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The shared values underpinning our national life

There were two significant debates in Parliament in the last week. Last Friday the House of Lords debated a motion moved by the Archbishop of Canterbury, “that this House takes note of the shared values underpinning our national life and their role in shaping public priorities”. 

The second, on Wednesday, the House of Commons debated an Opposition motion calling for the Prime Minister to commit to publishing the Government’s plan for leaving the EU before Article 50 is invoked. I have focused a lot on the Brexit agenda lately so I will focus now on the Lords debate which is surely equally important but received far less attention in the press. It lasted nearly five hours and included deeply thoughtful speeches by 34 Peers, demonstrating the special value of the Upper House.

Archbishop Welby saw the UK as a pragmatic country with a bias towards the empirical over the theoretical and thought we need to be clear about our shared values in the confusion and divisions of the post-Brexit world. The parable of the Good Samaritan is an example of good values – what it means to be a good citizen. Children are taught that the fundamental British values are democracy, the rule of law, individual liberty and mutual respect and tolerance of those with different faiths and beliefs or no faith but these values are not yet embedded in our national heritage. Nor are these values “the final answer to things”. The law may be unjust and free speech can be used to express intolerance. 

Our values need to be continually reinterpreted in times of change, such as now. He spoke of the decline of family, community and other intermediate institutions and the need to strengthen them in the face of the over-mighty state and rampant individualism. We need to build a shared narrative that inspires us with a common purpose not just self-interest. Responding to the debate, the Minister Lord Bourne said, “At the heart of our values is a simple and inclusive proposition: everyone living in this country is equal before the law and everybody is free to lead their life as they see fit. For this to work, however, everyone has to respect the right of other people to do so, too.” Sadly the Lords heard various examples of how this is currently being denied. Lord Bilimoria, who came from India to study and stayed and is now Chancellor of Birmingham University, experienced no hate-crime for thirty years until 2016. This year he has received numerous tweets, emails and letters telling him to go home. The xenophobia unleashed by the referendum is a serious threat to our common values.

The emergence of a ‘post-truth society disturbed Lord Harries of Pentregarth. He thought “an absolute requirement for any society is the assumption that most people most of the time mean more or less what they say. Without that, there could be no trust and no possibility of human relationships.”

Whilst the debate was led by the Archbishop, who was supported by three other Bishops and many lay Christians, there were also speeches from the former Chief Rabbi, Lord Sachs and a Sikh, Hindu, Muslim and Zoroastrian Parsi.  Several retired Generals also spoke as did representatives of all the parties and cross -benchers. Summarising a debate of such length and quality so briefly is grossly unfair but the full debate can be read on-line on the Parliament web-site. Whatever one’s faith, it should trigger deep thought and prayer.