by the Rt Revd David Walker, Bishop of Manchester
At the heart of Britain’s, largely unwritten, constitution lies the principle that those charged with making decisions should do so free of improper influence or pressure. Members of governing bodies, whether they are responsible for a multi-million pound business or a tiny local charity, must act not in personal interest but in the best interest of whatever body they are appointed to serve.
At the top of the agenda of many of the meetings I attend or chair, just after “Welcomes and Apologies”, comes another standard item, “Declarations of Interest”. Members are required to let colleagues know if any matter for consideration impacts on them personally, especially if it might appear to a fair minded observer that their views might be biased in consequence. Sometimes that leads to me having to withdraw from part of a meeting, for example when the Housing Association I chair was considering buying some property from my diocese. Some public bodies, such as the House of Commons, maintain a public “Register of Interests”, to improve our chance of knowing if a member might be taking a particular position in order to feather their own nest.
Good decisions are hard to make in a climate of corruption. But they are perhaps even harder to make in an atmosphere of fear and threat.
My own diocese is twinned with one in Pakistan, where the Christian community lives in constant fear that any accusation of blasphemy will not be met with a fair trial. They have good reason, and not only because they are personally at risk of lynch law. Reputable lawyers are frightened to defend them, because of the enormous personal risk to their own lives. Judges who acquit them may also suffer death threats. The same has been the case for politicians who even suggest that the law be changed. Some such threats have been carried out. For many Christians the fear of unjust accusation and unfair trial is more debilitating than living with the perennial risk of terrorism.
And yet how can the nation move forward, whilst it retains an atmosphere where debate is stifled by threat, and decisions are hemmed in by the risk of extreme violence, even death?
I’d never thought that the lessons I have learned from my Diocesan link would be ones that had direct implication for the UK. But in these most recent months, and especially this last week, I’ve had to revise my opinion. Good and gracious politicians, men and women who have served their constituents and nation with integrity and courage, are making it known that they will not stand for election again. They cite the direct personal threats being made to them, their staff, and their families.
The contrast between the clear and calm way in which the unanimous decision by eleven Supreme Court judges was handed down, and the words spoken by some in Parliament a day or so later, could hardly be greater. Careful argument, and attention to the letter and spirit of our law, gave way to words likely, and possibly even by some calculated, to raise the emotional temperature beyond boiling point. When a powerful individual suggests that the way to reduce the threat of personal harm is for his opponents to give up their cause, this is the rhetoric of the playground bully, not of political discourse.
The letter now issued on behalf of the entire College of Bishops is almost unprecedented.
That in itself should indicate how gravely we view the tone of current argument. No matter how passionately any protagonist might want their own view to prevail, sincerely believing it to be in the best interest of our country, we cannot reach a good outcome by raising the threat of violence to such an extent that our opponents are cowed into submission.
We might win the battle but would have lost the war. Our nation would be immeasurably poorer in character and morality for a generation to come.