester Bishop 3:00 pm, 9th May 2019

My Lords, I join other noble Lords in thanking the noble Lord, Lord Harris, for bringing forward this debate and for his characteristically robust, thoughtful, clear and evidenced introduction. I also thank other noble Lords for their contributions. I look forward to reading in the Official Report what the noble Lord, Lord Parekh, has just said, because there is a lot to reflect on.

Others have spoken from these Benches in recent months on this and related matters, referencing a number of scenarios which have given rise to language and expression that cause hurt and offence and do no credit to our public life. The right reverend Prelate the Bishop of Leeds will, I understand, speak later in this debate about the power and importance of language in our public discourse. My contribution, which I hope will be brief, is to raise a question about one part of the context in which such harmful, toxic, destructive and even violent expression may come to flourish.

The phrase attributed to Aristotle about nature abhorring a vacuum has many applications. I suggest that one of the reasons for this flourishing of destructive and harmful conduct and debate may be that these things are rushing in to fill a vacuum. The Motion put down by the noble Lord, Lord Harris, asks the Government to address the consequent divisions, which is very difficult indeed. One approach—already suggested—might be an entirely understandable effort to control and restrict through legislation, regulation or other methods. In some instances—not least where lives are at risk—that is absolutely right, proper and necessary. However, my question to myself and to this House is whether part of our response might be to fill that vacuum with something rather more wholesome, so that what is not wholesome is less able to flourish in that space.

Might part of this vacuum be the absence of, or at least the difficulty in articulating, a coherent, inclusive, overarching and compelling national narrative which helps us to understand who and what we are, what our place is in the world and how we might shape our common life for now and for the future in ways that are both visionary and realistic? I am aware of all the dangers and difficulties around that, not least that it can end up as a rather esoteric exercise with lots of nice-sounding words, although words have power. What we do not want is anything overly nostalgic and rose-tinted in relation to some perceived national past or unrealistically utopian about a hopeful future. I am not against holding out and expressing hope—some might say that is what people like me are meant to be about—but if it is to have meaning and reality, hope must, if you will allow me a few words from my world, be like that biblical ladder which connects earth and heaven, both visionary and realistic. It is based in the everyday, but looks beyond it.

Could we find some way to shape a national conversation which might have some chance of offering us the unifying and enriching narrative which I suggest we currently lack? This is in large part about identity and connects with some of what the noble Lord, Lord Parekh, has just said on that theme. Identity is complex and difficult for each of us, let alone for nations or, in our case, a nation of nations. I am resident in England, was born in Germany, have Irish and Scots heritage and various other bits and pieces make up who I am. What is the story which helps me to know who I am? It needs to encompass and value all my various identities, and the same needs to be true of our national story. It must therefore be a story which affirms the richness of our diversity, be that historical, religious, ethnic, economic, educational, cultural, geographical or one of many other dimensions. It must be a story that helps us to recognise and express the value we see in one another and can articulate that which is shared in our common life.

Parts of our national being, including, importantly, the constituent nations of our United Kingdom and some of our faith communities, already have coherent and compelling stories that shape their understanding and affirm their identity. My question is more around the narrative that applies to the whole of this United Kingdom, which, as others have indicated, is sadly not as sure of its unity and identity as we might wish. The story needs to enable us to have a proper pride in who we are and what we stand for and give us the language and desire to affirm that positively and confidently, not least in the face of those who would attack it. I do not underestimate the difficulty of this when, as a nation or nations, we are so clearly not of common mind or intention on so many things. However, I fear for our future if we do not make some attempt to do something of this kind. I wonder whether there could be some opportunity for your Lordships’ House, given its peculiar nature—peculiar in the proper sense—to be instrumental in suggesting and shaping such a conversation. Perhaps this debate is part of that.