Sometimes a seemingly minor story speaks reams about this Government. Last week, The House, Parliament’s in-house magazine, reported ‘a former senior adviser to the [Church of England’s] bishops in the House of Lords’ as saying that bishops were coming away from encounters with junior Home Office staff ‘feeling like lepers’. Relations with the Home Office had become ‘toxic’ and ‘unfixable’. Might then Christianity be one of those ‘luxury beliefs’ shared with the ‘woke elite’ which Home Secretary Suella Braverman, during her 3 October Conservative Party Conference speech, positioned herself as opposing?
During the Lords debates on the Illegal Migration Act of July 2023, the Archbishop of Canterbury described its key measures as ‘morally unacceptable and politically impractical’. His forthright condemnation seems to be the reason why, when he ‘reached out’ to the Home Secretary – Americanisms seem to have reached into Lambeth Palace – he was rebuffed. Radio 4’s 1st October Sunday Programme ran the story with comment from Dominic Grieve, a practising Anglican and former Conservative Attorney General purged from the Party for incorrect views on BREXIT. Grieve’s view was that Suella Braverman’s refusal to discuss immigration with the head of the established Church flew in the face of constitutional conventions and was ‘inexcusable’ and ‘extraordinarily rude’.
Chris Loder, an Anglican and Conservative MP for West Dorset responded that the Lords Spiritual, all 26 of them, were politically biased: they took a left-wing approach, acted as ‘campaigners and commentators’, and 96% of their votes - where are you More or Less when we need you? - had been cast against the Government. If Loder’s voting figures for the bishops were to stand up to examination, they would be open to interpretation as a reflection on the tenor of government legislation as well as the bishops’ ‘luxury belief’ that strangers should be welcomed and the needs of the poor prioritised. Not just a storm in a tea-cup. More revealing and important.
The strong Church-State disagreement about migrancy reveals a fundamental, possibly irresolvable, conflict between values. And there lies the question for Government about both domestic and foreign policy which cannot be resolved even by the best legal minds in the Supreme Court. Put simply should policy contribute to a global common good and to the common life of domestic Society? Or should policy enhance freedom of individuals and support the aspirations of individual citizens?
In the rosy glow of Tony Blair’s landslide victory, pre-millennials may remember the late Robin Cook’s inaugural speech as Foreign Secretary in May 1997 and Cook’s careful branding of future policy, as having an ‘ethical dimension’. Despite avoiding promising an ‘ethical foreign policy’, nevertheless he was treated with derision. Nor did the policy last the course under Blair’s leadership. Cook himself resigned in March 2003 over the Iraq war. The promotion of peace, human rights, environmentalism, democracy and prosperity were the key values lying behind Cook’s goals: security for nations, arms control and disarmament, abolition of landmines, protection of the environment, promotion of exports, diplomacy seeking peace and democracy globally. They still add up to a desirable programme embodying ethical values even if difficult to implement.
So what might foreign and domestic policy with an ethical dimension look like today? Is such an aspiration naïve utopianism? At home, the Prime Minister’s policy decisions presented in his Conference speech appear to be based on hopes of clawing back votes lost in the BREXIT/Johnson/Truss debacle rather than a clear set of values. The Uxbridge by-election is won by opposing Mayor Sadiq Khan’s attempt to clean up Greater London’s air. The Conservative Party discovers it is pro-car. Voters don’t like windfarms on their doorstep. License new drilling for oil and politicise measures to combat climate change. The “growing role of parental wealth transfers in driving differences in life outcomes...” widens inequality (Will Hutton Observer 1 October). Float the possibility of abolishing inheritance tax. Fears of cultural ‘swamping’ and the increasing pressure on public services debilitated by 13 years of Tory rule, certainly some votes there. Attack and override the human rights of migrants and asylum seekers.
A negligible number of votes in foreign policy apart, perhaps, from Ukraine? So, no electoral harm in Foreign Minister, James Cleverly, raising human rights issues abroad, for example, with China, or Saudi Arabia - whilst courting them for access to their lucrative markets. But how concerned about promoting human rights is a government that floats the possibility of leaving the European Convention of Human Rights, a Convention which a former British Government played a significant part in creating? Or how committed to human rights is a Home Secretary who derides the 1998 UK Human Rights Act as ‘The Criminals Rights Act’, and in New York calls in question the UN 1951 Refugee Convention?
Church leaders make choices different from governments. Both Pope Francis and the Archbishop of Canterbury share a ‘luxury belief’ in a just society and its values derived from a two thousand year-old tradition rooted in the Gospels. They wish to see the common good flourish. Some of their beliefs and the demands of the common good will be costly and inconvenient to implement. Some will be contentious. But what is most contentious is a government that promotes the views and values of an extreme-right wing minority at worst like Suella Braverman who dismisses compassion as squeamishness. This is a government that rejects dialogue over matters of national importance, including Britain’s global standing.
See TheArticle 06/10/2023